The Problem with Brand Support of Black Lives Matter

Meaningful Corporate Change Does Not Come from PR, Empty Promises or Donations; It’s Driven from Within

Russ W
Russ W
Jun 19, 2020 · 9 min read
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Photo by Gabe Pierce on Unsplash

ollowing the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks — the latest black American victims of police brutality — many brands have spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Given the wide range of corporate supporters, it is clear that the BLM movement has gathered significant momentum in America, which is an encouraging sign. But are words, promises and donations enough?

Corporate brands often try to avoid taking sides on controversial matters. In my role managing corporate reputations for Fortune 500 companies, I can tell you that these decisions are not taken lightly.

Corporations and C-suite execs carefully weigh the risk of alienating segments of their customer base. Essentially, the bigger the company, the more likely it is that they will have customers on both sides of an issue. U.S. political polarization and the incendiary nature of our President have made it a risky time for companies to take public positions on divisive issues.

And yet, it’s no longer just the bold voices of unapologetic companies like Nike and Netflix. If you’ve been on LinkedIn, you’ve seen a wide range of CEOs and brands adding their voices in support of the BLM movement. This broad mix of corporate support could be read as an indication that silent avoidance is actually a riskier move than standing up in support.

This is positive news, right?

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Photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash

Not So Fast: There Are Many Shades of Grey

Yes, momentum is shifting, and, yes, progress is being made. Before we hold a ticker-tape parade for corporate America, we need to ask a few questions.

Thanks to clever public relations firms, creative advertising agencies and catchy marketing campaigns, corporations have a habit of piggybacking onto social causes when convenient and overstating the value of their support to build brand equity with consumers.

One of the biggest risks in social advocacy campaigns is whether or not the efforts are ultimately credible and enable meaningful, measurable change. If they are not, then corporations risk being taken to task for overplaying their hand. Consumers today do not look favorably on empty gestures intended to trick them into brand loyalty.

When this happens in environmental corporate social responsibility work, these empty gestures are known as “greenwashing.” Coined in 1986 after the environmental movement gained momentum, the term greenwashing means intentionally misleading claims that a company’s products or services are environmentally friendly (and therefore better than other similar products).

In fact, a Fast Company article even described the empty corporate gestures today as “Black Power-washing.” To determine the credibility of corporate support of BLM, there are three primary questions to ask.

1. Is this corporate support of racial equality new?

2. If not new, what kind of progress has been made to date?

3. What is the true value of this corporate support? Will it drive change?

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Nike advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick on a billboard in San Francisco. Eric Risberg/Associated Press

1. Is this corporate support of racial equality new?

Undeniably, there is a substantial difference between the question “Do you support Black Lives Matter today?” and “What has your company done prior to recent protests to enable racial equality?”

While the first question is extremely timely, the problem is that it conveniently obscures the second question. As you well know, racism in the workplace, racial bias in hiring, racial pay disparity and the absence of executive diversity are not new issues. We have been here before.

What we are really talking about is a fundamental change to the way that companies do business.

In 1997, Harvard Business Review reported that black and Hispanic Americans held less than 2% of executive positions at Fortune 1000 companies. With black citizens making up 12.9% of the U.S. population today, how far have we come since the 1990s?

According to a December 2019 report by the Center for Talent Innovation, black Americans accounted for only 3.2% of senior leadership roles at large U.S. companies and held only 0.8% of CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies.

Furthermore, reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau indicate that the pay gap between white and black workers has continued to widen since 2000. The Economic Policy Institute points out that black men earned 69.7 cents and black women earned 60.8 cents on the white male dollar as recently as 2017.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like progress to me.

If a company’s support of racial equality is sudden and new, then it’s more than likely to raise questions about the authenticity and motivation behind their recent public statements.

2. If not new, what kind of progress has been made to date?

Many of the corporate supporters of Black Lives Matter have pledged changes in support of workplace equality for many years now.

We know this because they have issued press releases touting their hiring of new chief diversity officers. They’ve promoted the work of their Employee Resource Groups, created diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs and trained executives on managerial bias. In some cases, they have even started to disclose workplace diversity statistics.

With the exclusion of the last step, are these efforts simply superficial Band-Aids to avoid scrutiny and score points with consumers? Or are they actually changing the way business is done?

Boston Consulting Group research suggests that large employers need to do more: Nearly 75% of underrepresented employees did not feel that D&I programs benefited them directly.

For corporate advocacy of BLM to be credible, companies need to deliver proof of progress. If consumers haven’t asked already, they may soon wonder:

  • Why haven’t brands made progress? Are they owning their shortcomings?
  • Why aren’t brands disclosing the diversity composition of their workforce?
  • Do they have measurable plans to increase employee and exec diversity?
  • What about the compensation gap between black and white workers?
  • Do they hold supplier networks accountable to meet diversity standards?
  • What are the key performance indicators of success? What is the timeline?
  • How will leaders ensure accountability and penalize failure?

While all corporate eyes are on racial equality and social justice today, it will soon be tempting for executives to turn their attention to rebounding from the coronavirus slump and delivering profitable earnings for shareholders.

An extremely diverse cross-section of consumers is paying close attention today. As we have seen, this is much more than a five-day news cycle. Brands that lose focus and fail to follow through do so at their own peril.

