Killer Mike (pictured, above) gave one of the most emotionally charged and powerful impromptu speeches that I can remember for some time last Friday (29 May). Of everything that has been posted, retweeted and chanted in the past week, this is one of the videos that have really stuck with me.
It is real, unplanned and raw. Most importantly, it really shows the hurt that all non-black people like myself can observe but never truly experience or understand.
There was so much to unpack within it, but in one beat, Killer Mike mentions how the people of Atlanta got Coca-Cola out of apartheid South Africa. They got politicians such as former Atlanta mayor and civil-rights icon Andrew Young to say: "Coca-Cola, we love you, but if you don’t pull out of South Africa we're gonna leave."
In that moment, the role of brands in this time of unrest seemed clear as day.
Brands will not define the conversation during political unrest. They never have and never will. And they really shouldn’t try to.
Brands can enable and advocate for activists who are making real steps towards change.
This will take time. This will take a lot of listening and open minds at boardroom level. This will cost money. This will affect share prices. It might even ruin an entire brand image.
And, if the job is done right, you will most likely get no credit for it. (Honestly, why should you?)
But at least you can say you acted in good conscious. That is the best you can and should hope for, if you really care about impact, not Instagram posts.
As I’m sure you’ve been reminded of on your feeds, now is the time for difficult, uncomfortable conversations in all parts of our lives.
We often overstate our importance as an industry in culture. I suspect the actions of Adidas retweeting a Nike post or Dell posting a message on a temporary Instagram story will not be written about by posterity.
2020 is going to be a long-ass chapter for the history books. I’m not sure there will be room for marketers in the footnotes.
Let’s be really honest here – even though we daren’t utter it in emails or Zoom calls and even if many never even express it outwardly to anyone.
Ask yourself this: is your brand or agency trying to post about a cause because it truly cares about supporting it and taking action over a long period of time to tackle it (ie the next three decades)?
Or is it trying to capitalise on a trending topic to be "relevant"? Is it trying to be seen to be part of the "conversation" or to get people to emotionally engage with your brand because of your "shared values"?
Sure, that is fairly low-risk if you’re going after EDM fans in Belgium, but virtue signalling around civil unrest is, in effect, exploiting the deaths of black Americans for your own ends. Many are only speaking to desperately avoid alienating their consumers.
That is not OK. Expect to get called up on it too.
Louis Vuitton, whose parent company LVMH donated €200m to the rebuilding of Notre Dame cathedral, released an abstract video of a black man riding a horse, commissioned by its men’s artistic director Virgil Abloh. The post read: "Make a change. Freedom from racism towards peace together. #BlackLivesMatter." The irony did not go unnoticed.
Worse still, L’Oréal had the gall to tell us that "speaking out was worth it" after cutting ties with black trans activist Munroe Bergdorf as an ambassador for doing exactly that in 2017. Bergdorf swiftly called out the hypocrisy.
"Karma’s a mother," as Killer Mike puts it.
Brands such as Nike often get a hall pass in the media because of its established track record of being vocal against racial injustice in America. But even Nike has been questioned on its lack of explicit financial commitments beyond endorsements. And one could argue that the corporation has profited from, as much as it has contributed to, black culture.
Younger brands such as Glossier have been much clearer on their path to action – $500,000 donations to a suite of social-justice organisations and $500,000 grants to black-owned beauty businesses. Although how this manifests in long-term action still remains unknown.
It all leads to the same ultimate question. If you really want to make change, why does it have to be about your brand at all? Why does your brand have to be the centre of attention, perhaps taking it away from those who really need the platform?
Let’s remember Killer Mike’s reference. It was the people of Atlanta via their mayor that got Coca-Cola to take action against apartheid South Africa. Not Coca-Cola coming up with how it was going to change racism in the world from a boardroom.
It was a big decision that did not happen overnight and involved a complex two-way conversation. But it did eventually create a massive positive social impact.
If you don’t naturally have something to say in this upheaval, if there isn’t something that you have a long-term plan for doing, perhaps you should follow Killer Mike’s advice to "plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise" with grassroots groups.
Maybe then get around to posting on Insta.
Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is co-founder of Soursop