Following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, hundreds of thousands of Americans and others around the world are participating in a sea-change: an end to systemic racial inequality and police violence while reimagining a new, more effective and empathetic system of public safety. The speed in which this movement changed public opinion is astounding, but also somewhat reminiscent of the quick swing in support of gay marriage. This fast-pace change has placed corporations into a box: remain silent or communicate something about the drastic cultural shifting ground below all of our feet. And, if Pride Month has taught corporations anything about how they communicate, sticking a rainbow flag (or Black Lives Matter image) on products and advertisements is far from enough.
The common practice by brands is to remain neutral on political and social issues. There is risk of taking a controversial position in a hyper-polarized society. In the age of social media, however, staying quiet is no longer an option and according to a study by Morning Consult, it shouldn’t be.
According to Morning Consult, when a brand joins the conversation around a social or political matter, it may be divisive; but taking that action is much better than not being part of the conversation at all. Regarding the recent protests following the murder of Floyd, the study found that adults viewed brands less favorably if they failed to make an official statement about the protests, both among black and white consumers. The real divide occurs along generational lines. While 73% of Generation Z and Millennials viewed brands more favorably that supported the protestors, only 39% of Generation X and Boomers said the same.
As protestors have taken to the streets over the past couple of weeks, many brands have chosen to be at the forefront of this massive cultural conversation around race. Below are five of the most compelling corporate statements relating to George Floyd’s death and the related protests.
Starbucks has had a few encounters and controversies with the Black Lives Matters movement over recent years; in 2018 two black men were arrested at a Philadelphian Starbucks for using the bathroom while waiting for a business associate to join them. This caused large public outcry and led to Starbucks closing all of their 8,000 stores for an afternoon of racial bias training led by many professionals, including NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund president and director-counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. Though they may have a brief unfortunate history, Starbucks has received positive feedback from their prompt and direct response following the murder of George Floyd.
In a lengthy letter addressed to company partners, CEO Kevin Johnson outlined measures that Starbucks will take in order to address racial inequalities. The letter contained an overview of a 90-minute forum held in late May, which enabled over 2000 partners, along with their families, to “come together virtually to share stories, express emotions, and support one another as [they tried] to make sense of what is happening in our society.” This part of Johnson’s letter was one of the more well-received sections, as it included personal sentiments from employees.
Starbucks Programming Director, Shaun Spearman, expressed his views: “Racism and the targeting of people of color and of Black men has to be our problem, not just mine,” he said. “It needs to be shared by all of us. Our lives literally depend on it.”
In addition to creating an open space for employees to discuss racial inequality, Starbucks announced a $1 million commitment in neighborhood grants to organizations that promote racial equality and more inclusive communities. The specific organizations are to be nominated by the employees and partners of Starbucks. The company also received brief backlash regarding a decision to not allow employees to wear #BLM clothing while working, but have since changed that policy. It is clear they are attempting to listen to and learn from their customers and team
Nike was the first among apparel brands to speak out about George Floyd’s death and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests. Five days after the murder of Floyd, Nike released a 60-second video of white text over a black background that acknowledged the issues of systematic racism in the country and demanded action to change the system from citizens and corporations alike.
“For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don’t make any more excuses. Don’t think this doesn’t affect you. Don’t sit back and be silent. Don’t think you can’t be part of the change. Let’s all be part of the change.”
Their statement was simple yet powerful, and most importantly, influential among other corporate communication teams. Hours after the video was released, a wave of other statements from brands blanked the airwaves in support of the protests across the country. Adidas, a traditional Nike rival, retweeted Nike’s post, with the comment: “Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make change.”
From a marketing and sales perspective, this is a smart choice for Nike. In 2018 they received initial backlash in the wake of their endorsement deal with Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who took a knee during the national anthem to protest systematic racism in America. Despite the backlash, Nike’s sales rose 31% in the following days, an indicator that their market responds well to a company that stands up for social justice issues. According to a study done by Quester and Soapbox Sample on Nike’s stance, 56% of Generation Z participants said they buy Nike – and would continue doing so – after the company took a stand; additionally, a majority of both Gen Z and Millennial participants said they strongly agree that athletes have the right to voice their protest to social injustice during a professional event.
Kaepernick has established a legal defense fund for the Minneapolis protests called The Know Your Rights Camp Legal Defense Initiative, aiming to provide protestors who were arrested while protesting with financial resources and access to top defense lawyers. Though he no longer plays in the NFL, he is still heavily involved with Nike via partnerships. After protests began, Kaepernick tweeted: “In fighting for liberation there’s always retaliation. We must protect our Freedom Fighters. We started a legal defense initiative to give legal representation to Freedom Fighters paid for by @yourrightscamp.”
