You don’t need me to tell you what’s been happening in our country over the last two weeks, as mass protests have gained unprecedented momentum to redress the systemic racism that endangers and degrades Black people. And you certainly don’t need me to tell you what’s right and wrong--hopefully you’ve already figured that one out for yourself, and, besides, this is a market research blog.
I’ll admit that transitioning into a discussion of business and market research is tough though--there are clearly so many more urgent issues that require everybody’s attention. But everyday, companies are making calculations about what to say and do, and their support, however self-serving or altruistic it may be, adds to the chorus of voices shouting down our country’s ugly racial injustices.
Don’t believe me? Just look at what BabyNames.com did this week.
It is not our place to speculate how genuine these efforts are--The Conversation summed it up nicely in their recent headline, “Brands backing Black Lives Matter: It might be a marketing ploy, but it also shows leadership.” Instead, we’ll be looking at the marketing and advertising market research today, considering different corporate postures and actions over the last two weeks, pointing out the pitfalls and contextualizing the cancelations. But know that even while we are looking at the market research, our eyes are on the prize.
Younger Consumers Expect (and Demand) Companies Get off the Sidelines
This movement for racial justice has accelerated a trend marketing and advertising agencies have long tracked, namely the expectation among younger consumers (Millennials and GenZ) that corporations advance social causes as opposed to playing the middle of the field. Younger consumers want companies to take firm stands, to put their money where their mouth is (“open your purse,” they say), and to live up to Google’s original (since abandoned) operating principle, “don’t be evil.”
This was true a month ago but it is even truer now. As AdWeek put it, “Companies with a purpose have a greater voice and more connectivity with buyers.” As companies move to targeted marketing to build relationships with their consumers, these consumers are being choosier about their relationships, demanding action and holding companies accountable for past sins, their current state, and their future plan of action.
Against this backdrop and amid national protests, business leaders are weighing the risk of backlash to any company statements and actions, ranging from full-throated support for the Black Lives Matter movement (a-la Ben & Jerry), tepid support that shies away from that three-word declaration some people are still afraid of, and outright silence. These conversations are not unprecedented, but they are monumental.
Academic-cum-newscaster Waleed Aly observed recently how the last two weeks have rewritten the book on corporate action, at least for the time being: “Normally when there’s something this divisive and controversial, you know, if you are running a big company, you stay out of it. You don’t want to be involved.”
The Nike Lesson
But things are changing. It’s important to remember the lessons we learned from Nike in 2018, when the shoemaker built an entire campaign around embattled quarterback and advocate Colin Kaepernick. Gosh it seems like so long ago that outraged consumers were burning their Nikes, threatening boycott, and anticipating a huge crash in Nike’s sales and brand image.
Time, however, has not been kind to those threats. Nike's sales have increased over 30% since the campaign and the brand, formerly famous for child sweatshop labor and unattainable sneakers, began to reposition itself as socially responsible and ahead of the curve. This gave them some credibility over the last two weeks as their promises to help champion diversity and justice appear more authentic given their recent history.
The Kaepernick campaign was not decided upon or designed without much consideration and data, of course. Nike seems to have read the writing on the wall earlier than many other companies, understanding that getting on the right side of this issue early would be a differentiator in a world where consumers evaluate companies based on their social action.
Consumer Clapback, Corporate Leadership, And Opening Your Purse
But not every company is Nike and many, ranging from Target’s anodyne declaration and Popeye’s unfortunately useless and just unfortunate post, have missed the mark and offered no plan of action. How many? Well, The Daily Beast just ran an article called “These Companies Have the Most Hypocritical Black Lives Matter Messaging.”
April Reagan, creator of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, wants more: “One has to ask where these corporations and brands were when Trayvon Martin was killed, when Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and many many others were killed.”
She continued, “I’m heartened that for whatever reason, they’re now stepping up with public statements, but unless corporations are putting their money where their mouth is, specifically donating to anti-racism causes, bail relief funds, matching the donations of their employees or doubling matching, then for me, it goes in one ear and out the other.”
