'Shoulder to shoulder? I'll tell you what that really means'
From the lazy and insincere to the credible and proactive, Michaela Jefferson looks at how adland has responded to the Black Lives Matter protests, and hears from those calling for meaningful and lasting industry-wide change
On May 25 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year old black man, died with his neck crushed under the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who suffocated him for almost nine minutes.
After centuries of systemic racism and oppression, as well as countless incidents of police violence against black people – often fatal – the overt cruelty of George Floyd's murder, filmed and broadcast across social media, proved a radical tipping point.
The Black Lives Matter movement has since been reinvigorated with renewed anger, energy and focus. Mass protests continue to be held not only across the US, but in the UK and Europe as well. Social media has been flooded with messages of solidarity, calls for change, and promises to do better from different parts of society.
And as the wider public has become more engaged with the movement, brands and businesses have begun posting and tweeting messages of support, with hundreds, including the likes of Apple Music, Budweiser and Pretty Little Thing, posting black squares on their Instagram accounts in solidarity during #blackoutTuesday.
Others have promised donations to charities dedicated to supporting black people and their communities (though often without disclosing the value of those donations or posting receipts).
But while many marketers have hailed Adidas’ retweet of Nike’s “For once, don’t do it” video as one of the most powerful moments ever seen in the history of marketing, L’Oreal has faced enormous backlash for its own attempt to join the movement: a social media post declaring that “speaking out is worth it”. People have been quick to point out that for trans model Munroe Bergdorf, speaking out about white supremacy and racism in 2017 got her sacked as a L’Oreal ambassador.
So the question to ask is whether the Black Lives Matter movement needs or wants brands to stand up in support of it right now, or if, as ad veteran Trevor Beattie tweeted this week, “brands should probably just shut the fuck up at the moment”.
Dino Myers-Lamptey, former managing director of MullenLowe Mediahub and founder of agency and consultancy The Barber Shop, says this is a conversation he’s been having with his clients this week. Brands are asking whether they should say something, what they should say, and on what sort of scale.
“I don't believe that there's a single brand in the world that shouldn't have some kind of voice and opinion on this," Myers-Lamptey tells Mediatel News. “Brands sell to people, and this is a people issue.”
What speaking up should entail will vary case by case, Myers-Lamptey adds, but in his opinion one of the biggest mistakes brands have been making is to treat this as an opportunity to get an advert out.
"The best thing you can do right now is to use your owned media and your earned media to get out the right messages, to let everyone know where you stand as a brand,” he says.
“Sometimes the message that goes out on social media from the CEO about why [racism] is wrong, about what actions they have taken, or what they will be doing or are intending to do, is a much more powerful route and what people rather want to hear. Engaging in the debate a bit more on a human level.”
But with such a high volume of brand messages over-saturating social media feeds, there is undoubtedly a high risk of those posts becoming at best, monotonous, and at worst, generic, lazy and insincere. Already the internet is mocking those brands whose messages follow a cookie-cutter blueprint with maximum guff and minimum commitment.
Myers-Lamptey agrees that such brands deserve to receive backlash, and “get what they deserve”
“It’s poor, ill-thought out communications and it's just a demonstration of a brand that is opportunistic, that takes advantage of a situation, and has [made the decision] with the wrong people around the table.”
For those brands who have never done anything meaningful to promote and support equality in the past, rather than posting in support of Black Lives Matter now, they should be apologising for their bad track record and promising to do better, he adds.
Myers-Lamptey also points out that in the age of 'brand purpose', most brands have an obligation to stand with their black audiences. Even brands which think they have nothing to do with social or political issues will find that black people are fundamental to their product and business.
Spotify, for example, announced earlier this week that for blackout Tuesday, it would be using the “power” of its platform to “stand with” black creators – who are fundamental to the business’ success – with specially curated playlists, blacked out logos across its channels, playlists and podcasts, and the inclusion of an 8 minute 46 second track of silence in participating playlists and podcasts to highlight the brutality of George Floyd's slow suffocation.
The audio streaming service wouldn’t exist if not for the contributions of black artists, Myers-Lamptey says, adding that the same logic can be applied to most categories of brand.
