By Serena Chen
“If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
— — Desmond Tutu
In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests around the globe, global brands such as Netflix, Colgate, and Zara have promptly expressed solidarity with the movement. The brand activism we see today, where brands take stances on socio-political issues, would be considered almost a taboo not so long ago. It is fair to say that brand activism is a rather new phenomenon.
Not too long ago, L’Oreal cut ties with a model for being vocal online about systematic racism. Historically, commercial brands have shied away from being vocal on controversial topics, for fear that it may lose parts of their customers and thus, sales (optimizing profits is traditionally perceived as the universal and ultimate goal for companies). Which brings to my question, what has changed since then? And more importantly, what will be changed from now on?
From Apolitical to Be-political
One factor that is widely credited to the change is the rise of social media. This platform has completely transformed the orthodox relationship between businesses and its customers. Arguably, customers have increasingly become empowered by social media, as it enables them to voice their opinions more easily from things ranging from complaints to praises. Businesses, on the other hand, deem social media as a channel where they can speak directly to their customers. Social media not only enhances businesses’ PR strategies by providing a platform for customer services, but it also empowers the businesses through “humanizing” them. Brands’ value and vision are reflected in each of their post, response, and Instagram story. People use social media to communicate with their family and friends; they would expect brands to do the same, namely, using sincere and engaging daily languages. PR statements published or embedded via social media are no longer cold and distant utterances. Instead, just like most humans, brands have evolved to hold up to their core value and voice supports for social matters. What’s more, as the so-called legal persons, brands err like their natural counterparts (*smoothly inserts law student jokes*). Brands’ responses to their mistakes or controversies often affect how customers view the businesses, and whether they continue to buy from them in the future.
This brings us to the second factor: the emerging emphasis on corporate value by both parties. The traditional definition of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is no longer sufficient for customers’ and society’s demand. Rather, it has veered its way from less-risk realms like “environment” to the “political” domain, which has been long-perceived dangerous by companies wishing to stay neutral. A novel notion of Political CSR (or, PCSR) is thus created. From what I have perceived, reasons owing to this shift in paradigm include: one, the evolving type of “threat” to the society, and two, the rise in the youth’s voice — a shift that is the influence of an open-minded millennial or Gen Z on society and brands.
On one hand, from gun violence to systemic racism, these are intuitively endogenous issues that can fairly be resolved from within. With solutions proposed exclusively for stakeholders within the countries — alongside with the novel, highly-visible world of social media — businesses (the owner of capital and influence) are more likely to be held accountable for solidarity to these solutions, or even real action, than before. On the other hand, customers have grown to weigh a business’ principles as much as their products. A research conducted in 2018 has found that 64 percent of consumers will buy or boycott a brand for its stance on a social or political issue. Millennials and Gen Z are also said to hold higher standards for brands than the older generations. Subsequently, businesses respond to this shift in consumer preferences by incorporating popular notions like sustainability (with the Sustainable Development Goals launched in 2015) and feminism into their branding and products. These actions not only boost sales for the brands, but they also help the businesses to (re)build their trusts from customers. Is it for purpose or profit? With the convergence of businesses’ interest and activism, the ethical dilemma behind this sort of brand activism continues to exist.
Just for the Gram? Brand Activism Versus Performative Activism
Even though brand activism is a relatively young concept, it definitely did not debut during the newest wave of BLM movement. The revolution of the color “nude” serves as a great example. For a very long period, the shade “nude” had been synonymous with lighter skin tones — — this has started to change. From Christian Louboutin to makeup companies like Lancôme, brands have started to include a more expansive range of skin tones to their collections, alongside with PR statements reaffirming “inclusiveness” and “diversity” since the 2010s. Similar cases include prominent brands’ response to Trump’s “Muslim Ban” in 2017, and robust corporate support to the LGBTQI+ community.
Nonetheless, the 2020 BLM movement is without a doubt a significant milestone for brand activism. With the haunting rhetoric “Silence Is Violence” of the movement, potentially enforced by the fear of “being canceled”, the number of brands showing support for a single campaign is at its historic high. However, several brands’ gestures of jumping on the BLM bandwagon have faced severe backlashes about hypocrisy and “performative activism”, as these companies have track records showing systemic racism in the workplace, disproportionated racial representation among senior leadership, and even sweatshops abroad. For many people, companies merely posting black grids on Instagram during #blackouttuesday is hardly enough. Unless sustainable changes within the companies are made, these gestures are nothing more than being opportunistic. As a result of mounting public outcry, “Open Your Purse (and donate to relevant organizations promoting racial justice)” has been suggested to become the bare minimum for businesses during the movement.
Quoted in the very beginning of this article, Desmond Tutu is known as a South African human rights activist fighting against apartheid. More than two decades after the end of apartheid, fights for racial justice continued, as racism does not stop prevailing in people’s daily life: from the workplace, mass incarceration, to the disproportionated population affected by the pandemic among races. With the BLM movement gaining its momentum, customers might have enough leverages to urge companies to address their problems, and make sustainable changes to them.
It is important to note, however, that the businesses addressing racial injustice are often multinational corporations with headquarters based in western countries. (Even with local and regional brands like India’s Fair & Lovely and East Asia’s Darlie, they are subsidiaries owned by Unilever and Colgate.) Given different racial composition in demographic and other contexts, there is considerably less debate and protests over the movement outside the European countries and the US.
Moreover, the purpose of the BLM movement might intertwine with the trending topics in the countries on justice and the marginalized. Could the momentum of the BLM movement empower local, independent businesses around the world to make changes for a cause? Moreover, do these small businesses have the incentives and the need to speak up for racial and other kinds of transformational justice?
These are questions left to be answered.
This article is written by Serena Chen & edited by Anannya Asuri. Visit themockingjay.net for more articles.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Mockingjay.