How can brands respond to social movements like Black Lives Matter?

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How can brands respond to social movements like Black Lives Matter?

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Stop racism. Photo: iStock.com/Zinkevych

The corporate world has become such a significant part of our daily lives, that when important social movements like Black Lives Matter emerge, brands need to take notice. But there’s a fine line between a brand reflecting the prevailing social mood, and a brand appearing to capitalise on those social trends for market gain. 

During 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, one brand that stood out for its vocal support of the campaign was ice cream manufacturer Ben and Jerry’s.

The firm supported the campaign in 2016, and in 2020 Ben and Jerry’s took a stronger line, stating “Silence is NOT an option”, and calling on America to “use this moment to accelerate our nation’s long journey towards justice and a more perfect union.” 

The polling firm YouGov runs a study called BrandIndex, which examines public perceptions of brands. They measure these perceptions through what they call a ‘buzz’ score. BrandIndex found that after Ben and Jerry’s first response to the death of George Floyd, on May 27th 2020, the firm’s buzz score in the UK almost doubled, rising from 8.8 to a peak of 16.7 on June 10th. The study indicated a positive reaction from the public to Ben and Jerry’s proactive, meaningful and vocal support for the movement. 

However, a different YouGov survey reveals a cautionary tale for brands responding to social movements. June 2020 was also LGBTQ+ Pride Month, a month in which many brands typically show support for LGBTQ+ rights by incorporating rainbows and supportive messages into their logos or products.

According to the YouGov survey, almost half of Britons (47%) felt that messages of support for Pride during Pride month seemed “not genuine”, compared to 25% who felt the support did seem genuine.

However, when brands show support for Pride outside of Pride month, only 33% of Britons felt those messages were “not genuine” compared to 38% who felt that they were genuine. The message appears to be that brands seem less genuine if they’re only responding to social concerns when those concerns are part of the zeitgeist. 

Authenticity, then, is a key part of a brand’s response to social movements like Pride and Black Lives Matter. There have been many examples during 2020 of brands which showed support for Black Lives Matter, only for customers, clients and even former colleagues to highlight negative stories relating to those brands’ treatment of issues such as racism. 

It’s vital for brands to address important social movements, but there needs to be fundamental support and action beyond just advertising, marketing and publicity.

As Ben and Jerry’s showed, believing in your support is a key part to enacting change, and improving lives. Behind the public perception of a brand, companies also need to act to address inequality in work and education, by offering more opportunities for BAME groups.

A brand’s public response, therefore, should only be the tip of the iceberg – the important part is for brands to demonstrate a wholesale plan to make sure that social movements turn into meaningful action. 

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