The Parallel Pandemic Playbook: Reimagining Brand Language in the Black Lives Matter/COVID-19 Era

Black Lives Matter protesters
Credit: Peter Cziborra - Reuters / stock.adobe.com

COVID-19 and racism have more in common than meets the eye. They’re both contagiouspotentially fatal pandemics.

This year saw the conflation of two parallel pandemics, one of which started last November when COVID-19 began charting its destructive path around the world – infecting every continent except Antarctica.

A shade over six months later, the ripple effects of the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis were felt all over the globe. In June, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests against police brutality swept across U.S. cities and the world, appealing for racial justice within U.S. borders and beyond.

Some brand reactions hit the mark while others fell flat. Responses broadly fell into four categories: One group remained tight-lipped on what they considered to be a ‘hot-button’ issue; a second initially hesitated in making any form of public address. A third published disingenuous, self-serving statements, and a fourth group informed their employees, partners, clients (and the public) about their plans to work towards becoming anti-racist.

According to RBC Capital Markets research, 38% of S&P 500 companies have published diversity and inclusion action plans and initiatives since George Floyd’s death. These affect internal policies, such as recruitment, and external outreach such as donations to racial justice organizations.

Black Lives Matter: The brands’ response

Ad Age hosts a live blog “tracking responses from brands, media companies and agencies as they take a stand against racism.” In the month following George Floyd’s passing, numerous brands made pledges. For instance:

  • Adidas pledged that 30 percent of new U.S. hires will be Black or Latino; and
  • Sephora pledged to devote 15% of shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

While these pledges were presumably well-intentioned, other brands spotted an opportunity to engage the Black community in a more earnest, empathetic and empowered way – by publicly adopting a zero tolerance approach to racial inequality. Take Wieden+Kennedy, for example. The advertising agency produced a BLM video, which is published in written form on the home page of its website.

The statement reads in part: “Black Lives Matter. There is nothing controversial about this statement.

“If you do not support this sentiment as an employee, you should find somewhere else to work.

“If you do not support this sentiment as one of our partners, we don’t want to be affiliated.

“If you do not support this sentiment as a client, we’ll gladly support you finding another agency.

“...We will actively work to become anti-racist in everything we do.”

Wieden+Kennedy’s approach stood out.

Rather than regurgitating brand values and adding to the ever-growing list of pledges, the company issued an unequivocal, uncompromising brand statement supporting the BLM ethos and threw down the gauntlet to its stakeholders – placing the onus on them to part ways if they didn’t agree.

“The values companies have spelled out in the past are really just ethereal notions that no one can disagree with,” says Neal Arthur, managing director of Wieden+Kennedy New York. “If you looked at any company’s website pre-2020, you would find language like ‘we value equality and open-mindedness.’ What we need now are companies with a perspective, a position on inequality and racism, and ways to go directly at the problem.”

Companies are still reluctant to speak out for fear of inadvertently diving headfirst into controversial waters, but silence is no longer an option.

“The risk now is in not saying anything,” says Arthur. “You have to know what you stand for and do something about it.”

His statement is borne out by statistics. An Axios Harris Poll 100 found that 53% of respondents believe that, when a company remains silent on an important social issue, it “lacks integrity” and is “indifferent to the ills of society.”

Black Lives Matter: The stakeholders’ response

The BLM movement has buoyed corporate stakeholders to demand that brands clearly establish (and double-down on) how they react to racial inequity.

The catalyst for change can emanate from any group of stakeholders – from prospects to partners – but the most powerful call to action has come from customers and employees:

  • Customers: With a Pew Research Center survey finding that two-thirds of U.S. adults say they support the BLM movement, customers have been pressing U.S. affiliated brands to do more than pay lip service to vague anti-racism solidarity statements. Generation Z customers have even threatened to boycott brands that don’t respond satisfactorily.
  • Employees: Being an employer of choice, particularly among Generation Z, is associated with diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism activism. According to a McKinsey survey, “45% of racial and ethnic minorities have chosen not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion.”

Effective brand communication and anti-racist activism

At the onset of COVID-19, intuitive brands ditched ‘hard sell,’ transactional language in favor of consumer-centric, empathetic messaging. In doing so, they avoided appearing insensitive or tone-deaf.

Equally, brands that communicate most effectively in the BLM era share three characteristics.

1. They examine themselves

BLM is about more than brand messaging. It’s about how fairly brands treat Black people. This includes examining hiring practices, retention and promotion for biases that perpetuate racial inequity. According to an Edelman report, 64% of U.S. respondents said: “It is important to earning/keeping my trust that brands take the steps necessary to ensure that their organization is racially representative of the country as a whole.”

2. They act on their words

Making a strong brand statement about BLM is a good first step, but it must be a precursor to definitive action. The Edelman report notes that 63% of U.S. respondents said: “Brands...that issue a statement in support of racial equality need to follow it up with concrete action to avoid being seen...as exploitative or as opportunists.”

3. They commit long-term

Ben & Jerry’s made headlines recently in connection with George Floyd, but the ice cream manufacturer’s alignment with BLM dates back to 2016. With a four-year track record of anti-racism activism under its belt, Ben & Jerry’s considers BLM to be a potentially lifelong movement rather than a fleeting moment.

Neal Arthur concludes: “What many of us are holding our breath for is to see whether the commitment we’re witnessing...is a fad or a long-term commitment.”

That’s the $64,000 question.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Kieron Johnson

Kieron Johnson is a content/communications consultant to emerging and established brands.

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