Dr. Myriam Sidibe
Published 3 years ago.
About a 4 minute read.
Image: Aunt Jemima
Much-needed updates to a growing number of brands in response to the Black Lives Matter movement is a great start. But deep, lasting impact requires two main actions — apologies; and adjusting the social paradigm.
In the midst of Black Lives
protests across the United States, some major brands have taken notice and
are making moves to ameliorate their handling of racially charged products. Many
are changing their image, removing racist logos and increasing messaging around
social justice and racism.
Unilever has announced a change
of name for its Fair & Lovely skin-lightening
just after PepsiCo/Quaker
removed Aunt Jemima, Mars retired Uncle Ben; and other,
100+-year-old racist brand mascots were given much-needed
all within the same week.
These changes show a trend in brands addressing racism that represents a good —
and long overdue — start.
But that’s all they are: a start. Changing images that have racist connotations
and making statements of solidarity is good, but brands can and should do much
more. Retiring the name does not translate to systemic change; but it does
communicate that brands are ready to do the hard work of confronting racism and
inequity, while acknowledging their complicity in these stereotypes.
I’ve written this before and do
so again: Brands need to not just communicate their opposition to social
problems, they need to actually address them meaningfully — not just performing
‘brand say,’ but taking part in ‘brand do.’ This is the central tenet of my
book, Brands on a Mission: How
to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose. But these changes
can’t be skin deep: Brands must dig very deep and uproot whatever doesn’t align
with the values they are communicating.
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Deep impact requires two main actions — apologies and a different way of
thinking about the brand, by adjusting the social paradigm:
There has almost never been a more apt time in history for an apology across the
board. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been widely and rightfully
criticized for never apologizing to Colin
So far, brands are issuing statements recognizing wrongs — like Aunt Jemima’s
racial stereotype — but stopping short of apologizing to marginalized
communities. Humility would go a long way to showing a brand is serious about
respecting the communities whose stereotypes it turned for profit. Brands evolve
as societies and trends evolve: Is a such a thing as redemption for brands? With
over 400 Brands boycotting Facebook on the Stop Hate for Profit
due to the social media platform’s complete disconnect between its ‘Brand say’
and ‘Brand do,’ this is something that is definitely worth considering.
Writer and activist Poorna Bell
has called out Unilever’s Fair & Lovely name change as not doing enough to
address the long-term, harmful effects of colorism. Many, including Unilever
employees, are calling for the company to stop sales of the product altogether.
I should note, though, that Fair & Lovely — while marketed as a lightening cream
in India — is marketed in Africa as “Even & Lovely,” a cream to even
skin tone, something most women of all races seek out. In South Asia, the
brand has been doing good work on empowering women to make their own
choices — work it should do more of, as girls and
women are marginalized the world over.
For brands to truly shift paradigms, they should consider reparations — what I
call “considerate capitalism.” This new, enlightened capitalism will account not
only for a brand’s environmental impact, but also its social footprint: Brands
have the power to create stereotypes, so they must take responsibility to
dismantle them and eliminate damaging beauty ideals. Brands have the power to
drive demand and must weigh this responsibility extremely carefully. Part and
parcel of this commitment must also be product quality — for instance, no more
mercury-laden creams that hospitalize women as they try to conform to beauty
To keep brands accountable to this new social footprint, metrics such as a
balance sheet of health and well-being should be used to assess brands’
execution. Profitability and doing good need not be mutually exclusive; and as
we prove it, the dynamic will shift even more.
For example, we see a brand on the verge of taking this important step: This
week, PepsiCo declared its step towards giving back to the Black community in
the form of a $5 million
of support and engagement. But what does that really mean? Will change occur?
And at what scale? Hopefully this will signal real investment in the Black
community, and not just good posturing and ‘brand say.’ Might PepsiCo take its
Aunt Jemima name change as a first step towards examining its health footprint,
and integrate a mission around nutrition with this mass-market product? Might it
look to adopt a mission, alongside the name change, to reduce malnutrition in
the same populations to which it sells its product?
When brands begin to use their power to move the needle on these systemic issues, we'll start to see the paradigm shifts that our society needs.
Published Jul 3, 2020 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Dr. Myriam Sidibe is one of the world’s leading experts on brands that drive health outcomes through mass behavioral change. During her tenure as Social Mission Director for Unilever’s Lifebuoy brand, she conceived and established Global Handwashing Day — now celebrated in over 100 countries. Her book, “Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose,” was released in May 2020.