Of course, brand purpose is a point of contention in adland. While some industry bosses claim that consumers both expect and demand for brands to take a stand on moral, social and political issues, others argue that most consumers couldn’t care less what brands stand for.
In research conducted in January by Reach Solutions – the research and insights arm of newsbrand publisher Reach Plc – a company’s position on social or political issues was consistently one of the lowest ranked factors driving consumer purchasing decisions across all categories.
And worse, The Empathy Delusion report last year showed a disconnect between the ethical and cultural values of people in the media and advertising industries, and those of mainstream audiences.
“Generally my view is that brands should probably stay clear from politics, because politics is polarising,” says Andrew Tenzer, director of group insight at Reach.
Political issues like Brexit, for example, don’t necessarily have a clear moral right and wrong, and therefore taking a side in the debate would alienate a significant chunk of a brand’s audience. “It’s just not good marketing.”
However, while maintaining his doubts that anyone will be sitting at home waiting for brands to say something on the matter, Tenzer admits that the Black Lives Matter movement is “unique” compared to other political issues brands have got involved with, as from a purely moral standpoint, there is little grey area. Brands and marketers are therefore very unlikely to hold a different view to mainstream audiences.
“However, I think that if you’re going to say something, you need to back it up with action,” he says.
After denouncing much of what brands have done in the last week as “very shallow” - as brands lacking diversity in their senior leadership, or using sweatshops in their supply chains, or donating money to Trump’s presidential campaign, declare on social media that they stand with black lives – Tenzer adds: “I really do understand why brands want to say something… And I think this is just a bit unique compared to other issues.”
But social virtue or social virtue strategies shouldn’t be marketing strategies, he says.
“They should be business strategies of which marketing is a way of bringing that strategy to life.”
Beyond the black squares
According to Lydia Amoah – author of The Black Pound Report and co-writer of the STOPIT Protocol policy document (which addresses the risk of “hate hacking” and provides a guide on how employers should manage such incidents if their employees fall victim) - most of what brands have done and said over the last week “doesn’t seem genuine” – and won’t seem genuine to a lot of onlookers.
Nike and Adidas, for example, make a large proportion of their income from the black and multicultural communities, and as a result, Nike in particular has a history of siding with the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2018, the brand hired American football player Colin Kaepernick as the face of its ad campaign, in support of Kaepernick and other players who were being penalised by the NFL for kneeling during the American national anthem in protest against racism.
“Now, within seconds his trainer was sold out, but where did the money go to? It obviously went back to the company, and obviously Colin Kaepernick has had his chunk of the pie,” Amoah says. “Fine. But it’s got to go beyond that.”
“Who’s on your preferred suppliers list? Have you got people from different cultures and, if we’re talking specifically about Black Lives Matter, have you got black-owned businesses on your preferred suppliers list? Have you got a CEO, or someone who’s in the boardroom, sitting at the table, who is able to put that opinion across to cover your blind spot?”
And whilst the argument that Nike at least has a good track record of supporting black issues in its advertising and brand communications is “fair enough”, Amoah refers back to this time last year, when the sportswear brand brought out a trainer sporting a flag associated with slavery.
The message is clear – advertising and brand communications is not enough.
“If you are a company that truly represents inclusion - and inclusion means [being] against racism at every level - then that will reflect in your teams. And I’m not looking at entry level, I’m looking at the very top as well.”
Nike’s executive team, for example, is lacking in this respect.
What black audiences won’t be fooled by, however, is brands creating a senior diversity and inclusion (D&I) role, filling it with someone from a black or other ethnic minority background, and claiming to have fixed the problem.
“That is too obvious,” Amoah says. “I don’t want to see a black person just simply in the D&I space. We want to see a CEO."
Currently, the chances of seeing a black CEO in the advertising and media sector is slim – and according to Creative Equals, in 2019 97% of CEOs were white. And among Fortune 500 companies, there are only four black CEOs.
However, that’s not to say that in the long term, advertising and marketing cannot have a powerful role in the conversation around black lives and racial equality. Advertising has an influence over the way consumers think, feel, and buy. It has the power to reach millions of people with the same message at the same time.