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CNN Image showing the confusion caused by users (and brands) posting black backgrounds on Blackout Tuesday and obscuring activist information.

3. What is the true value of this corporate support? Will it drive change?

Noting that actions are more important than words, many corporations have promised specific steps to support racial equality and contribute millions of dollars to organizations dedicated to the pursuit of equal rights, social justice, black education and more.

But are companies overstating the value of their efforts? Marketing and PR experts know how to manipulate public sentiment by tailoring how they frame corporate contributions and “massage” the apparent magnitude of any sacrifices. Here are a few examples. I’ll let you be the judge.

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NIke statement on commitment to the black community.

Nike

It’s worth taking a look at this iconic sports brand, given industry praise of their bold statements in support of BLM — a natural continuation of its earlier campaign with Colin Kaepernick. As you may recall, the former 49ers QB protested racism, inequality and police brutality by taking a knee during the anthem, drawing significant criticism from NFL execs and President Trump.

Does a commitment of $40 million over four years sound substantial to you? It certainly does to me. Compared to a contextual reference point of zero dollars, I’d take $40M any day of the week.

But when you compare this contribution to total 2019 revenue ($39.1B) for perspective, $40M represents just 0.1% of Nike’s revenue last year.

Savvy consumers will see through the positioning to accurately evaluate the level of sacrifice that companies are actually making. Given that Nike made one of the largest corporate contributions, other companies should be very careful not to overplay the significance of their commitments.

To be clear, I’m not saying this diminishes the value of Nike’s contribution, which is part of a broader multi-year financial effort. The company has been an extremely vocal advocate of racial equality efforts in America and took a stand before well before it became broadly acceptable. That said, Nike’s workforce diversity numbers need work, and it’s important to give all BLM corporate contributions the proper context.

Financial contributions and public advocacy are one thing, but measurable change inside the workplace is another. Workplace policies are arguably one of the biggest opportunities for corporations to influence racial equality directly, as they control hiring, promotion and compensation decisions.

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Image of Google’s homepage tweeted by CEO Sundar Pichai

Google

On the other side of the corporate diversity spectrum, technology companies have long been criticized for their lack of workplace diversity.

Consider these two statements from the Google Diversity Annual Report 2020. In highlighting the success of their diversity strategy, the report notes that in 2019 Google saw:

  • “The largest gains in Black+ tech hiring in the U.S. since we started publishing data”
  • “The largest increase in Black+ non-tech hiring in the U.S. since 2015, now representing the largest underrepresented racial group for non-tech hires”

If you take them at their word and don’t look at statistical breakdowns, those two statements sound pretty impressive. When you look closer, however, you realize that Black+ Googlers grew just 1.3% from 2014 to 2019 — from 2.4% to 3.7% of the U.S. workforce (on an increasing total workforce number). For context, white and Asian employees currently represent 93.6% of Google’s workforce.

To be fair, increasing workforce and executive diversity is complicated. It involves removing hidden bias from the screening/interviewing process, nurturing existing diverse talent to take executive roles and building a pipeline of qualified black talent to fill new and executive roles. That said, many tech companies seem to tout gains of a fraction of a percent as evidence of meaningful progress and success, which is questionable at best.

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CNN image of Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.

Where Does this Leave Us?

While some progress has been made, American brands and corporate leaders have a long road ahead. Unfortunately, many seem to be overplaying their commitment and support of BLM, which could soon come back to bite them when business media inevitably do deeper investigatory stories.

Here are a few tips for corporate marketers who want to avoid sacrificing brand equity and credibility in their support of Black Lives Matter:

  • Consumers aren’t stupid. Younger generations are holding brands to a higher standard. Companies that don’t back up their clever words, fancy updated branding and new slogans will ultimately pay the price.
  • In absence of meaningful workforce programs, corporate supporters of the BLM movement need to offer meaningful financial support but be careful not to overplay their hand with misleading contextual framing.
  • Workforce/executive diversity and compensation parity may be hard to achieve, but this is how companies can make the greatest impact. Be transparent about your corporate efforts, outline measurable metrics and hold leaders publicly accountable for progress.
  • Brands should avoid trying to be too slick in how they represent progress. Polishing your numbers to paint a rosy PR picture is playing with fire.

Ultimately, progress toward racial equality in America and its job market is not an easy flip of the switch. America’s evolution toward equality will undoubtedly be a long journey filled with uncomfortable conversations, difficult admissions and painful lessons.

Brands that make meaningful, measurable progress toward racial equality will likely endear themselves to their customers. Marketing the stance of your business on racial equality is fine, but what we are really talking about here is a fundamental change to the way that companies do business.

This is no time for polished marketing gimmicks and slick public relations tricks. It’s the time for commitment to real change. If we’re all transparent, open minded, willing to learn and prepared for change, we can continue to push the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement forward.

Russell Weigandt formerly worked as a senior vice president at top corporate public relations agencies and shaped Fortune 500 companies’ public reputations.

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Russ W

Written by

Russ W

Recovering agency leader. Brand builder. Industry agnostic. MSW/EMPA Student. Writer. Thinker. Creative. Human. Hit me up: russellweigandt@gmail.com.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Russ W

Written by

Russ W

Recovering agency leader. Brand builder. Industry agnostic. MSW/EMPA Student. Writer. Thinker. Creative. Human. Hit me up: russellweigandt@gmail.com.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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