How brands can contribute to meaningful change

Jul 09, 2020

GDR’s Innovation Strategist Charlie Lloyd discusses why brands showing their support to inclusivity movements need to do more than just talk the talk.

The killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed it across America and around the world have shone a light not only on police brutality and institutional racism in law enforcement, but also on other, more subtle forms of systemic inequality that permeate society’s public and private institutions.

As is the case at all moments of cultural change, brands from every category, in every sector, have been releasing statements and running campaigns to demonstrate that they are on the right side of history, to show solidarity with protestors and make it known that their brand is firmly against racism. Other companies, like Mars’ rice brand Uncle Ben’s and Quaker-owned Aunt Jemima, are using it as an opportunity to apologise for, and move away from, branding with problematic roots.

In and of itself there is nothing wrong with any of this. Except that it isn’t enough. Whether it’s about racism, LGBTQ+ rights, gender, poverty, or anything on the subject of inclusivity or equality, performative solidarity from brands will be seen for what it is if aspects of those brands directly contradict what they’re saying.

We’ve also been seeing a number of brands releasing statements acknowledging that they need to do better, such as Tommy Hilfiger, and others, like Yorkshire Tea, saying that they are ‘taking time to educate ourselves’. This is understandable, and brands do need to make sure that their responses are properly thought through. But again, words are just words until they lead to action – and consumers will expect action in future from brands making these types of statements. (Indeed, since publishing this blog, Tommy Hilfiger has done exactly this. On July 14 the brand announced a $15m plan that includes the launch of its People’s Place program, focusing on increasing representation of minorities in fashion through three pillars of partnerships, career support and industry leadership.)


“Talk less and do more”

If brands are being honest about wanting change, they need to be the change they want to see. That means backing up words with a commitment to changing the way that they themselves operate, to be a more inclusive brand working towards a more equal society. As Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison said days ago, business leaders need to ‘talk less and do more’.

Even Nike, which was lauded two years ago for backing NFL footballer Colin Kaepernick’s activism (and faced calls for boycotts for doing so), has since come in for criticism for a lack of diversity at the top of its ranks, proving that diversity and inclusivity has to be lived and breathed by brands, across their entire businesses.

We have seen several responses to the recent protests that do commit to genuine, meaningful change, and these should serve as a blueprint for how to respond to any cultural shift that brands genuinely want to be a part of. These brands understand that equality isn’t a campaign, it’s a core value, and they’ve demonstrated it by making decisions that materially affect their strategic direction or ways of doing business.


Foot Locker – Committing to wholesale changes across the company

Last week, Foot Locker announced a wide-ranging initiative, or set of initiatives, that will see the global footwear retailer spend $200m over the next five years on changing its business and other projects that seek to reduce racial inequality.

Foot Locker will be donating to charities and other organisations focused on improving opportunities for minorities, but as part of the package Foot Locker will also be investing in youth-focused black-owned businesses, buying from more black-owned brands, and increasing its marketing spend on black-owned companies and individuals.

In addition to all this, Foot Locker has shared a number of plans focusing on education, including the launch of various internship, mentorship and community outreach programmes for its black employees and their wider communities, and will invest in a range of other education programmes for its black team members.

In total, Foot Locker’s initiative amounts to a far-reaching set of commitments that cuts right through its business, from the suppliers it works with to its investments, its media spend and its people.


IBM – Abandoning misused technologies

The Black Lives Matter protests have also brought to the fore just how problematic facial recognition technology can be in terms of perpetuating inequality, and specifically the way it’s being used (or misused) by US law enforcement. Studies have shown that the technology misidentifies people of colour up to 100x more frequently than it does white people, and its use by police to profile protestors has worrying implications for democracy and privacy more broadly.

Amazon and Microsoft have each suspended access to its facial recognition tech to US police departments. IBM, however, were not only first off the mark to do this but the company went some steps further by dropping its facial technology business and research altogether. IBM announced the move in a letter from CEO Arvind Krishna to various members of the US legislature, in which it also proposed various ideas for police reform, responsible technology policies and doing more to enfranchise minority communities.


Johnson & Johnson – Discontinuing problematic products

A category that’s always carried with it a substantial amount of criticism is the skin whitening creams that are particularly popular amongst female consumers in China. The global focus on racial inequality of recent weeks has put these products back under the spotlight and the ways that manufacturers have responded provides a perfect case in point in meaningful versus superficial change.

L’Oreal’s skin whitening products will no longer include the words ‘whitening’ or ‘lightening’ and in India, Unilever is dropping the word ‘Fair’ from its Fair & Lovely whitening creams. These products will continue to be sold and function in the same way, but Johnson & Johnson has made the move to discontinue its whitening products; a response that demonstrates an actual sacrifice in pursuit of real-world change.


Ahold Delhaize – Expressing a stance that’s backed up with action

In June, global supermarket company Ahold Delhaize, whose brands range from Albert Heijn and in Europe to Food Lion and Stop & Shop in the US, published its inaugural Human Rights Report.

The report is a substantial document that not only lays out the company’s stance on a range of issues including women’s rights, children’s rights, forced labour, discrimination, freedom of association and more, but backs up its stance on each of these issues with policies and the work its done to make its vision a reality. If we think about the way brands are taking time to reflect about how to do better, Ahold Delhaize’s Human Rights Report represents the sort of meaningful work that those reflections should lead to.

Each of these brands have taken steps that will materially affect their businesses and, in many cases, their bottom line. They are showing to their consumers and to their own staff that they take these issues seriously and are willing to perpetuate, not just speak about, change. Hollow gestures will be found out pretty quickly, and those who demonstrate real commitment will win out.

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