But for Myers-Lamptey, the majority of mistakes happen when there is a lack of black representation in the brand’s own marketing department, or in the agency teams.
“The right thing for brands to do is to get your own house in order,” he says.
“And if you’re doing those things, then it almost doesn’t matter what you say right now, because you’ve got the track record and the history to show that you’re doing the right thing and you’re going in the right direction.”
"Partner with us in our fight"
Last week, Jay Richards – founder of Gen Z insights business Imagen – posted a video on LinkedIn calling on brands who align themselves with black culture for monetary gain to stand up and use their voice now in support of Black Lives Matter.
“Black culture, a lot of the time, is the trendsetter, and companies want to be a part of that,” he said. “But the interesting thing to me is that when black men and women are being mistreated around the world or being killed by cops, those same companies are very silent.
“If you want to partner with us, please also at the same time partner with us in our fight.”
Asked how he feels about the brand response since, Richards says it has been good, but not great.
“The cynic in me says they’re doing it because they know if they don’t do it, it’s game over. But the optimist in me is saying that maybe they’re starting to realise that they can’t continue to want black culture without wanting us.”
Richards adds: “The problem with brands is they are not asking the community firstly, what they have, and secondly, what they need. Those are the two things that need to happen.”
Brands should be consulting with black charities, companies and start-ups if they really want to help make a difference in the lives of black people and win their respect, he says. Donating to something just for the sake of doing it to fit in doesn’t challenge the systemic issues that are there.
Glossier, he says, is an example of a brand taking the right course of action. The beauty brand set aside $500k for black charities fighting against racism, such as Black Lives Matter, The NAACP and Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and another $500k for grants for black beauty businesses.
“What Glossier have done is actually put money behind what they’re saying…. And for me, that’s actual action,” Richards says. “It’s about companies doing what Glossier did, and saying, how can we help bring about some kind of equality in our space for the black community.
“I think the best thing brands can do right now is to rally behind the initiatives that are in their spaces or in their industries.”
Invest in the right media
There’s another way in which brands can take practical steps to support their black audiences: by looking at where they are investing their adspend.
Jake Dubbins, co-founder and co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) says there is a role here for "radical transparency" and a recognition of racist systems held up by ad money.
“Brands can speak but they’ve got to earn the right to speak by actually listening to and learning what’s going on.”
One of the main aims of CAN is to help advertisers stop inadvertently funding racist, terrorist, and otherwise hateful content. In one recent meeting, Dubbins showed a brand that they had been marketing next to racist content from the likes of Tommy Robinson, and videos on YouTube about “the great replacement”. The marketers asked how they were supposed to have known that "the great replacement" is the language of white supremacists.
“It is your responsibility to know,” Dubbins says. “You fund this stuff, it’s not just your advertising that’s furthering the interest of your brand, you’re also investing in the open web and it is absolutely the responsibility of your organisation, whether it be the marketing director or a new post like an ethical director, to know what your supply chain is funding.”
And there’s no real excuse for brands not to do their job, he says - educational resources are openly available to access from organisations such as CAN and Hope Not Hate.
Dubbins adds that he has heard anecdotally that brands have been blocking phrases such as ‘George Floyd’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’, preventing their advertising from appearing against any content containing those words. (At time of publication, it could not be confirmed whether this was true.)
However, as with the industry controversy surrounding the blocking of words and phrases associated with COVID-19, blocking ‘George Floyd’ and ‘Black Lives Matters’ makes it significantly more difficult for publishers to monetise content referring to these issues. It silences the conversation and inhibits the spread of valuable news and information.
“It’s an abdication of responsibility. It’s lazy. And it’s not taking in the issues properly,” Dubbins says.
Chris Kenna, CEO and founder of Brand Advance, agrees and says brand safety is a “redundant excuse” for keyword blocking, as systems such as Brand Advance and Reach’s Mantis exist to help brands navigate safety without blocking valuable content.
Brand Advance, for example, determines brand safety based on how positive or negative the sentiment of the piece of content is.
But Kenna says brands should also be thinking about how they can help support minority voices by making sure they’re investing adspend into the publications that represent those demographics. For black audiences, that includes magazines such as Ebony and The Source.
