How brands can build inclusive communities and fight marginalization
America is experiencing a bad case of déjà vu.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights Movement fought for the Black community to have equal rights under the law. Now, more than half a century later, it’s happening again. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Jamar Clark, Philando Castille, Botham Jean, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford — these are the names of only a few of the recent victims of the painful reality that Black people are still not treated as equal under the law or in most spheres of society today. To the contrary, Black people are frequently subject to discriminatory profiling and violence that ends and damages lives and perpetuates systemic economic inequality.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in every single American state, brands and influencers from around the world are speaking up. For some, it’s a PR move; an empty-handed gesture of “solidarity.” For others, acting and using their platform to aid Black people in the struggle against deeply ingrained injustice is a natural extension of their ethos. And for others yet, it presents an opportunity to critically evaluate their position, their complicity, and their future course of action.
It’s not a passing phase
Brands are beginning to realize that this upswell of social awareness is not a blip on the radar or some kind of passing fad. Businesses are now expected to be active participants in conversations about anti-racism and inclusivity, within the workplace, within their communities and in the public sphere.
Keeping silent in the face of state-sanctioned anti-Black brutality and murder and failing to take affirmative action is no longer an option, not just to avoid public criticism and appease consumers, but also to attract and retain talent in a very competitive recruitment environment. Customers, prospective and current employees are now basing their choices and brand loyalty on the stance — and critically, the actions — brands take in this critical moment.
Brands need to make anti-racism and inclusivity a company-wide endeavor that transcends marketing and social media to become a foundational value that reverberates through everything the company does, becoming inextricable from its brand, employment practices, and product or service offerings.
While the current focus is on addressing the wrongs experienced by Black people on a daily basis, brands are also under increasing pressure to be more inclusive of marginalized communities across the board.
COVID-19 may have canceled the parades this year, but let’s not forget that June is Pride Month, commemorating the historic Stonewall uprising — another historic fight that affected immediate change — sparked by police violence; a fight for the same basic outcome: to be treated with acceptance, dignity and respect — and if nothing else, equality.
A true fight for equality must be intersectional, by the very definition of the word equality. It’s all too easy to pick the battles that align with our own worldviews, to the exclusion of identities and narratives that are unfamiliar or make us uncomfortable.
It’s more critical than ever that brands and individuals alike actively interrogate and combat narratives that discriminate against marginalized communities, whether it’s racism, trans erasure, ableism, ageism, misogyny, or any other systemic bias that disadvantages groups or individuals while giving others preferential treatment.
Make no mistake, history is being made and the tide is turning on prejudice, injustice and inequality. The discomfort many are likely feeling? It’s growing pains.
The brands that get it right
Speaking up in this environment is risky. For brands that get it wrong, the backlash is quick and brutal. Take, for instance, the well-intentioned but ultimately tone-deaf swathe of brands and celebrities blacking out their social media profiles for #BlackoutTuesday. The overwhelming response was that blacking out your profile is not enough and that brands and influencers whose actions stopped at that were merely being performative — or worse, outright hypocritical, like the San Francisco 49ers, who famously failed to support former quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the wake of his peaceful protest against police brutality four years ago.
In this milieu, socially conscious consumers — and POC in particular — are highly critical of brands, quickly sniffing out virtue signaling against true allyship. These are difficult waters to navigate even for the most socially-conscious of brands, never mind companies that have good intentions but don’t quite have their finger on the pulse.
The brands that get it right are the ones that do have their finger on the pulse; the ones that can feel that Black America’s heart is breaking and its blood is boiling. The brands that don’t just slap a black square on their social media or a rainbow flag on their packaging and think their job is done.
These are the brands that have done the hard work of listening and seeking to understand, the brands that have immersed themselves in their communities and understood the daily fears and struggles and discrimination that afflict a significant portion of their customer base.
These brands are the ones taking a stand and opening their hearts and wallets for the cause. Ben and Jerry’s is a prime example of a brand that’s getting it right.
Be like Ben and Jerry’s
Ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s has an established reputation for taking action on social justice issues. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, the company released a long statement titled “Silence is not an option.” In the statement, the company outright rejects the “bad apple” defense often used to end conversations about the profiling and disproportionate violence police use against people of color.
“All of us at Ben & Jerry’s are outraged about the murder of another Black person by Minneapolis police officers last week and the continued violent response by police against protesters.
We have to say his name: George Floyd. George Floyd was a son, a brother, a father, and a friend. The police officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck and the police officers who stood by and watched didn’t just murder George Floyd, they stole him. They stole him from his family and his friends, his church and his community and from his own future.”
