The recent escalation in social consciousness has drawn thousands of organizations into its vortex. Today, racial diversity is prominent in advertising, while an increasing volume of marketing slogans endorse all that is inclusive, diverse, and anti-discriminatory.
It looks promising, certainly. But there’s a hollowness behind far too many of those fine marketing words. In my view, too many companies with a patchy track record are words rather than actions to place themselves on the side of the angels. Do they not realize that consumers have memories that clash with how those companies are trying to position themselves?
But there are companies who are taking real steps in the right direction. Take the Red Wing shoe company, known for years for its altruistic approach to business. They celebrated this Labor Day with a campaign designed to help people get back into employment. Not only did they place ads listing all the jobs available in their company, but also offered their advertising toolkit free to any company with open positions to fill, as well as taking a full-page ad in the New York Times encouraging other brands to join the initiative. And they did. General Mills, ADT, Johnsonville, Land O’ Lakes, Polaris, Sleep Number, and The Toro Company were among the organizations that pledged to promote jobs.
Another company that has been consistently, vocally authentic in its messaging over five generations since 1948, is Dr. Bronner’s Soap Company. Much of its revenue is channeled back into activism. Its CEO, David Bronner, has planted hemp seeds on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s lawn and was once arrested for locking himself in a cage outside the White House. They do not advertise or pay for celebrity endorsements. For much of its history, Dr. Bronner’s had no salespeople and no advertising, and its wordy, rambling labels violate every tenet of marketing design. Yet Dr. Bronner’s is now the best-selling liquid soap in the country, strictly through word of mouth and uncompromising authenticity.
In recent months, the NBA and NFL have both stepped up their commentary about the nightmare of systemic racism and police brutality. In the case of the NFL, this stance is a complete U-turn from just two years ago when Colin Kaepernick was penalized for taking a knee during the national anthem. Many NFL teams have been accused of merely making token gestures in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. By failing to openly acknowledge past mistakes, these teams and the league, in general, are seen as hypocritical — getting on the bandwagon of commentary without taking the necessary actions.
The NBA, on the other hand, has for years routinely taken a stand against police violence and racism. In August, NBA players elected to sit out playoff games in protest against the shooting of Jacob Blake, a move quickly followed by MLB, MLS, and WNBA teams. This activism is without a doubt due to the high proportion of Black players and management in the NBA but is also reflected in its leadership. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and team ownership are said to be a little more liberal and a little less staunchly conservative than other leagues. Silver has also repeatedly shown a commitment to making life within and beyond the arena more diverse and inclusive.
These organizations demonstrate that actionable follow-through is a positive step towards social change. Responsibility cannot be achieved by simply dreaming up a slogan. We need to show by words and actions combined how we aim to improve the status quo. If this means an apology here or a reboot there, that’s fine. Sticking to your core values, communicating with care, and displaying a willingness to adjust will help build trust with consumers and evolve as a brand that deserves respect.