(Liberty Headlines) As thousands of angry social-justice protesters took to the streets, virtue-signaling companies sought to wade into the conversation, gambling on goodwill returns from their customer bases.
Nike launched a new marketing paradigm in 2018 by hiring former NFL quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick for a polarizing ad campaign that capitalized on the backlash from angry conservatives to reach their target millennial demographic.
Now, others seek to follow suit by reaping the corporate benefits from violent, nationwide clashes in the wake of Minneapolis resident George Floyd‘s killing last week at the hands of law-enforcement.
Netflix’s normally lighthearted Twitter account took on a more somber tone on Saturday: “To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.”.
That got retweeted over 216,000 times and “liked” over a million times.
The streaming service is just one of many corporate brands that have turned to social media to voice concerns over racial injustice. At the same time, companies must consider whether it makes sense for them to weigh in, especially on an issue as sensitive as race.
“It’s brand activism,” said Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It’s not surprising. But companies have to think very carefully before they take a stand on these issues.”
While they have flouted the impulse to avoid alienating customers with political messaging, several left-leaning brands sought to hedge their bets by trumpeting their “wokeness” while appearing not to plunge too deeply into supporting the anarchist-driven riots that have ensued.
Most ducked divisive criticisms of police and other targets of protestors’ wrath, instead assailing the more innocuous scapegoat of “indifference” and emphasizing the more uplifting aspects of the movement.
The Walt Disney Co. and its brands, like Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar, all posted the same statement on Twitter about standing for inclusion and with the black community.
Starbucks, which took heat in 2018 when two black men in one of its Philadelphia stores were arrested for not ordering anything, simply said it will stand in solidarity with black partners, customers and communities: “We will not be bystanders.”
WarnerMedia, which is owned by AT&T and includes brands like HBO and TBS, changed their handles to #BlackLivesMatter and all posted the same James Baldwin quote: “Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.”
Twitter changed its iconic profile image to black with the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Media giant ViacomCBS tweeted “Black Lives Matter. Black Culture Matters. Black Communities Matter,” and on Monday announced that its cable properties like MTV and Comedy Central will go dark for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor Floyd.
Nike, meanwhile, revealed a new video ad on Friday that bore the words: “For once, don’t do it.” The ad, a twist on its “Just do it” slogan, urged viewers not to “pretend there’s not a problem in America.”
But liberal brand experts cautioned that the target consumers who may reward such messaging will demand even more now that the practice has become commonplace and cliched.
They advised corporate America to go beyond statements and outline what they plan to do to combat racism.
“Expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Movement is the right message, but everyone is jumping in on that bandwagon,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder and managing partner of Metaforce a marketing and product consultancy.
“Just saying you are standing with them is nice but probably isn’t going to be meaningful for them or for the brand,” he said. “It can be seen as opportunistic.”
That figured to be a daunting prospect for companies that did not have the same luxury Nike does in marketing its lifestyle wares to a specific type of consumer.
A few found that doubling-down on the high-stakes gambit was not always a winning strategy.
Underscoring the delicacy of the political mine field, in which conventional logic does not apply, some companies that offered up statements of support were called out on their own perceived track records.
L’Oreal, one of the world’s biggest cosmetics companies, tweeted Monday: “Speaking out is worth it,” and pledged a “commitment” to the NAACP. That drew swift criticism online from those who see the company’s business model and advertising as focused on white consumers.
Likewise, Amazon’s tweet urging the end of ″the inequitable and brutal treatment of black people” received backlash from followers, who questioned the company’s own commitment during the coronavirus pandemic in which employees have been complaining about unsafe working conditions.
As a result, those that embrace the politically correct marketing model will likely be asked to shell out funds not only for the advertising, but also for philanthropic efforts in order to gain the needed social capital necessary to pull it off.
Wendy Liebmann, founder and CEO of WSL Strategic Retail, said there was no reason to make a public statement unless the company actually had a concrete plan to help resolve the issue of racism. She praised Peloton’s Twitter pledge to donate $500,000 to the NAACP legal defense fund as an example.
Jeans giant Levi Strauss & Co. is also backing its statements with money, committing $100,000 to its longstanding partner ACLU. YouTube pledged $1 million to support efforts addressing social injustice. And semiconductor chip manufacturer Intel is pledging $1 million to address social justice and racism.
More than a few companies also paraded out their token-black executives for extra cachet.
Marvin Ellison, president and CEO of home improvement chain Lowe’s tweeted a statement about growing up in the Jim Crow South and the company’s zero tolerance for racism, discrimination and hate.
Citigroup’s Chief Financial Officer Mark Mason repeated Floyd’s words “I can’t breathe” in an emotional corporate blog post.
And Jide Zeitlin, chairman and CEO of Kate Spade, Coach and Stuart Weitzman parent Tapestry Inc., who along with Ellison is one of only a handful of black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, noted in a heartfelt LinkedIn post to his employees that some of Tapestry’s stores had been damaged during the protests but he said his focus quickly turned to the looters after determining his staff was safe.
“What was going through their minds as they acted? Has our society truly left them with little to lose and few other ways to force the rest of us to come to the negotiating table?” he wrote. “We can replace our windows and handbags, but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others. Each of these black lives matter.”