Lately, brands have been bravely stepping up to take a stand against racial injustice and other societal ills affecting our world. Almost immediately after the murder of George Floyd, Nike came out with its "Don't Do It" ad. Walmart pledged $100 million for the creation of a center on racial equity. Ben & Jerry's rolled out a new flavor called "Justice Remixed." Pepsi / Quaker Foods has decided to drop its Aunt Jemima brand, whose identity is based on a racial stereotype, and Facebook has created "Lift Black Voices" to highlight stories from Black people and share educational resources.
Brands have been speaking out on other social issues, too. In mid May, Twitter introduced new labels and warning messages to offer additional context on some tweets that contained disputed or misleading information, particularly about COVID-19. Later in the month, it began labeling tweets by Donald Trump that it deemed as glorifying violence. And now, Facebook has pulled a Trump campaign ad that used Nazi hate symbols.
Brands must also step into activism from a place of authenticity. Their actions should be founded on true beliefs rather than on motivations of growth and profit.
Ever since Nike supported Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, brands, and the public at large, have questioned whether it's wise for them to take a stand. Angry customers that protested Nike's stance by burning their Nike products made the question loom even larger.
Without a doubt, today is different. Marketers and business leaders are raising their voices to say that silence is no longer an option. And it's true. Much of this advice rests on the rationale that customers need brands to behave like activists and that brands will get left behind if they don't sync up with the times.
While both of these things are also true, there's a lot more to the story.
Above all, brands have the unique power to reshape views and habits. By definition, they are incentivized to get people to buy their products and have decades of experience convincing consumers to do just that. They possess the motivation and the capabilities to influence tastes and opinions and the tools and resources to spread messages far and wide, among both consumers and their employees. All of this allows for their ability to change social norms and influence conversations.
With such power and influence, I believe it is simply no longer acceptable for brands — that also generate great wealth for shareholders — to remain silent. Especially in these times when consumers are craving positive examples to fill the void left by governments.
Marketers and business leaders are raising their voices to say that silence is no longer an option. And it's true.
This is one reason my own life's mission has been centered upon helping brands leverage these capabilities to spark positive social change. In 2008, I spearheaded Global Handwashing Day while working at Unilever with Unilever's Lifebuoy soap brand. Over 20 million children participated that first year, and it ultimately shifted the hygiene habits of millions of people around the world. The Lifebuoy team has just announced that it has now reached one billion people. I've taken a similar approach to help Pepsodent toothpaste improve oral hygiene in Africa and Knorr bouillon cubes fight anemia through encouraging mothers and girls to eat more green leafy vegetables alongside its iron-fortified cubes. I discuss all of this in my new book, Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose.
However, when stepping into an activist role, brands must behave responsibly. This means a number of things. First, they must make a conscious effort to act with integrity and cause no harm. Nike's support of Colin Kaepernick is one example. As Nike said at the time, we must all "believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything." Second, they must use respectful language and images when tackling stereotypes.
Crucially, they must also ensure that their actions ("brand do") align with their words ("brand say"). Ben & Jerry's is a stellar example of alignment between "brand say" and "brand do." Its messaging about equality is reflected on its board. For many years, the company has supported work among indigenous Americans too — financially and with legal aid protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. It has worked with the LGBT community; in 1989, long before it was legally required, it extended health insurance benefits to partners of its LGBT employees.
Brands must also step into activism from a place of authenticity. Their actions should be founded on true beliefs rather than on motivations of growth and profit. If they are not authentic, their customers will know and drift away.
With such power and influence, I believe it is simply no longer acceptable for brands — that also generate great wealth for shareholders — to remain silent.
Finally, they must play a role in helping educate the public by presenting scenarios of positive change and educating people about the reasons it's needed. CBS Sports not only stopped broadcasting for eight minutes and 46 seconds to protest the George Floyd's murder but also partnered with Color of Change to ask viewers to demand an end to "broken windows" policing, add legitimate civilian oversight boards with full investigatory power, and reduce police budgets, among other things.
We are at a pivotal moment in history. With the right choices, brands can help change the world.
WRITTEN BYDr. Myriam Sidibe