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Stand, But Deliver: Brands and Solidarity

Almost all of the world’s largest brands have declared in one momentous voice, “Justice for Black lives.” The marketing departments that have supported and produced these public sentiments are brimming with pride for standing in solidarity with people of color.

It makes one wonder how long it will take for their voices to fade and their feet to tire, which is a cynical take on a noble (albeit overdue) endeavor; but we remember two short months ago when Americans were all #alonetogether, and the pandemic has far outlasted the sentiment it inspired.

Illustration of a businessman bowing, making a Black Power fist but crossing his fingers behind his back.

In its most vulgar form, marketing is a primary facilitator of the middle step — monetization — between the purity of inception and disillusion of saturation. Or in the words of Eric Hoffer, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” And there are worrying trends that the furtherance of diversity has become a marketable value to promote rather than an institutional goal to pursue.

Approximately 60% of Fortune 500 firms have diversity officers and diversity departments. In 2003 MIT professor Thomas Kochan noted that companies were spending $8 billion a year on diversity and inclusion efforts. The current spending is at least triple that, having grown 63% from 2017 to 2019 alone. Yet the efforts have led to a lower amount of diversity in C-Suites. Consider that Black Americans are approximately 13.4% of the US population, yet only four of the Fortune 500 CEOs are Black — less than 1%. “Additionally, from 1985 to 2016, the proportion of black men in management at U.S. companies with 100 or more employees barely budged — from 3% to 3.2%,” as Pamela Newkirk observes.

Despite billions of dollars allocated for diversity initiatives, the racial disparities in the boardroom echo the racial disparities in society. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in the prologue to his book Stamped from the Beginning, “If Black people make up 13.2% of the US population, then Black people should make up somewhere close to 13% of the Americans sitting in prisons, somewhere close to owning 13% of US wealth. But today . . . African Americans own 2.7% of the wealth, and make up 40% of the incarcerated population.”

In many corners of marketing, data has superseded subjective analysis; so, in applying that standard to the matter at hand, while the industry may feel it is a champion of inclusion, the data proves otherwise. The marketing industry’s hiring and employee-retainment efforts echo corporate America’s. Marketers too often conceive of themselves as shapers of social and market forces rather than subordinates to them, which makes them even less able to see, let alone address, shortcomings that contradict their values and self-perceptions. Marketing celebrates diversity in the advertising it creates, but when it comes to championing it within its ranks, it has failed. And this failure has helped lead us to a moment when a moral clarion call for justice is met with suspicion or even scorn from those with whom marketers claim to stand.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, which supercharged the emergent Black Lives Matter movement, both Ben & Jerry’s and Amazon have publicly stated, “Black Lives Matter.” The former has released a thorough list of proposals and actions outlining how they and their customers can assist the movement (support for H.R.40, for the creation of a healing and reconciliation commision, for the safeguarding of voting rights, etc.) as well as educational materials and resources for people to use in combating racial injustice. Meanwhile Amazon has responded with a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2040; implemented a moratorium on Rekognition, its facial recognition software used by many police departments; announced a $10 million dollar donation to justice and equity organizations; and implemented safer working conditions to better protect employees from COVID-19 infection, a disease that has disproportionately hurt communities of color.

Both responses are positive. However, Amazon’s response was in reaction to criticism of its business practices and scrutiny of its affiliations. Ben & Jerry’s response was in reaction to the murder itself. It was aligned with the company’s notoriously liberal values, and, most importantly, it wasn’t an announcement of a new commitment but an affirmation of an existing one; as Ben & Jerry’s announced its support for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016, when support for the movement was still underwater. Also of note, look at Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors vs Amazon’s Officers and Directors. If representation at the highest echelons of power helps drive change — for personnel is often policy — which group of people is more likely to have an understanding of and a commitment to marginalized individuals and communities?

Marketers need to internalize the idea that being sympathetic to a cause is not the same as standing with it. One you can do from the sidelines, the other you cannot. If social change is part of your messaging, it must be tied to your purpose. The two are now inseparable. Because anyone with an internet connection has the ability to quickly scour the internet for damning examples of the kinds of corporate hypocrisy that turns content customers into passive cynics and passive cynics into virulent critics, brands and their marketing stewards need empirical evidence to demonstrate they are living the values they espouse.

The billions poured into conferences and white papers and diversity officers and implicit-bias training and other initiatives may have been intended to rectify a lack of racial diversity in the workplace, but we need to acknowledge that the effects of these efforts have been to paper over problems rather than ameliorate them. Corporate leaders and other people in positions of power have gotten very good at elite signaling: using the right terminology and issuing the correct public decrees. We have the language to describe the problem, the vision to see a more equitable future, and the tools to measure the results of our efforts. Now it’s time for all Americans, white people specifically, to implement the single most important solution that can create substantive change — one that is counter to evolutionary instincts but imperative to the social contract: we must draw from our power the strength to weaken our power, so that others may share in wielding it. That means more Black voices of authority in every meeting and in every boardroom in America. How many more voices? It’s an imperfect measurement, but 13.4% would be a good start. Until that metric is reached, the skepticism brands face when they issue statements of solidarity with people of color will continue, and rightly so.

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