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We need brands to behave like activists

Protests have once again sought to address racial discrimination and criminalization of black citizens. Companies can’t be content to offer reassurance or feel-good messages, writes a leading cultural strategist.

We need brands to behave like activists
[Photo: Flickr user Phil Roeder]

Editor’s update: Fast Company will host a webinar on “The Brand as Activist” on Wednesday, June 3 at 3 p.m., ET. The event is free, but registration is required. 

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This morning, I woke up angry. And sad. And embarrassed.

Back in mid-March, the weekend preceding the near-national quarantine (remember when that was our biggest worry?), I wrote an optimistic op-ed entitled “4 Ways Your Brand Can Be A Good Citizen.” 

‘Today, when people lack faith in government and other establishments, consumers increasingly depend on nontraditional and new ways to fill the voids of critical infrastructure and information. Culture now looks to brands to intervene on their behalf, by stepping up to address a higher need: one of selflessness. Today, brands need to be good citizens.”

In it, I detailed different degrees of actions brands could take — from low-stakes “we’re with you” messaging to radically redeploying factories and resources — to directly address the epidemic and contribute to the society they profit from.

In early April, it was published by Advertising Week, and right around that time, a steady drumbeat of brands stepped up to the challenge, responding to both internal and external cultural pressures. Surveys at the time indicated consumers very much wanted guidance and reassurance from the brands they trusted most.

And while many businesses have sought to address the public health emergency in admirable ways, COVID-19 also exposed the systemic inequities and painful injustices the country can no longer deny. Well before the protests across the country this weekend, the privilege of consumerism was already in the crosshairs of culture. In what was fast becoming a well-intentioned cliché, more and more commercials employed the same type of music, language, and footage epitomized by parody spots like “Every COVID-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same.”

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And then on May 25th, George Floyd was captured on video, struggling to breathe under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, who only let up two minutes after Mr. Floyd took his last, halting gasp.

Soon after the news broke, LeBron James posted side-by-side images of the officer kneeling on Floyd juxtaposed with Colin Kaepernick, saying “This… is Why” the sidelined quarterback took a knee during the national anthem. “Do you understand now!!??!!??” the star athlete urged.

Apparently Nike did. The company, well-known for airing its social stances, released its support of the peaceful protests with a cleverly crafted but simple message that was so intentionally off-brand, it was spot-on. “Don’t Do It,” the ad quietly urged.

“Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don’t make any more excuses. Don’t think this doesn’t affect you. Don’t sit back and be silent. Don’t think you won’t be part of the change. Let’s all be part of the change.”

The impetus for like #BlackLivesMatter and sweeping journalism such as Nikole Hannah-Jones’s prize winning 1619 Project, which exhort white America to open its eyes to the crisis behind the centuries of racial discrimination and the criminalization of black citizens, has never felt more urgent. But over the past few nights, after lawful civic gatherings escalated into fiery street riots, I realized things have gotten unbelievably complicated. It left me feeling impotent and frustrated about how to realize actionable ideas.

If brands were the voice of reason during the pandemic, what should their role be now?

To start, our society is not dealing with a race war or cultural war here. And we may well be on the brink of the next Civil War. But what we are experiencing in 2020 is an unprecedented and multidimensional clash of ideological, social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental implosions.

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We are in a perfect storm, a situtation where a rare combination of circumstances dramatically aggravates and intensifies the event.

The global pandemic laid bare for all the stories of lower-wage and marginalized groups that all of society depends on—and who are dying at a higher rate, with fewer healthcare options. 

At the same time, the economic devastation of the lockdown has put the highest pressure on those very same people, exacerbating mental health issues and domestic abuse. 

On the political front, COVID-19 has accelerated extremism, which President Trump seems to relish, encouraging the anti-lockdown protesters and the politicization of face masks. It has oddly united the fringe elements of his base (including the alt-right, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists) and the far-left Antifa movement, who share a common radical core. Both are now literally stoking the fires of anarchy—violently infiltrating peaceful protests and looting shops and businesses as a sick form of chaos profiteering. 

And on top of that, we’re still dealing with climate change and aging infrastructure. The recent failure of Michigan’s Edenville dam to keep up with increasing stormflow, and NOAA’s prediction of a “busy” hurricane season this summer, are scary reminders of how unprepared the country is to deal with natural disasters.

This perfect storm of existential threats come on top of the long and well-documented history of police brutality in black communities that serves as the tinder box in the time of COVID-19. George Floyd was the match that ignited the flame. Who will put it out?

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Brands need to become activists

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of powerful voices calling for a national reckoning. (I recommend Roxane Gay’s latest powerful op-ed, “Remember, No One Is Coming To Save Us.“) And many CEOs and companies have expressed their support for the protesters, pleading for—and committing to—tolerance and understanding. 

But now that brands have proved they can step up to fill the voids of ineffective and failing institutions during the pandemic, they should put themselves equally in the foreground today. Or at least put some skin in the game beyond feel-good messages that today feel more obligatory than outraged.

We need brands to behave like activists — to be fiery, passionate advocates campaigning for social action. As a first step, marketers can take the same playbook they used for the novel coronavirus, and apply it to the current crisis. Here are some basic questions to start with:

  • Help society: How can you reorient your business to address the challenge at hand, without regard to profit?
  • Direct customers to take action: What ways can you suggest for consumers to address the crisis through the lens of your brand?
  • Support employees: How can you demonstrate your brand’s commitment to its values by how employees are cared for?
  • Share perspective: How can you provide hope and empathy from your brand’s POV?

Admittedly, the last point is the toughest for brands. It’s easy to express support and reassurance, but empathizing with anger, frustration and other explosive emotions people are feeling right now is typically something brands shy away from (Patagonia being a notable exception). But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that shareholders and executive pay cannot be the priority right now. This crisis goes beyond partisan politics and press releases. We want, no we need, brands to share human values.

There is only one side to take, and that is of humanity. How can brands help push us to the right side of history? What can your brand do to activate change?

Linda Ong is the chief culture officer of Civic Entertainment Group, a marketing services companies serving clients such as HBO Verizon, Airbnb, Facebook. She previously served as CEO of TruthCo., an omnicultural branding and insights firm she founded. She was named one of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People in business in 2014.

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