It started with the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, and since that day, protests have taken place all over the world to address a long history of anti-Black racism. And when the demonstrations entered the world’s consciousness, corporate brands decided it was time for them to step up.
It was time to post a black square, or a blanket statement on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, with a couple of hashtags and call it a day. But in the era of George Floyd protests, brands are being increasingly called out for “performative” feats of activism.
“Having three incidents back to back all involving Black people that ultimately opened people’s eyes,” said public relations expert Sandra Gabriel, who’s run her own Toronto firm, Gabriel PR, for 15 years.
Floyd’s death was closely followed by that of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician mistakenly shot and killed by Louisville, Ky. police while sleeping in her home, and of Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging in Glynn County, Ga. when he was confronted by two white men and fatally shot.
In the wake of massive protests that raged through the U.S. and Canada, almost every brand, from big names like Nike, Netflix, and McDonalds to mom-and-pop shops expressed their solidarity. But it isn’t as simple as it used to be.
Gabriel said consumers aren’t falling for the Instagram posts or hashtags when brands try to align with movements like Black Lives Matter. People want to see corporations take initiative by funding programs that can actually lead to long-term change, she said.
“I think it’s great that more and more people are realizing the importance of what’s going on — but it’s not enough, because clearly we’re seeing these things happen over and over again,” said Gabriel.
Brands have been called out before for selective activism, especially during Pride, when rainbow colours temporarily overtake corporate logos, regardless of whether or not the company itself has done anything to support the LGTBQ community.
“There’s definitely this change in understanding of what constitutes as authentic engagement of a brand with social issues,” said communications expert Sharon Nyangweso.
“As the consumer, we are also becoming more and more aware that our biggest superpower or biggest ability to affect change in the face of organizations like this is in the way we spend our money,” she said.
Which is why when Amazon posted a statement in solidarity with “the fight against systemic racism and injustice” on Twitter, people were quick to point out many of the company’s internal policies were harmful to people of colour, including the time a leaked memo revealed Amazon planned to smear the reputation of a Black worker who was trying to unionize.
FedEx faced a similar reaction.
Companies who have remained silent on racial injustice are under just as much scrutiny. Nyangweso said in these cases, the narrative gets written for them. The Instagram account ”Silent Brands” has highlighted companies who have either not released any statements or published vague declarations that don’t specifically address anti-Black racism. (“Vocal Brands,” on the other hand, highlights companies that have committed real dollars to “support equality for Black lives.”)
“At the end of the day, a brand releasing a statement with all the best intentions is still exactly that — branding, it’s not a social movement,” said Nyangweso. “Especially in this moment, to black people, you are signalling how far you are willing to go to maintain the brand for the sake of making money.”
But could this baseline level of “action” be causing more harm than good? Gabriel said companies are approaching activism as a marketing strategy instead of a corporate responsibility — trying to appease the politics of their consumer base without actually committing to the politics.
As someone who works with brands to develop proper inclusion policies through her company QuakeLab, Nyangweso said these companies are often harming their own Black and racialized employees.
“The onus is placed on like, a random communications person or low-level [worker], probably a social media intern or something of the sort, to create crafty statements and put them out,” she said. They’re likely people not in a position where they can afford to speak out, but take the brunt of criticism for a corporate statement and stay silent to protect their job security.
“Especially in this moment, to black people, you are signalling how far you are willing to go to maintain the brand for the sake of making money.”
Gabriel said incidents like a Calgary-based gelato company releasing an “Black Lives Matter” flavour are a glaring example of what can happen when Black voices aren’t represented in boardrooms.
“They clearly didn’t have a Black person in the room — or maybe they did, and that person was afraid to speak up,” she said “But that’s another part of it, Black people are so afraid of losing their jobs and speaking out of position.”
When Canadian-based clothing brand Aritzia put out a solidarity statement, former employees publicly called out the company for creating a discriminatory working environment for Black staff. CEOs at companies including Reformation and Bon Appetit stepped down after being exposed by employees for their racist behaviours.
Part of the shift against performative marketing schemes includes taking a hard look at what the face of a brand really stands for. Quaker Oats rebranded its Aunt Jemima line of breakfast foods, which featured a Black woman based on a minstrel song and a racial stereotype of Black servitude.
Gabriel suggests companies make long-term donations to Black businesses, use their power to lobby for reform, and take a good look at the racial makeup of their own boardrooms.
Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, for example, decided to step down from his board position, and urged the company to replace him with a Black candidate.
“It helps to create change and reposition Black people in the minds of everyone — because not a lot of people see us as leaders or inventors or influencers,” Gabriel said. “But when we create these shifts and we see more Black people in leadership positions, the next generation will have more respect for Black people because they’ve seen them in these positions.”