Nike has continued to take a stand by committing $40 million during the next four years to support the black community and fight racial injustice after the death of George Floyd; these funds will be, as they said, “focused on investing in and supporting organizations that put social justice, education and addressing racial inequality in America at the center of their work.” Additionally, Michael Jordan and his Nike-backed Jordan brand have pledged to donate $100 million over the next ten years to similar organizations, as Jordan said he has “had enough” when it comes to “the ingrained racism and violence toward people of colour” in the United States.
In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, Lyft’s co-founder Logan Green tweeted the company’s stance against systemic racism and police brutality and pledged their support in making a change. “The acts of injustice against Black Americans — George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper, and countless others — must be a call to action,” he said. “I feel a deep responsibility to listen, speak up, and be part of the solution.”
The statement was both powerful and tangible, with direct calls to action towards stopping the continued injustice against Black Americans. Lyft spoke about corporate action as well, including having livestream conversations to educate employees and “discuss how [they] can best use the Lyft platform to cultivate more inclusive experiences for [their] riders, drivers and team members.”
Additionally, in his tweet, Green stated that Lyft would pledge $500,000 in ride credits to organizations on the front lines of the movement, specifically the National Urban League, NAACP, National Action Network, Black Women’s Roundtable, and National Bail Fund Network. Through its LyftUp campaign, which was established to support communities of color, Lyft is donating further ride credits to Minneapolis organizations and volunteers who are assisting in rebuilding affected communities.
Prior to the Black Lives Matter protests, Lyft already made their commitment to social responsibility clear and part of their core marketing efforts. LyftUp provides a number of services, including free rides to polls for voting, rides to job training programs, interviews, and the first three weeks of new employment in order to “give unemployed individuals a fairer chance at success,” as well as recently direct access to essential transportation which takes care of frontline workers and delivers critical supplies in the wake of COVID-19.
The specificity of Green’s statement contrasted with companies who offered vague solutions, and by providing a direct service to volunteers and organizations, Lyft’s call to action was received extremely well.
Bank of America:
When looking at racial injustices following the death of George Floyd, Bank of America took a different but equally important approach. The company focused on aiding those in need due to the economic fallout of Covid-19; People of color have been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus pandemic, from both a health and economic perspective, and need more assistance than other segments.
Bank of America pledged $1 billion over the course of four years to “help local communities address economic and racial inequality accelerated by a global pandemic.” This initiative will include virus testing and flu vaccination clinics along with jobs training and support to small businesses and help with more affordable housing.
“Underlying economic and social disparities that exist have accelerated and intensified during the global pandemic,” CEO Brian Moynihan said in a statement. “The events of the past week have created a sense of true urgency that has arisen across our nation, particularly in view of the racial injustices we have seen in the communities where we work and live. We all need to do more.
Nickelodeon, a decades-old leader in children’s television and content, along with many other Viacom networks, briefly paused their scheduled programs on June 1 to show a video message about the BLM movement; the image simply showed the statement “I can’t breathe” for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time the Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck. The sound of a person breathing remained audible for the duration of the clip. It’s commendable that a children’s network didn’t shy away from this uncomfortable conversation, and instead dove headfirst into it with this powerful moment.
Additionally, on June 1st, Nickelodeon released a “Declaration of Kids’ Rights.”
“You have the right to be seen, heard, and respected as a citizen of the world. You have the right to a world that is peaceful. You have the right to be treated with equality, regardless of the color of your skin. You have the right to be protected from harm, injustice, and hatred. You have the right to an education that prepares you to run the world. You have the right to your opinions and feelings, even if others don’t agree with them.”
Nickelodeon balanced their emotional nearly 9-minute tribute to George Floyd with a universal statement, in kid-friendly language, about human rights.
Nickelodeon’s clear and somewhat bold statement was unsurprisingly met with some concern and backlash from parents, many of whom did not think it was appropriate for the company, whose average viewer is below 12, to talk about such things as it could “frighten” them. Nickelodeon stood firm in their sentiments however, responding: “Unfortunately, some kids live in fear every day. It’s our job to use our platform to make sure their voices are heard and their stories are told.” This bold stance, to push back against warry parents, was seen as an affirmation of the movement, and a reflection to how quickly corporations were moved to act.