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How Consumers Want Brands to Stand up to Racism

June 26, 2020

6 min read

Many brands have come out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement over the last month. But while some brands have been praised, others have been blasted as hypocritical, or called out for jumping on the bandwagon in an attempt to eke profits out of it.

Brands that have felt the short end of the stick include L’Oreal, which put out a post on Twitter with the words “speaking out is worth it” (a play on its slogan “because you’re worth it”). 

Transgender model Munroe Bergdorf responded: “F***k you. You dropped me from a campaign in 2017 and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy. With no duty of care, without a second thought.”

Bergdorf was angry at how conveniently L’Oreal could change its tune on racism now that other brands are taking a stance. But this story does have a happy ending because it elicited an apology from the brand’s new president, resulting in Bergdorf being re-hired (and appointed to L’Oreal’s diversity and inclusion advisory board).

Brands with a background in social activism have been able to share more authentic messages, without enduring a backlash. Far from jumping on the bandwagon, Ben & Jerry’s was standing up for black lives four years ago following the police killing of Michael Brown. Lamenting that nothing has changed, the ice cream brand said: “These racist and brutal attacks against our Black brothers and sisters must end.”

Nike was able to build on its support of American Football player and anti-racism activist Colin Kaepernick, with a new film urging people, “‘For once, Don’t Do It’. Nike’s ad was so powerful that even rival Adidas was sharing it (see what consumers thought about the creative).

Other brands to put out public statements include Netflix, Disney and Google (and Attest! We published one too). Renouncing racism feels like the least a brand can do, but what other actions do consumers want companies to take? We surveyed 500 working age consumers in the UK to find out (you can access the data here or interact with it below). 

Standing up to racism

The majority of British people do want brands to take action against racism. We asked them about the importance of six possible actions (from publishing an anti-racism statement to donating to anti-racism causes) and all six were rated as important by more than 50% of the respondents.

The primary action consumers want brands to take is ‘eradicating any racist undertones from their branding’ – this is important to 80.6% of people (including 43.9% who rated it “very important”). 

It’s something that PepsiCo, Mars, B&G Foods and Conagra Brands have already committed to doing. Mars says its Uncle Ben’s brand will be undergoing a “brand evolution”, including an overhaul of its visual brand identity, while PepsiCo plans to change the name and logo of its 130-year-old Aunt Jemima pancake and syrup brand. Cream of Wheat and Mrs. Butterworth’s will also be getting a complete rebrand.

While these heritage brands are well known and loved, scratching beneath the surface uncovers uncomfortable truths. According to culinary historian Michael Twitty, the names and mascots were designed to pedal the myth of happy black servitude.

“Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and “Rastus,” the Cream of Wheat man, were actually meant to be stand-ins for what white people viewed as a generation of formerly enslaved Black cooks now lost to them,” he says

Practice what you preach

Our research revealed that people also feel strongly about brands standing up to racism on social media – 76.8% said brands should call out racist comments in their feeds. Yorkshire Tea did exactly that when right-wing influencer Laura Towler took to Twitter to praise the tea brand for remaining silent on Black Lives Matter.

Yorkshire tea responded by asking Towler not to buy its tea again. Other tea brands lent their support with the hashtag #solidaritea. 

It’s a decisive move, but the irony of it hasn’t gone unnoticed; the tea industry was built on the exploitation of other races (and according to Oxfam continues to be).

It seems that getting your house in order is an important part of speaking out on issues like race. It calls for honesty and transparency, and admitting that you haven’t always got it right in the past – just like L’Oreal did or when the NFL made a U-turn on its policy banning kneeling during the national anthem.

Nearly 65% of British people say it’s important for brands to hold themselves accountable for past racism. Interestingly, younger people are significantly more likely to believe brands need to address historic wrongs; 74.2% of those aged 18-40 say it’s important versus 54.7% of those aged 41-65.  

Staying silent on racism might seem like the safest thing to do, but 60.8% of Brits say brands should publish anti-racism statements. Only marginally fewer (59.6%) think they should go a step further and produce anti-racism ad campaigns (rising to 70% of people aged 18-40). Procter & Gamble has done this beautifully with its trio of films; ‘The Talk’, which it released in 2017, and more recent follow-ups ‘The Look’ and ‘The Choice’. 

The action consumers are least concerned about brands taking in the fight against racism is donating to anti-racism causes – though more than half (54.6%) still think this is important. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has announced he will be donating $10m to groups working on racial justice – although this too has courted criticism because of the role the platform plays in fuelling racial hatred.

Ultimately, while consumers want brands to act on racism, action needs to start way beyond the marketing department. It’s not simply an issue of branding or strategy, it’s about the values at the heart of your business and how teams enact these values on a day-to-day basis. 

The reality is that this important conversation – that’s been hundreds of years in the making – might mean tearing things up and starting from scratch. Our data indicates that those brands brave enough to do so will be embraced by consumers of every colour.

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