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What do we understand about a brand's role in socio-political unrest?

Following the horrific death of George Floyd, one of the most recent cases of a growing list of cases of racially driven murder at the hands of the police, relentless protests of outrage have spread all over the world. Millions of people have voiced their support, taken to the streets and demonstrated the desperate need for deep change.

‘More scared of a racist world than a pandemic’

Despite laws around social distancing remaining in place, protests of thousands occurred across the UK over the weekend. Anthony Joshua who joined protests in his home town of Watford stated racism as a pandemic far greater than Covid-19. He said, "This is out of control. And I'm not talking about Covid-19. The virus I'm talking about is called racism."

‘This is an experience that is incredibly difficult to articulate’, as David Mattin describes in his podcast, and rather than try to explain it, we have taken a limited look at the its effects in communication channels.

Time to see?

The pandemic has enabled us to have more time to think and allow these deeper issues to come to the surface. The past two-weeks have firmly put the spotlight back on the fundamental requirement for systemic change to eliminate social and racial injustice. What we are seeing is a uniting force of people from all races and classes expressing the need for urgent change in covert racism. This is no longer a plea for diversity but a demand for anti-racism.

Individuals, corporations, countries and brands have a duty to eradicate ignorance and fear, educate themselves, their institutions and each other. We shouldn’t be having to prove to each other the disparities that exists deep in societal structures as it is more than obvious, and really 2020 was too late to do this. However, 2020 bought along a global health pandemic, which has in itself broken down the fabric of our society somewhat and opened our eyes to the many inequalities that exist. Without Covid-19 would we, and brands alike have been so predisposed to talking so passionately and desperately about BlackLivesMatter movement today?

#BlackOutTuesday saw a domino effect of black squares flooding Instagram feeds, marking a sign of staying silent for that day. It was encouraged to demonstrate a respect that meant not posting about anything else on that day, showing you were thinking, listening, learning and educating on this global problem. The black square has become a digital display of solidarity by humans as well as brands.

However, many activists and campaigners have voiced their frustration of the blackout as being disruptive to those trying to actively spread education and resources. People were discouraged from using the #BlackLivesMatter blackout as it was interrupting important information reaching newsfeeds.

It's Not Enough

Candice Braithwaite, presenter, writer and campaigner argues that one day of posting a black square is not just enough, and that for continued change we need continued action and fighting against injustice, posting on her Instagram ‘BLACK LIVES WILL CONTINUE TO MATTER LONG AFTER THIS PERIOD OF INTERNET SILENCE.’ Other influencers have been using the time since to help educate their followers through quotes, experiences and encouraging the reading of anti-racism books and podcasts.

Over half of consumers believe that brands should stay silent in times of desperate change, suggesting that generic statements with no action are meaningless and offer nothing useful.  Some however, despite this do try.

A more impactful examples was Ben and Jerry’s statement that there is ‘urgent need to take concrete steps to dismantle white supremacy in all its forms”. Rather than going silent for #BlackOutTuesday, they actively published their outrage on their website having stood for BLM four years ago. To drive change, they aren’t creating an ad and seeding it out online, instead they have been providing useful information and education for those seeking ways to support. To us, a considerably useful way of acting at this time.

Nike are a prominent voice and being one of the first brands to release their monochrome ad as a sign of their solidarity. Nike have long showed support for Black Athletes and issues since the 1980’s. This crudely can be seen as an economic arrangement at first but it has become a steadfast in supporting giving back to black culture and athletes. They have cultural credibility through their actions. You can look back to 1985 and their sponsorship of Michael Jordan (which included stock options) in 2015 they launched Black History Month with support from the likes of Lebron James and Kobe Bryant. In 2018, where they demonstrated this support through standing with Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel, during the national anthem at the beginning of NFL games. Whether we question the authenticity of this, and scrutinize Nike for the profits made, and accept that yes, they have made some equally bad decisions, Nike still have a legacy of standing alongside athletes like Kaepernick,‘an individual, driven by conscience, fighting a lonely crusade against forces more powerful than he is. The odds are far from being in his favour, but, no matter, he persists’(Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker)

More interestingly and more progressive, was the site of Nike and Adidas uniting over this cause across Twitter, reinforcing the need for solidarity and pushing for change together. We have talked a lot in these newsletters about community and united forces, and outside of the global health pandemic this is the first major opportunity for brands to show the magnifying force that can be achieved by acting arm in and arm, and not alone. 

But of course, we have also seen a number of brands face incredible backlash since showing their form of solidarity in the past two weeks. Fashion house, Celine, previously condemned for their lack of diversity in campaigns, on Instagram and on the runway, have faced a backlash and criticism for posting last Tuesday that they too stood for equality for all. Celebrities and many in the fashion world have supported this criticism and reminding people that the brand has had an aversion to black models in its last 6 shows.

