Customer demands for social activism means brands need new strategies

Staying silent is a thing of the past as customer demands for action force brands to rethink marketing strategies to incorporate social justice movements.

Black Lives Matter Social Justice

As social justice movements like the Black Lives Matter campaign gain momentum, brands are being put increasing pressure from customers to take a public stance and share their position on issues like racial equity.

Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor a series of protests against police brutality and racial injustice broke out, first in the US and then globally. These protests, which began in June, transformed the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign from a largely US-based effort to a multi-national movement now striving for racial justice across the globe. As the movement gains increasing momentum, many institutions, companies and brands have come under scrutiny for their lack of racial equity.

While in the past social justice movements would not have been of major concern to a brand’s image or identity, a new era of social activism means companies cannot stay silent and wait for it to pass. Customers expect brands to be involved in activism, with up to 60% of US consumers saying they will buy or boycott depending on a brand’s stance. This means that as customer demand for activism increases, brands are forced to rethink their marketing strategies to incorporate social justice movements.

Chris Miller, the global head of activism for Ben & Jerry’s, is no stranger to the racial justice movement, having aligned the brand with Black Lives Matter in 2016 for the US Presidential election. At the start of 2020 summer protests when the campaign rapidly developed into a global movement, Miller showed his support, saying that for himself and the Ben & Jerry’s brand “this [was] not a marketing exercise,” but rather a moment “to stand up and be counted”. The brand continues to show its support for the movement and has launched a podcast that it hopes will encourage listeners to dismantle systemic racism.

While some companies like Ben & Jerry’s rose up to tell their customers, employees and partners about their plans to address racial injustice, others have struggled to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement. A newly published report from Forrester titled ‘The Demand For Racial Equity Is Forcing A Brand Strategy Rethink’ has evaluated some of these responses to the racial justice movement throughout the summer of 2020. As customers expect a more human, relatable and authentic brand, Forrester’s report explains the ways that a “brand’s actions can have an enduring and significant mainstream impact when it embraces cultural currents”.

Forrester has analysed how brands have been responding to the racial justice movement and categorised them in the following three ways: ‘Signal Intent’, ‘Flex Your Muscles’ and ‘Be the Change’.

Signal Intent is when a “firm wants to articulate its position and plan to other stakeholders, especially employees”. Forrester notes that the “intent is authentic, sincere and expressed in terms of a plan of action [brands] can commit to”. The report outlines how brands have been quick to make public declarations of support via traditional routes like TV ads, noting that spending on racial justice messaging in TV ads during June and July of 2020 reached five times the amount spent in 2018 and 2019 combined. Companies like Nike have also used social media to signal their intent, playing off its catchphrase to extort against racism: “For once, just don’t do it.”

Brands can also flex their muscles in many ways, and while “the firm is not is not in position to bring about change [it] can support organisations actively working in the space”. Companies can also “exert influence on its ecosystem and value change to induce change,” something we saw FedEx do this summer. As the company paid $205 million (£155 million) for the stadium naming rights for the Washington Redskins, it flexed its sponsorship muscle to force the debate on the name change of the team.

Change can stem from many sources, including consumer protests, and will be based on the brand’s purpose and value system. This kind of change requires the courage to past and current shortcomings to create a new, credible beginning. To ‘Be the Change’, the company will be ready to “flex and adjust strategy, operations, and processes in service of change”. The report notes that “the most effective brands credibly commit to a course of action,” for example, “Sephora, which has had to address racial profiling in its stores, will reserve 15% of its shelf space for Black-owned brands”.

Sephora brand store

As the number of brands responding to social activism has exponentially increased during the summer of 2020, we can expect this behaviour to continue, meaning it needs to be part of brand strategies moving forward. Based on recent responses to Black Lives Matter from brands like Nike, Ben & Jerry’s, P&G, Netflix, FedEx, Adidas and Sephora, Forrester has created five key principles which can help to guide brand responses to future social justice movements:

1. Be Honest

“Most brands have a mixed track record. At worst, they actively harm; at best, they are guilty of inaction. The best course of action is honesty and sincerity.” Companies can no longer stay silent or deflect guilt. It is essential for brands to acknowledge past and current mistakes in order to build a credible way forward.

2. Be Involved

Your response is far too critical an initiative to hand off because above all, customers and employees want a brand that is relatable. “While agencies can play an ancillary role in polishing the communications, the central message ought to come from deep within the brand. An example of what not to do: Turn to your agency to craft a response whenever one is needed. A brilliant move if you can get it done): Have the CEO respond, for real.”

3. Sweat the Details

“Once you take a stand, you have to see it through. And the more complex and distributed the operations, the higher likelihood of things going wrong.” Make sure you have safeguards in place to deliver the brand promise while meeting customer and employee expectations.

4. Build from Values

Create a response by solidifying the values of your brand and working towards credible action. “If responding to COVID-19, gender equity and racial justice feels like fighting scattered fires, then something is wrong. These brand responses are not meant to be loosely strung together knee-jerk reactions. Instead, they are intended to reflect what your brand believes in.”

5. Be True to Yourself

Above all, be true to your brand so that it remains authentic and credible. “Chasing every consumer sentiment may be tempting, but the long-term damage to authenticity and credibility caused by gaming social justice is a heavy price to pay. Values are about the character of the brand.”

The key takeaways for brands to remember when responding to social justice movements are to be prepared, be yourself and align brand promise and experience. Your stakeholders will demand a response so make sure it is credible, authentic and represents your values. You will likely include a promise, but promises don’t equate to action or change so it is essential that your promise is put into practice.

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