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As the world divides, brands can show us the way with unity

As a nation, we’ve become used to living with separation, four years of Brexit has been the perfect training ground.

But it’s taken this lockdown to really bring home the scale of division we are truly living with (14 million and rising living in poverty, COVID setting women’s equality efforts back by years, and significant health inequalities for BAME people). The truth is we are a million miles from ‘all in it together’.

The (sadly) new realisation that implicit racism is everywhere is a tough pill to swallow. Partly because being hard to see makes it challenging to fix. Partly because we now see that it’s been in plain sight all along, and we all are complicit in keeping it alive. It’s deeply confronting and challenging for everyone. Consequently, we are an emotionally and spiritually Broken Britain. Honestly, as a mixed race, working class woman, the picture looks bleak. We’ve lost faith in our government to bring us equality. Our institutions are struggling; we hear the quiet admissions that our schools, universities, health service, the arts, museums and the police force all need some kind of reform. We’re certainly bringing new meaning to the Cool Britannia brand, with so many Britons literally being left out in the cold.

Brand and marketing workplaces are no exception. Our cultures and structures have, most likely unintentionally, divided us and enabled inequality. As much as we’re trying to conduct ‘business as usual’ our people are carrying the heavy weight of shaken foundations. The idea that brands are somehow protected from, or separate to this, is a fallacy. People build brands, and it is their choices that uphold or challenge structural racism, so they need to be subject to the same critical eye. And, more than that, brands are an integral part of our shared culture. They contribute to it and benefit from it. I for one want to know what Dove thinks about race protests, if Pimms feels awkward about what being quintessentially British now means, or why Nike isn’t doing more to stamp out overt racism in British football.

In the absence of inspiring leadership, I find myself looking for comfort and a tiny number of brands are an unlikely source of reassurance. We’ve already seen some brands bring hope at a time of lockdown despair, but on the tricky question of race, few are really stepping up to the plate. Those that are feel like a beacon of hope. It is genuinely meaningful to see brands and the businesses behind them championing my values, standing up for what matters most and critically connecting to me on a human level, as a fellow citizen of our society.


Conflicted brands

I’m not talking about the shame based back-tracking actions such as whitening products being hastily pulled from shelves, or racist imagery being taken off of iconic global brands. This erasing feels like a last ditch attempt to cling onto an outdated belief that brands can be ‘neutral’. We’ve seen it before, and we see through it. Remember Starbucks closing all of its stores for a 4 hours of unconscious bias training?

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A 'fairness' serum and cleanser from Johnson & Johnson


The ability to take such drastic action so quickly speaks volumes about the power of white privilege.

Nor am I talking about the brands engaging in ‘performance anti-racism’. Well-meaning black squares, signed industry letters issued at the same time as examples of racist behaviour happening on the inside of those businesses. Good intentions have kept us in the performance space for decades. They allow us to side-step difficult conversations, to not do the work of looking deeply at ourselves and allow us to avoid putting meaningful budgets and energy behind real change.

Instead I’m talking about the minority that have stepped forward to play an active role in creating a better future. They have looked at their values and core purpose and asked themselves, are we really showing up to them? They have stepped into uncomfortable conversation to ask themselves, and to invite us to join them, to become better humans. They stand for unity, representing the 99.9% of our DNA that we share. They recognise the importance of holding and championing a vision for a better kind of society. They don’t have all the answers, but they believe all of us have a role to play in finding them.

I’m calling these brands behaviour brands. And we need more of them.


Behaviour brands take meaningful activist action

They put their money where their mouth is. They take action that feels risky, that potentially costs, but is absolutely necessary when one behaves from a place of principle. Good examples are Patagonia and Northface no longer advertising on facebook in protest of its promotion of hate speech. Agencies like Wieden + Kennedy unequivocally requesting employees, partners and clients share their anti-racist values to work with them. This is what activist action looks like.

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They see everyone as a leader

In an age where brands and the businesses behind them are inextricably connected, it’s those that see everyone as having the potential to effect change and be part of the solution that stand out. Whether it’s the social media team at Yorkshire Tea or CEOs taking on racism commentary on their social feed, these businesses encourage each one of us to take personal responsibility to speak up and stand firm in our values. The skills to do this confidently may not be available to everyone, but businesses serious about their anti-racist stance need to nurture them if they want to be part of rebuilding our divided society.

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They have uncomfortable conversations

Talking about racism is one of the hardest things to do. But talk about it we must, because fixing this problem needs us to come together. Some businesses are not only getting into the messy challenge of difficult talk but are also being vulnerable about where they’re getting it wrong. This feels so important to acknowledge. I’ve been particularly impressed by the humility shown by 23&Me and Octopus Energy (right) who transparent about their efforts to become better equality role models.

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There’s a long way to go. Businesses need to start getting their houses in order so that their brands can also have a voice at this important time. More than ever, our society needs thought leadership, active repair of damaged culture and inspiring vision of hope for a brighter future. I believe there is a place for brands at the table of change, opportunity to use their influence and privilege for good and to play an active role in creating new solutions together with their communities. But they can only do that when then there is genuine integrity in how the businesses behind them are responding too.


This article came from issue 7 of Marketing Society publication Empower. Read the archive here.