And beyond the moral imperative, there’s a strong business case for brands to invest in diverse media as well.
“Adidas and Nike… their creative fully represents me,” Kenna says. “But where they stick their ads doesn’t necessarily.”
According to the 2019 ASA Report, consumers who perceive ads as being "culturally relevant" are 2.6 times more likely to find the brand relevant to them, and therefore 2.7 times more likely to purchase a brand for the first time. They are also 50% more likely to repurchase a brand they have bought in the past.
“I want to help you sell more products," Kenna says. "But I want to make sure that whilst doing that, you are spending in black media, because spending in black media with the right creative, in a contextual environment, will resonate and make that campaign a success."
The business case
Perhaps the most crucial thing brands can do to really drive long term positive changes is to fully recognise the business case in reaching, representing and selling to more diverse audiences.
According to The Black Pound Report, the ‘multicultural pound’ globally is worth $3.4 trillion. Amoah, the report’s author, estimates that the black pound in the UK could now be worth £500 billion.
In the hair product market alone, 44% of black, Asian and minority ethnic respondents spend on average £600 per annum on their hair products, and 25% are now actively buying their hair and beauty products from mainstream hair and beauty stores.
Research conducted in 2017 by Courier estimated that the average black woman spends £50 per month on hair and skincare, which translates into £900 million annually.
And with black women in the UK accounting for 80% of total hair product sales, Amoah asks: "Why can't I just turn the television on and see a product for my hair?"
In fact, 70% of respondents in The Black Pound Report said they do not feel valued as a consumer in the UK. 66% were not fully satisfied with the current ethnic representation on UK mainstream TV, including adverts.
According to Amoah, that means advertisers have both a responsibility and a monetary incentive to continue thinking about black people when crafting their long term advertising campaigns, after the short term hype dies down.
“It makes business sense,” says Amoah. “And business sense might not happen immediately overnight… You’ve got to have the foresight to look ahead.”
“But we’re talking about Black Lives Matter here. We’re talking about racism here, and I feel like if you’re going to make a decision to step up and step forward, I always say sit with us, talk to us, and walk with us.
“And if you’re going to make that decision and take that walk, do it genuinely, and with longevity.”
Leaving your comfort zone
Earlier this week, an open letter was published in the UK, calling on advertising leaders to commit to “actions, not words” by prioritising diversity, equity and inclusion, and harnessing “the cultural power of advertising” to bring prominence to the crisis of racial injustice.
The letter includes a list of 10 actions to be taken by those industry leaders who sign. More than 200 have done so thus far, from creative agencies, media agencies, trade bodies and media owners.
Cynics might note that similar letters have circulated in the industry before, and they have been quickly forgotten as the news cycle move on. Cynics might also wonder who is going to be checking in on the 200 companies in a months’ time to see what they’ve done to improve.
The latest IPA census of agency staff showed that there is still an enormously long way to go in reaching strong racial diversity across all levels of business. 2019 saw the overall number of employees from ethnic minority backgrounds drop from 13.8% to 13.7%, and while diversity at junior levels sat at a slightly higher 17.7%, just 4.7% of C-suit roles were held by employees from an ethnic minority background.
And that was before coronavirus. With furlough and redundancies hitting agencies at junior levels the hardest, the prospect for next year’s diversity figures looks grim.
So change will be difficult, and it will involve uncomfortable conversations and tough decisions.
“Who grows in a comfort zone? You have to become uncomfortable to grow,” says Amoah.
"This is an opportunity for you to do better, grow better, and when I say grow, grow abundantly, wealthily, intellectually.”
Meanwhile Kenna, discussing brands specifically, also acknowledges that there is no overnight fix.
“I don’t expect you to march with me this Sunday, I didn’t see you marching with me last Sunday," he says.
However, to say “shoulder to shoulder” means that, as a brand and as a company, you have to now work hard to find black talent outside where you have normally been looking, and try to make sure your work place is truly inclusive so all people can work in harmony, he says.
"Shoulder to shoulder means you will go through your difficulties as a company, as I go through my difficulties as a black man.”