December 4, 2020
Today is an unprecedented time in U.S. history. As the coronavirus continues to rage months after its initial proliferation on U.S. soil, Americans are also reckoning with the other public health crises of systemic racism and police brutality. On top of everything, one of the most contentious and historic presidential elections in our nation’s history recently took place and continues to dominate the news cycle. This divisive nature of our political discourse continues to undermine and weaken the foundation of our democracy and civic society.
With all that’s going on in the country, brands and businesses have been forced to shift the ways in which they communicate with their consumers. As we saw in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, it’s no longer enough for businesses to post a brief note on Instagram purporting their support for social change.
Even worse than virtual signaling, some brands and communications leaders continue to actively perpetuate structural inequalities in their organizations – earlier this year, Motel 6, Home Depot and Keurig Dr Pepper cut ties with Dallas advertising agency the Richards Group after its founder told a client that a proposed ad was “too Black.”
Consumers want to see brands taking concrete action to be part of the change they claim to support. In fact, 55% of consumers believe brands play a more important role than governments in creating a better future.
Below are a few strategies businesses should incorporate to show consumers they are stepping up as leaders and actively striving for change.
Adopt a Learning Mindset
One of the most important steps a brand can take to demonstrate to consumers that it has a genuine commitment to enacting positive social impact is adopting a learning mindset. Many companies failed to step forward on issues pertaining to both COVID-19 and systemic racism because they feared saying the wrong thing and drawing criticism that could potentially damage their brand image. But in this day and age, companies need to show consumers that they are willing to prioritize doing the right thing over saving face – consumers will appreciate brands taking the risk to be vocal on critical social issues.
If a business does step forward and says something misinformed, it is important to be able to admit wrongdoing and grow from the mistake. Brands that are able to listen and learn from their consumers will ultimately be more successful than those that remain silent.
One of the biggest criticisms companies drew after the protests erupted over George Floyd in May was that of engaging in performative activism. Consumers are looking to brands for genuine allyship – if a brand does not hold itself to the same values it outwardly claims to believe in, its message will come off as shallow and opportunistic.
The best thing a company can do to avoid “band wagoning” onto an important social justice cause is to evaluate its internal culture before taking a stance on key issues. This could mean taking steps to combat systemic racism in the workplace, like hiring a DEI consultant, or making regular contributions to COVID-19 relief funds. Brands that take concrete steps to better themselves before participating in difficult conversations around social issues embody an authentic purpose that will not go unnoticed by consumers.
Perhaps the most important action a brand can take to show consumers that they care about the larger community is providing more than just commercial products. Consumers, particularly millennials and Gen Zers, want to see that brands have other goals beyond generating capital.
Whether this means hosting webinars with other industry leaders on inclusive hiring practices to promote diversity in the workplace or publishing thought leadership on how best to break into their fields for aspiring professionals, brands need to show consumers that they care about more than what’s in their wallets.
Although 2020 will soon be coming to a close, hopefully brands and businesses will continue to acknowledge their roles as leaders in the broader community and work to build a better society for all. Those that do not evolve with the changing times will run the risk of being forgotten.