Celine is one example of hundreds, making a knee jerk decision after seeing other brands in the industry also voicing support. It is vital that with such important moments, to get your own house in order, to take steps to positive social change quietly before joining a shout. Conversely, is it better to accept that these conversations and topics will be uncomfortable and can cause difficult conversations to arise, and hence be prepared to not always get it right? This is certainly what global athleisure brand,Lulu Lemon are admitting to in their recent post. We are quick to judge brands, but what have we all done collectively, prior to now in shouting out about racial injustice, and maybe we need to cut others some slack, give others the chance to fight to, if it is authentic and they genuinely want change. Hopefully, Celine’s next runway show will demonstrate this.

The general consensus towards brands and businesses on social media should be one proposing them to ‘open your purse’ and ‘put your money and your efforts where your mouth is’, of course positive lasting change led by business as much as those in power remains to be seen.

Consumers aren’t satisfied with a single stamp that you are following the rest of Instagram in adding a black square to the feed. Consumers want more from brands. People want to know that the brands they invest in are promoting good for the world, share their beliefs and values and using their corporations’ power to demonstrate social responsibility. Brands want to appear understanding and be allies during times of unrest, however with empty actions and words, no doubt criticism will follow.

Overwhelming amounts of funds have been donated from brands, individuals and institutions all over the world in the last two weeks. It is awesome to see start-ups leading the way in this space. Direct-to-consumer beauty brand Glossier has donated $500k to organisations that are fighting racial injustice, and pledged to support black-owned beauty businesses financially with an additional $500k in June as we know that these businesses are disproportionately affected as a result of the global health pandemic.

Vivienne Dovi, from MediaCom recently wrote in her blog ‘Those brands that have consistently been advocates for the black community, and made it part of their brand identity, have the credibility to speak up at this moment; others risk blowback’. The Glossier example is a very positive example of actively promoting change, and although they are a young brand and don’t have history of fighting for justice, it makes sense. Does this mean that brands with no connection to the problem or a history of getting it wrong shouldn’t do anything? Mark Ritson from Marketing Week suggests that brands are often stuck in a ‘marketing bubble’, seeing and believing brands to be brave, but in the real world, consumers often don’t flick an eyelid to a brand's social comments, or worse, will quickly shut it down.

There are ways though for brands to turn a corner and make an impact in their own way.Vivienne suggests thinking about what you can do at community and local level. This might be in the form of offering training to those in the area in the specialism of marketing or branding, or even providing office space for black business owners for free. It might take a while to figure out what you want to say overtly to a following on social media, but in the meantime look for where you can lend a hand and support on a community level. Equally, and as importantly, she suggests taking a look inside the institution and identifying change that can be had within your workforce to be more representative, as well as helping to educate others around these issues and most importantly encouraging this education as much as possible by putting on talks, events, panel discussions. Or maybe, in the form of challenging each other, such as suggesting different influencers or ambassadors for client campaigns that better promote diversity.

Understanding the change that can come from within at grassroots level is certainly something that universally brands and institutions can begin to action. Last week, Marketing Week accused many of those brands showing solidarity across social media as being ‘hypocrites’. The article demonstrates that the white leadership teams within these companies don’t reflect their protest for racial injustice across social media. Calling out brands such as Nike, Spotify and Apple, it reads‘Companies need to become the change they are tweeting about. Walk the walk before you tweet the tweet…One black COO is worth a billion ‘Black Lives Matter’ tweets.’Now, we want to hope that these companies are committing to change from within, but one-point reins absolutely paramount that social media is all ‘talk’, and not ‘walk’. You can’t just talk the talk, you still need to walk the walk.

Equally one problem for brands and institutions is that they are seen as one, one voice and one face. What consumers don’t think about when they see a brand take a stand, or declare an opinion or point of view is that behind that one message, or one tweet is an actual human being, who probably just as much as the majority of us cares about and is trying to process what is going on. That individual, perhaps an activist in their own right wants change and wants that in the company they work for. But, we never see that bit as we let underlying perceptions of what we already know about the brand mask what might be going on behind the scenes to make change. This goes back to the point about Celine, one post of solidarity isn’t enough, silence isn’t enough. Consumers want the transparency to see, hear and experience the actual change happening throughout businesses, brands and institutions, to accept that these actions and words are genuine.

We want to take this moment to pause and think about what we are doing. We are trying to do our bit to process what is going on, and in doing so, this has been a difficult article to write about and show empathy towards a complex, multifaceted global issue. We have been trying to access as many sources as possible and we recognise along with so many others that we need to and want to do more to contribute to this long-needed change. This isn’t just a moment in time to only act once, this is a turning point in time to now continue to act for however long we need to.

But reflection alone is not enough. We set up Craft to be different, and to do things differently. It means that we are already different from the average agency - Founded by women and with women making up 87% of our workforce with working flexibility baked into our DNA. But we are acutely aware that we lack diversity, in ethnicity, sexuality and neurodiversity. And we wish to make a commitment to change. Everyone who has joined Craft has joined after being introduced to us from our wider circle. Which means frankly, we are always fishing from the same pool. So we need to widen our circle, so that as we grow, we can invite more diverse talent to take part in the Crafty adventure. If you like the sound of Craft and think you would like to talk to us about future opportunities or even just a chance to make friends, can you please drop Jen or Sally an email and we can set up a zoom & a tea or gin.

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