In contrast with throngs of vague corporate statements of pseudo-solidarity, Ben and Jerry’s uses strong, decisive language, deliberately choosing words like “murder,” “inhumane police brutality,” “white privilege,” capitalizes “Black,” and calls the uprising “protests” instead of “riots,” as many others have done. In a move that particularly resonates with its audience, the brand explicitly states the need to “dismantle white supremacy in all its forms” and calls for specific reforms.
While the brand may have lost a few irate customers who feel that ice cream has no place being political, but it also gained many new converts and struck a chord in a way that most other brands have failed to do:
The brand’s history of social justice activism and ongoing investment building in its community is likely a significant contributing factor to the reactions to its statement.
In September last year, the company, which has long been a vocal supporter of the BLM movement, launched a new icecream flavor dubbed Justice Remix’d, a portion of the proceeds of which goes to the Advancement Project National Office’s Free & Safe campaign.
With its track record of supporting Black Lives Matter, progressive consumers are responding to Ben and Jerry’s with an enthusiasm few other brands have been party to.
What can technology companies do?
Popular video conferencing app Zoom recently announced that it won’t roll out end-to-end encryption on its free offering in order to help law enforcement. In light of widespread recent hostility and suspicion towards law enforcement, it’s hardly a surprise that many users have vowed to switch to competitors.
In a time when consumers are more skeptical of corporations and cynical PR moves than ever, technology companies and other brands that facilitate online communication and community-building should sit up and take note — and then take action.
It’s becoming clear that technology companies and platforms need to get off the fence when it comes to matters of social justice. Users are seeking safe ways to communicate, mobilize, share resources, and access news they can trust, and trust in mainstream social platforms is rapidly declining.
Cultivate your own community
Communities and communication channels that can offer safe, reliable means of communicating and engaging while standing up to violence, racism and hate are vital in these tumultuous times.
With the compounding factors of COVID-19, the viral proliferation of fake news and conspiracy theories, and an alarming — if not unsurprising — lack of leadership from the White House, there has never been a greater need for community initiatives that facilitate honest and critical conversation and drive action in support of marginalized people.
Safe online spaces play a crucial role in helping individuals to find acceptance for who we are, as we are. Given the proliferation of toxic, hateful trolls — and bots — on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and others, there’s a real need for platforms that facilitate community in a safe, respectful and inclusive environment. It’s even more important now as many people self-isolate, causing community events like Pride to relocate online.
Here are some of the ways you can help:
- Use your platform to facilitate frank conversations.
- Give your users a safe (encrypted) way to communicate, whether it’s instant messaging, voice, or video calls.
- Create a safe online space through moderation and reporting tools that enable users to block and report bad actors.
- Consider applying filters to flag particularly incendiary or potentially inaccurate/fake posts and user profiles.
- Features like the ability to blur faces in photographs and video material make it easier for users to share footage incidents of police violence without endangering fellow protesters.
- Check your algorithms for racial bias and build ways to help POC into the very foundations of your app or platform.
There has never been a better time for brands to cultivate proactive, inclusive digital communities. Instead of piggybacking off existing platforms like Facebook and Twitter to post PR statements, consider building a community platform of your own where you can center your company-wide inclusivity initiatives, interact with and empower your community, and drive affirmative action.
Technically speaking, this is less complicated than you might think, especially if you use SDKs and APIs to plug functions like chat and voice and video calling into your app or website. That’s the easy part.
The hard part is doing the work of self-reflection, having the difficult, often uncomfortable conversations, and keeping the momentum up long after the protests have died down to make sure that things don’t just go “back to normal,” as if normal were ever good enough. We need to forget the word “normal,” because it implies the existence of an “abnormal” that is somehow “less than.”
Normal is no longer acceptable.
We need to be — and do — better than that.
More ways to help
Here are some of the ways you can help while you’re building your own community.
Here’s a great post about how you can support the Black LGBTQ+ community.
For those of us in tech, consider donating money, skills or resources to Black Girls Code.
Finally, here’s a list of resources to help brands become better allies of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Additional tips to help brands respond to the Black Lives Matter protests
Here’s a non-comprehensive list of some general tips to get you started if you’re not sure how to respond.
- Check your brand for internal bias in your hiring, remuneration, and promotion practices. Be honest and transparent in addressing it.
- Donate, donate, donate.
- Show employees empathy and allow them to take time off if they need it.
- Make anti-racism resources available to your employees and share them with your audiences.
- Support Black-owned businesses and artists.
- Avoid performative activism and don’t make it about you. Instead, use your platform to amplify Black voices.
- Acknowledge past shortcomings and failure to act with humility.
- Don’t stop if/when this blows over. The brands that continue to support the plight of POC in their day-to-day operations are the ones that will ultimately reap the benefits of building powerful, engaged communities in the long run.
- Facilitate a real conversation with your employees and audiences — and take part in it. Listen more than you speak.