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Nike faced backlash in 2017 from opponents of Black Lives Matter (BLM) who supported Colin Kaepernick and, as deputy, the BLM movement. Now that the stakes are significantly higher, brands that make statements of support for BLM are even getting a backlash from BLM supporters – because they seem performative, hypocritical, or opportunistic.
As a result, many brands are afraid to take a stand on social justice issues because they don't want to alienate consumers. However, younger consumers increasingly expect brands to address cultural issues and advocacy for broadcast and television. As Millennials and Gen Z develop their purchasing power, they also demand leadership to demonstrate empathy and a connection with humanity. How can brands responsibly answer the call when faced with a polarizing problem?
In November, I asked this question in a panel I moderated for the FUTR Group on the future of storytelling and multicultural marketing. This is one of several important questions that marketers struggle with. The answer is complex.
Neutrality is the most dangerous place
Frank Cooper III, Global Chief Marketing Officer at BlackRock, says you can look at this through a lens of ESG (environment, social factors and governance). "Most companies and marketers have gotten over the E and G. They kind of got it," he says. For example, it is easier to have a perspective on climate change because it is no longer so controversial.
“The S is incredibly messy,” Cooper says, “because it includes labor rights; it includes inequality of wealth; it includes racial justice; it includes LGBTQ rights; and all of those rights have a moral issue behind them many business leaders like it. The default position was neutrality. ”In a polarized world where people expect companies to take a stand, neutrality is not an option.
"In fact, neutrality is the most dangerous place because you will get it from both sides," explains Cooper. “I think the way forward is to find your purpose: why you exist, how you want to contribute to the world, how you want to advance humanity and stand in this truth. And that should be your compass, as a marketer, but also as a head of a company. "
Cooper makes it clear that a company's purpose is inconsistent with its principles, nor what it does or how it does it. "This is why you exist in the world. What we are seeing is an increasing number of stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, and the communities in which the company operates, are asking: What do you deliver that actually helps humanity, that Helping the world? He says a brand is an expression of that purpose. And that changes everything about branding.
Related: Apple, Comcast, Alphabet among big companies pledging money to fight inequality
Start with your own culture of inclusion
A lot of companies talk a big game about DEI but haven't done enough in practice. If a brand wants to align itself with social justice, how can it become an advocacy? For this answer, you'll want to pull out a notebook. It's from Alexis Kerr, Cadillac's director of multicultural marketing.
She says if your brand has been silent about topics like African American, LGBTQ, or Hispanic equality in the past, it's difficult to speak about it externally now just because we are in a time of civil unrest. You have to start internally. Kerr provides a compelling example of a conversational strategy that works for Cadillac and for black communities in the company's hometown, Detroit.
"The first piece is having a strategic plan and listening to your people internally, because that's where a lot of your advocacy begins," says Kerr. From there, external efforts will be expanded.
“We started discussions with our leadership team and all of our African American employees in June,” says Kerr. She adds that the company also made an outside statement in support of Black Lives Matter, but the real focus was on internal conversations. "We had fireside chats with our managers."
These internal discussions between executives and black employees developed into a mentoring program. Kerr followed suit with unconscious bias training and the company developed a storytelling series from the content of the fireside chats. “The first was usually about rioting and how African Americans feel. In December we had stories of hope, stories of triumph from our employees, ”explains Kerr. "And guess what? This year this group seems to be more diverse than just our black employees." The storytelling series will be expanded to include stories from the perspective of LGBTQ and Hispanic employees. "This is diversity, justice and inclusion," explains Kerr.
Another part of Cadillac's DEI strategy is to partner with Spike Lee's advertising agency Spike DDB, with whom they have worked for a decade. Kerr says working with a Schwarz-led agency helps them lean back and take a 360-degree approach. "And with that comes the change."
Externally, Cadillac followed its public statement with financial support where it counted. "(In 2020, we supported) causes that really help African American communities," says Kerr. “We know that 40 to 50 percent of all companies disenfranchised due to Covid-19 were black and brown companies. So what did we do? We started in our hometown in Detroit. We have teamed up with executives and small business owners here. “She names the founder and CEO of The Lip Bar, Melissa Butler, the founder and CEO of Rebrand Cities, Hajj Flemings, and the founder and CEO of the Ellis Infinity Beverage Company, Nailah Ellis-Brown, as local Black Business executives who are Cadillac supported.
Kerr says there are upcoming activations and engagements that will help black and brown communities, and something special for Black History Month. But these are all fruits of inner work.
The total is more than just the first few calls. It's about what action the organization wants to take. "We moved up at Cadillac," says Kerr. "Our leadership has 100 percent backed the efforts I started and we will continue to do more in 2021."
See also: This is how business leaders react to the George Floyd protests
Brands should serve people and move on to listening
Both Kerr and Cooper were a haunting reminder of the humanity of customers and the importance of finding each customer with an awareness of the pressures and struggles they face individually and culturally.
Kerr spoke of the need to step back and take a moment (be it a few days or weeks) after the court ruled on Breonna Taylor's murder. She says she took a moment to process herself as a black woman but also to hear the cultural reaction before rushing into a new campaign or start, even if one was planned. This puts humanity above planning in a way that may feel alien to some organizations. However, cultural listening is part of multicultural marketing.
Cooper reiterates the importance of listening. “I think we need to move to a mindset that we're building brands that serve people. Brands that serve, ”he emphasizes. "A lot of marketers start with the premise," I have a story to tell, and I will tell you my story and you will listen. "And you're going to listen because I paid to hear you." And then people just ignore it, "says Cooper.
"But if we turn it upside down and serve people and not think of the broadest audience – we think of the smallest possible audience – you can add value to people and improve their experience." According to Cooper, brands can do this by listening to what people want, finding human needs, offering things like knowledge, skills and information, or making them feel like they are alive. "And I think this is where we as brands have to go."
Nike didn't hurt after anti-BLM users burned their sneakers in 2017. They had listened. More marketing directors should be doing the same today.
You can watch the half-hour panel here from the 33-minute mark.
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