Black men and women have become hashtags time and time again, but the world is visibly listening to our outcry for racial justice following the death of George Floyd. As the community started to post on social media, we implored others to do the same, and brands quickly followed suit. Messages of solidarity with black people or blank black images to mark #blackouttuesday from companies reached an unprecedented global scale.
OK… so now what?
Regardless of whether brands feel pressure to make a statement or not, trying to address a topic as sensitive as racism and trauma leads us to reading tone-deaf messages in confusion, leaving us no choice but to call them out.
#BlackLivesMatter is not just a hashtag, it’s a movement signifying centuries of black people demanding the end of systemic racism. The absence of brands’ support in the past, such as L’Oreal’s lack of backing for Munroe Bergdorf in 2017, highlights the consequences of performing acts of allyship but having nothing to show for it: this newly formulated stance will be called out on social media.
Besides that, attaching #blacklivesmatter without evidence of solidarity takes up space that could be used for valuable information and resources for the movement.
This fight has a long way to go, so a few posts inviting one black person to sit on a panel and maybe having a Black History Month celebration in October will not cut it any more. Those brands that have consistently been advocates for the black community, and made it part of their brand identity, have the credibility to speak up at this moment; others risk blowback.
Yes, brands should be implored to speak up about causes that matter, but only if they are willing to pledge how to tackle it in the long-run to provide real change. Otherwise, there is no point making a performative statement at all – we see right through it.
Here are a few things that brands can do to show that black lives matter now and forever.
Put your money where your mouth is
Talk is cheap. Speaking so strongly about injustice needs to be backed up with actions, and numbers do not lie. If a brand uses George Floyd’s death in its messaging, it should donate to his official memorial fund. Showing support for protesters will be recognised if brands support bail funds and movements fighting the oppression of black people.
Over time, other funds will be created that need help, so the payout shouldn’t be a one-time thing. After all, racism has existed for centuries.
Don’t want to donate to a fund? Start one. Glossier has pledged $500,000 in the form of grants to black-owned beauty businesses. Educational programmes are useful for black businesses too. Black culture influences music, fashion and pop culture, so if a brand profits from this, it needs to equally advocate for us.
Invest in local communities
I get it, we are currently experiencing a global pandemic. If pledging financial action is not feasible, then brands need to make use of what they have. Not all bold acts are made through money; use time, space and/or influence to make a difference in local black communities.
Brands need to consider the following questions: what do outreach programmes look like for the black community? What schemes are in place to advance black businesses? Are black people targeted effectively through comms? How can you use your assets to give a platform for others to flourish?
Offering office space to black business-owners is free. Inviting black panellists to talk about their expertise – not just their identity – is also free (but if you are paying their white counterparts, make sure they are paid too). Providing beneficial resources that you own as a brand to enable others to lead will also help. While brands are figuring out what they should say, focus on grassroots initiatives to enable black people to further accumulate black wealth. This is a true sign of commitment.
Look within before speaking out
If we see brands stating that they care about black employees on social media that haven’t tended to their own garden, they will definitely be called out on it. People are currently asking brands and individuals "this you?", making it clear that black Twitter forgets absolutely nothing.
Black Lives Matter, but take a hard long look at the workplace environment of brands. What is the make-up of black employees and how do they feel when they show up to work every morning? What are the internal processes for tackling racism and are they abided by? What is the company doing to close the ethnicity pay gap in their respective industry? What is the retention rate of black employees and are there steps in place to improve it?
We also need to look at the number of black employees at all levels, particularly within senior leadership. If the make-up is mainly white, then something needs to change.
Next, look at the influencers who are hired for campaigns. Do they ethnically look the same? And if a brand has hired black influencers, are they just a token in the campaign? Are they being paid the same amount as their white counterparts? What about the videographers, production managers and casting directors behind the scenes? They matter too.
Essentially, diversifying rooms results in better content. If more black people were hired in marketing and PR teams, many of the faux pas we have seen in the past week could have been avoided. Racism happens all year round and unfortunately, these issues only scratch the surface. So, before posting another statement online, brands need to ensure that they have created a culture where black employees can thrive. The real change starts internally.
Don’t ignore your supply chain
Brands can start to make a difference by looking at the brands they work with across their supply chain – question what their values are and how they align with your brand. Start by actively weeding out companies that have problematic policies or do not speak out on racism, and seek to involve black businesses in the brand’s supply chain. In turn, the focus isn’t only on selling products but ensuring that the brand is tackling racism wherever possible.
Make a difference with your offline presence
Brands are reflected by the people who work for them. If a company does not have a diversity of employees around the table, there is not enough room for differing perspectives. Campaigns and ideas will be bounced around within an echo chamber and faux pas will continue to reach social media.
Now is the time to think about your personal life outside work and how this reflects the values you want to stand for. None of us is perfect, but take the time to educate yourself on black history and white supremacy – Google is free. Personally commit to educating and changing the status quo both within and outside the company.
Be open to understanding new experiences by making an effort to interact with people who don’t necessarily look like you, as we know how easy it is to find comfort in familiarity. When you listen to our perspectives, don’t listen to add your opinion; listen to understand and learn about the multifaceted black experience. We are all human at the end of the day, with different backgrounds, classes, sexualities and so on, even within our races.
These experiences will naturally be reflected in advertising with authentic content.
Posting a few times is easy, but actions speak louder than words. We need to hold brands accountable, because if they were diverse all year round, no-one would be scrambling for what to say when a tragedy happens. If now is the first time a brand is taking a stance, it’s important that it also takes ownership of past mistakes and commits to a clear pathway of how it plans to do better in the future.
Showing the support that black people want cannot be done overnight, but being an ally is long term. Once we see brands empowering the black community, maybe we can talk about genuine solidarity.
Vivienne Dovi is media executive at MediaCom