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Approach brand activism with a broader plan

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

2020 is rapidly becoming the year of brand activism. Brand activism is defined as a business' effort to promote or direct social, political, economic, or environmental reform to improve society. Not a new concept, Nike, Ben & Jerrys, McDonald's, and Coca-Cola are ready examples of brands that have engaged in this strategy for decades. Before jumping on the brand activism bandwagon, you should check your track record and have a real plan to show support for your message.

When COVID-19 shut down most of the United States in mid-March, there was a flood of advertisements by brands with similar look and feel. Marketing efforts fell into three categories: one, we are unsure of the future as you, but we will get through this together; two, we know during these hard times you may need help, we are here for you; three, we are taking steps to protect you and our employees to keep everyone safe. Some brands, such as KFC, had to go into crisis mode when their famous tagline, "It's finger-lickin' good" suddenly became cringe-inducing.

Advertising and marketing are always fraught with landmines, and some brands stepped on them during COVID-19. Financial services companies are facing backlash for not delivering on the promises made to support consumers and small businesses. Other brands such as airlines are facing questions for advertising the safety measures they are taking, with public reports that those promises are being broken.

Just in the past week, there has been a flood of brand activism in support of racial reform in the United States, and it has permeated to almost every corner of customer and prospect outreach. Even as I prepared this blog, Adobe Spark greeted me with a modal popup declaring its support of racial equality.

In the industry I came from, technology, the lack of diversity, and the underrepresentation of minorities, primarily black, Hispanic, and indigenous peoples, are well documented. While brands marketing their support of Black Lives Matter and a needed change for equality is the least that can be done, without additional action, the flashy words and campaigns become a quest to drive NPS, likes, social exposure, clicks, and views.

If your business is discussing how to embrace social equality in your marketing and customer outreach, other stakeholders, including those who traditionally wouldn't be involved in a marketing campaign, should be at the table. For example, beyond mandated EEOC reporting requirements, what is the demographic makeup of your employees? What active steps can you take to diversify your hiring and recruiting? If there is a problem identified, what clear steps as a company will you choose to make real change? The next question should be, can we, and should we communicate this externally?


Two Case Studies

Although not related to brand activism, there are examples where changes marketed after the fact have a better impact. For example, Yum Brands Taco Bell made significant changes to their recipes, reducing fats and sodium levels significantly. They didn't advertise these efforts until they had dropped sodium levels by over 20%. Kraft changed the recipe to its famous macaroni and cheese, eliminating artificial preservatives, flavors, and colors, and didn't advertise it until six-months after the fact. In both cases, these campaigns and changes were well received.


The landmine that brands can step on in the current environment is advertising support for equality, while not having a demonstratable record of supporting equality. The NFL, which is a brand, is an excellent example of this. A majority of American consumers are viewing this demand for change as a marathon, not a sprint. Businesses can create real change by considering this a long-term strategic initiative and not a second-quarter 2020 marketing program.

If you conclude your brand's track record for social equality needs improvement after doing an evaluation, you should consider taking a different path. Creating and starting a program for change with clear and measurable goals, advertising your commitment to change, and sharing the results will have more impact. The risk you take of sharing hashtags, black and white social media campaigns, or a one-time donation to a cause, is the appearance of taking advantage of the social and political climate, while not helping to solve the real problems that people of color face. Your business will gain end-to-end benefits by embracing the change behind your marketing messages of support.

To quote Mahatma Gandhi, "We [are] but [a] mirror [of] the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him."


Update - A Case Study

Several hours after writing this blog, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sent out an e-mail to their customer base. It is a tremendous example of what I wrote about earlier today.

Let me start by saying I wish I never had to send this email. I wish that the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others weren’t so violently cut short. I wish that institutional racism, and the police violence it gives rise to, didn’t cause their deaths. I wish that all members of our Black community felt safe enough to move around their cities without fear. I wish that I didn’t have to try to find the words to explain all of this to my two young sons. But I’ve been given hope this week by hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors demanding change. I am committed to being part of that change. As a company, we believe that everyone has the right to move freely, no matter where they live or the color of their skin. We’re proud of how Uber has helped improve transportation equity over the last decade. But the reality remains that Black Americans often don’t feel safe to move freely in many places around our country. And they still face enormous barriers that others do not. This is a reality we should not perpetuate or accept. We must do better. We know there is no easy solution to the problems we have faced for centuries. We also know that we need to devote our time, energy and resources toward making a difference. That’s why we’re making a number of commitments that we will uphold not just this week, but for years to come:

  • We are committed to driving lasting change through criminal justice reform. On Sunday, we announced a $1 million donation to the Equal Justice Initiative and Center for Policing Equity to support their important work in making racial justice in America more than just a promise.

  • We are committed to creating a community that treats everyone equally and with dignity. We do not tolerate discrimination, harassment or racism on our platform, as outlined in our Community Guidelines. We will hold everyone who uses Uber accountable to these standards of basic respect and human decency. I respectfully ask anyone not willing to abide by these rules to delete Uber.

  • We are committed to supporting the Black community. As a starting point, we will use Uber Eats to promote Black-owned restaurants while making it easier for you to support them, with no delivery fees for the remainder of the year. And in the coming weeks, we will offer discounted rides to Black-owned small businesses, who have been hit hard by COVID-19, to help in their recovery.

  • We are committed to making Uber a diverse and inclusive place for people of color to work and thrive. While we have more work to do, we have tied our senior executives’ pay to measurable progress on our diversity goals and will continue to publish data on our workforce so the public can hold us accountable. We’re also committed to expanding opportunities for drivers and delivery people, including through education opportunities and skills training.

We know this isn’t enough. It won’t be enough until we see true racial justice. But we plan to work day in and day out to improve, learn, and grow as a company.

Lastly, let me speak clearly and unequivocally: Black Lives Matter.

Dara Khosrowshahi


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