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Walking the Talk
Talk Is Cheap:
How Brands Can Move from Table Stakes to Putting a Stake in the Ground for Racial Justice

Two years after George Floyd’s murder galvanized the nation to address systemic racism, corporate progress on advancing racial equity in the workplace and community remains a mixed picture. Smoketown’s Ryan Pintado-Vertner lays out three approaches brands can take to show they’re walking their anti-racism talk.

Do black lives still matter? It’s a valid question to ask companies, many of whom took a stand on racial justice and equality following the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis just over two years ago. In the weeks that followed, Floyd’s death — which marked yet another in a long string of unjust killings of Black Americans by police — was widely regarded as an inflection point for systemic change.

Fast-forward to today and corporate progress on advancing racial equity in the workplace and community remains a mixed picture. Just Capital’s 2022 Corporate Racial Equity Tracker notes a general reluctance among companies to report against their racial and ethnic diversity targets or provide details on anti-harassment training. Significantly, few are disclosing commitments on advancing racial equity in the communities they most impact.

Ryan Pintado-Vertner, founder and CEO at Smoketown — a boutique brand consultancy based out of Chicago — feels that many companies continue to fall short when it comes to taking meaningful action in this post-Floyd era.

“Too many brands thought that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training, donations and social media posts were enough. But all of that is table stakes. Even improvements in employee diversity are just table stakes,” he tells Sustainable Brands™ in a recent interview.

Pintado-Vertner says addressing racial justice can’t be viewed as a one-off project – it needs to go far deeper than that. The brands that are getting it right in his eyes are those that saw the events surrounding Floyd’s death for the strategic inflection point it was and responded accordingly.

“I’m lucky enough to talk with dozens of CEOs per year, and I found that the most impactful leaders were also the most thoughtful. They did internal anti-racist work themselves – at home, with friends, with family – and then they also challenged their organizations in ways that were empowering and transformative.”

He points to three approaches that he believes are making a difference. The first is the utilization of brand platforms to advance anti-racist policies and promote non-profit organizations; Ben & Jerry’s, for example, has consistently called for action in this area. Another is to develop programs that can reshape the industry — such as Target’s Black Beyond Measure campaign, which is looking to generate wealth opportunities for Black entrepreneurs.

The third is to combine both approaches and then, as Pintado-Vertner puts it, “increase that impact further by putting people of color in positions to directly benefit from wealth that the brand creates.” He highlights the work of allergen-free cookie startup Partake, which has set out to raise capital from a diverse set of investors: “When that company successfully exits, they will have created a new cohort of wealthy people of color.”

Ultimately, what all three approaches have in common is unwavering leadership – and this requires a degree of bravery, Pintado-Vertner says: “The top executive in every company did the work and created the space to let their teams pursue something big. In many cases, they did this despite coming under fire from white reactionaries who tried to disparage the efforts as ‘pandering’ or ‘reverse racist.’ It takes conviction to keep moving forward in the face of that.”

Significantly, research from Kantar highlights a growing consumer expectation for brand bravery in the context of racism; but it emphasizes the importance of ensuring any communication in this space remains authentic and aligned with a company’s values and behavior.

Pintado-Vertner acknowledges that it won’t be easy for most business leaders to implement the type of changes needed to uphold racial justice within their organizations.

“Racism has a 400-plus-year head start,” he points out. “It is inextricably tied up in our economy. Racial justice work is unavoidably hard. The single biggest barrier is lack of conviction and complacency at senior leadership levels across corporate America.”

As both an activist and an empath, Pintado-Vertner says this work must first begin on a deeply personal level: “Ultimately, all anti-racist work requires vulnerability about the ways we contribute to racism, either directly or indirectly through our inaction.”

The second step is for brands to view this work as a strategic choice to focus on: “Anti-racism is strategy. As with any strategy, you do the homework to understand the problem, determine where you can play, and then define your objective.”

Ultimately, if companies don’t walk their talk around racial justice, they risk undermining their brand potential. Pintado-Vertner believes the next few years will be fascinating as younger generations come to the fore and play a more influential role in the economy and workforce.

“In every study that I've ever seen, Millennials and Gen Z are much more likely to expect a baseline commitment to anti-racism from the brands that they support. I can only imagine that Floyd’s murder increased that cohort,” he says.

“Anti-racism will simultaneously have more upside benefits and more downside risk. In the face of that, we will need leaders with deep conviction and courage to keep doing the work.”

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