Some companies have met her challenge, further seizing the opportunity to correct, or at least address, their past wrongs. LEGO, a corporation that has long positioned itself as progressive (the LEGO Movie is basically a proletarian revolution fable), put out a statement early last week, made a $4 million donation to education funds serving Black youth, and, most interestingly, announced it would no longer advertise LEGO sets depicting police officers as part of its “stand against racism and inequality.”
A Word or Two About Diversity
Companies have also faced criticism for chiming in about fighting racial injustice while their board rooms remain predominantly, if not exclusively, white with the Twitter-verse quick to call out companies for professing their solidarity with Black people while not employing many (or any) in leadership positions.
Diversity was never about checking boxes, it was always about incorporating diverse perspectives and experiences into leadership decisions. And the proof is in the pudding. Consider CitiBank, which solicited its corporate statement from Mark Mason, their Black CFO, who spoke from personal experience about the realities of being Black in America: “Even though I'm the CFO of a global bank, the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky are reminders of the dangers Black Americans like me face in living our daily lives.”
This statement has been among the best received of the last couple weeks (just checkout the comments at the bottom of Mason’s blog) and provides a blueprint for corporations who want to (or at least want to appear to) be taking this movement seriously and supporting the broad push for racial justice.
But this is not a blueprint that is easily followed because, troublingly, there are only four (yes, I fact-checked this and then had to double check this was 2020) Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and people of color are grossly underrepresented in corporate leadership.
The social media warriors have been quick to clapback. When marketing and advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi posted a cursory, bare-minimum statement to their Instagram about their aching hearts and fighting racial injustice, the comments section was quickly flooded with criticism. As one comment observed: “What type of change are you actually planning on taking within your company? Or is this just a social media stunt? Are you giving any of your black employees time off during this week? How many of them are in senior positions? Because as seen on your website, there are no black people on your top leadership team. Change comes from within–start there.”
The criticism continued, pointing out the tepid nature of the statement, its refusal to say “Black Lives Matter,” and the company’s monochromatic leadership. Also, side note: When you are an advertising agency, getting so thoroughly owned on social media is not a good look--what, they didn’t workshop the statement or put in any market research?! Jeez.
L’Oreal Lacked the Foundation
Then there is L’Oreal, the first and still most infamous victim of the social media clapback.
Early last week, the beauty company posted a simple statement, “speaking out is worth it,” with an accompanying caption that read: “L’Oréal Paris stands in solidarity with the Black community, and against injustice of any kind.”
And Model Munroe Bergdorf was having none of it, and quickly called out the company's hypocrisy: L’Oreal, it seems, had fired her two years ago for speaking out on these very topics. To their credit, L’Oreal has gone into damage control, apologized (both personally and publicly), and offered Bergdorf a seat at their newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board.
What changes, if any, will come from this is the subject for another blog, but it’s nonetheless important to understand that these aren’t the days of “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” anymore, and a quick hashtag on a corporate social media profile is no longer gonna get it done. Consumers expect statements about social issues to be in line with the company’s practices and policies as well as their purses.
Social media is a great tool for corporate marketing but, as many have learned over the past few weeks, it can also be weaponized against companies who fail to either talk the talk, walk the walk, or both.
Getting Ahead of the Curve, Getting it Right
Younger consumers expect companies to not just operate in the world but to also help fix it, a new version of political corporate social responsibility. They want companies to donate money to help fix systemic issues, to be accountable for their track-record in terms of past silences and also their treatment of workers.
What feels different this time around is that it seems businesses are wisely understanding that today’s younger consumers are tomorrow’s dominant economic force, and companies like Apple and Nike are doing their darndest to build trust and familiarity with this ascendant demographic.
Sure, their words can cynically be written off as hollow pandering or even political correctness run amok, but that’s not really the point. The point is that we are seeing a change in corporate posture and practice, that the market is responding to consumers’ call for action, that companies are figuring out how to chart what is truly uncharted territory.
Over the last two weeks, everyday people have been donating unprecedented amounts to an array of charities fighting for racial justice, and also contemplating their part in this continued struggle. They have been opening their purses and reconsidering their commitments, maybe even blocking that racist aunt they always tried to ignore.
Companies that want to succeed in this new world, and also be on the right side of history, must do the same.