Jean Oelwang, President and Trustee of Virgin Unite, to Speak at We First 2015 Brand Leadership Summit
Purpose At Work: How Brands Must Respond In Times Of Social Crisis
July 21, 2020
The Black Lives Matter protests caught many business leaders off guard. Companies large and small were left scrambling to communicate responsibly and effectively in real time. At the same time, the response by brands, especially large ones, to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic became staid and were widely criticized. Yet the ability to respond empathetically and effectively in such circumstances is becoming a challenging part of the new normal for companies of all sizes. So I wanted to share answers to real world questions that were recently posed to me during a webinar that spoke directly to this new expectation.
Question: “I want to support Black Lives Matter, but that isn’t an area that’s core to our business. And I don’t want it to appear inauthentic. What should my brand do?” – Michael.
Answer: Black Lives Matter is fundamental to every company, both internally in terms of diversity and inclusion, and externally, in that all companies of all sizes must take action to address this systemic issue. In that sense, it is core to business outright and something every brand must address. As such, here are several steps you must take to respond authentically, both with employees and consumers through your communications and marketing.
Listen to better understand the issue. Rather than rushing into an issue just to have a point of view, take the time to listen, educate yourself and understand what needs to happen to drive lasting change.
Conduct an internal audit. Truly examine to what degree your current mindset and practices are part of the problem. What is the level of diversity and inclusion among your Board and employees? What are your hiring criteria? How accountable and transparent are your promotion, incentive and bonus systems?
Partner with groups making a difference on the ground. Work with groups that deeply understand the issue and have experienced it personally as they are the ones best equipped to deliver systemic solutions.
Share where you stand. As an immediate response, declare your support for Black Lives Matter and announce that you are taking the time to examine your own company and to better understand the issue. Then, once you’ve developed an authentic response for which you will be accountable, share that message in your communications.
Hold Yourself Accountable. As racial inequality and social injustice are long term problems, conduct an internal audit every three months, to see what progress you are making. Outline the challenges. Examine the changes you’ve made. Share the meaningful and measurable differences you’re making with employees and customers. And continue to hold yourself accountable and partner with expert organizations to scale and accelerate your impact.
Question: “How do you continue to address a crisis, like coronavirus or the BLM protests, on social media platforms, but respectfully start integrating your core business back into the messaging?” – Jennifer.
Answer: The country is struggling to deal with the balance between protecting everyone’s health from COVID-19 and supporting the economy on which so many people’s livelihood depends. Despite the difficulty of this balance, it is appropriate to dovetail product and service messaging back into your communications while still supporting these pressing issues. Research shows that consumers are looking to hear about issues beyond COVID-19. It’s not that they care any less about the critical health issue or they’re insensitive to the economic hardship at hand, but rather they are also looking for joy and optimism. They’re looking to restart their lives.
A great example of a brand smoothly transitioning their messaging is Allbirds. While the shoe company consistently mentions COVID-19, they’re combining this with their core purpose. That is, helping consumers take responsibility for their impact on the planet and usher in a new era of sustainability. So they’re sharing information about helping customers track their carbon footprint as well as support for Black Lives Matter. They’ve also partnered with Adidas, an otherwise competitor, to create the most carbon neutral shoe on the planet earning a lot of earned media during a time of crisis. So be sure to make an authentic and lasting commitment to Black Lives Matter and communicate your progress periodically while you also support your business through product or service messaging.
Question: In times of crisis, it’s hard to have the resources and bandwidth to take on such complicated issues. Is it absolutely necessary to respond? – Greg.
Answer: The Black Lives Matter protests revealed how deeply felt and complex this issue is. People of all backgrounds took a stand in support of lasting change. Companies that sat on the fence, or that attempted an inauthentic response, were quickly challenged and exposed. Silence, quite rightly, was stigmatized as complicity.
As such, companies of all sizes must respond, whether they are used to addressing social issues or not. Black Lives Matter is top of mind for consumers. Investors want to support responsible and defensible brands. Employees want to work for companies that share their values. The media is holding companies and their leadership accountable.
So everyone from founders to corporate CEOs must invest the time and resources to authentically address these issues. It’s going to be uncomfortable. There are going to be capital investments to be made. You’re going to have to elevate and activate your commitment over the long term. If you’re still uncertain of the need to commit to action, ask yourself what is the cost of not responding. Both to the company and, most importantly, to the lives of people of color across the country.
Communicating effectively and responsibility in real time is a challenging and persistent requirement for companies of all sizes today. Crises where lives are literally at stake makes the need for and scrutiny around your response even higher. Despite these challenges, brands must rise to this challenge. They must lead with their purpose. They must set a higher standard for their industry. They must look beyond their self interest alone and embrace the critical role that business must play in putting a lasting end to racial inequality and social injustice.