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 Matter 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 cream; just after PepsiCo/Quaker removed Aunt Jemima, Mars retired Uncle Ben; and other, 100+-year-old racist brand mascots were given much-needed updates, 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 Kaepernick. 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 campaign due to the social media platform’s complete disconnect between its ‘Brand say’ and ‘Brand do,’ this is something that is definitely worth considering.
Change the social paradigm
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 standards.
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 initiative 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.