Reputation and Brand Activism in the wake of Black Lives Matter

Several weeks have passed since the senseless killing of George Floyd on May 25th, and we have seen a monumental shift in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The wrongful killing of Floyd sparked a wave of protests and Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the globe, with people coming together to confront racism, police brutality and systemic inequity. The two weeks that followed Floyd’s death generated almost as much support for the movement as it had in the previous two years. Recognising that the fence is not a seat to take in the battle against racism and social injustice, many companies are turning to brand activism to show its support for the movement, even if it’s many years overdue.

What is brand activism?

Brand activism refers to a company vocalising its stance on a political, social, economic or environmental issue. It is a relatively new phenomenon that is seen to be an evolution of CSR which is how a corporation takes responsibility for the impact it has on society, whereas brand activism is driven by a concern for urgent problems facing society. Research from Accenture suggests that over two thirds (62%) of consumers globally say their purchasing decisions are determined by a company’s ethical decisions and values, while 66% believe their own actions can influence a company’s stance on issues of public concern, so it’s no wonder the onus is being put onto corporations to speak out against problems facing society.

What’s the problem?

In recent weeks we have seen massive names such as Nike, Netflix, Etsy and Ben & Jerry’s show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. This support has ranged from issuing statements on social media to implementing compelling campaigns and giving a platform to black artists to donating money to various anti-racism causes. While some companies are being commended for their efforts to finally shine a spotlight on racism, their behaviours and motivations are being called into question and people are demanding to see tangible action as opposed to passive solidarity.

What can companies do?

Show Authenticity - last year we addressed the importance of authenticity when it comes to companies communicating on diversity and inclusion, particularly during Pride month. The same rule applies to any form of brand activism. In fact, it can be harmful to a company’s reputation if they are seen to show fake allyship with a cause. This begins with evaluating what you as a company value and support and aligning your values with your actions.

Evaluate Internal Policies – as companies rush to the side of protesters to show support, whether it’s through donations or social media campaigns, their efforts may fall short if they are not using this as an opportunity to look what existing structure they have in place and internal policies around diversity and inclusion. In a recent article for the Washington Post, Business Professor and Executive Director Shaun of the USC Race and Equity Center, writes a list of practical actions companies can do if they’re serious about creating a racially diverse workplace. This includes taking strategic steps to recruit more black professionals and making sure there is equitable opportunities for advancement and promotion, regularly assessing the racial climate of the workplace and implementing company-wide professional learning experiences on various D&I topics such as unconscious bias and microaggressions.

While companies should take a stand against important societal issues such as racism, those who fail to implement policies that result in real change and hold themselves accountable to that will lose credibility and suffer reputational damage.

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