By Jenna Calandro
Digital Media Planner
In the early stages of COVID-19, consumers looked to brands for statements on how they planned to move forward with new safety guidelines and regulations to accommodate the pandemic. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, there was a more pronounced urgency for companies to display a firm stance against racial injustice. This overwhelming movement of consumers holding brands accountable for their past, present, and future of increasing diversity and eliminating exclusion can be attributed to the profound impact of social media engagement.
The Rapid Growth of Social Engagement During Quarantine
Since mid-March, when people were sent to work from home, take classes from home, furloughed or laid off—while restaurants, gyms, bars, shut its doors—what did everyone do? They watched TV. They spent more time on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. They (hopefully) read books. Listened to podcasts. According to a Statista analysis, 67% of people reported watching more news coverage since the pandemic began, and 44% spent longer on social media. I can’t help but think a debilitating quarantine fostered the media attention police brutality issues have long since deserved.
George Floyd’s case is unfortunately not unique in manner but has proved remarkably different as far as responses and repercussions go. The Black Lives Matter slogan was created some seven years ago, to call attention to the injustices of police actions towards people of color. Footage from Eric Gardner’s death in 2014, as one example, bears disturbing resemblance to George Floyd’s. He is held down by an officer’s full weight, knee pressed against his neck. While protests erupted after continuous police killings from before and within the past seven years BLM was founded, this phrase is a buzzword in 2020 more than ever before.
Social Media Gives Black Lives Matter a Platform
The Black Lives Matter movement has trickled into our workspaces and onto company websites. While the #BlackLivesMatter trend has hit peaks in the past, no other spikes have led to company statements or paintings/signs amongst neighborhoods and shopfronts. CNN quantifies this all-time high, reporting 8.8 million tweets mentioning #BlackLivesMatter following the days after George Floyd’s murder. The hashtag’s previous peak was 500,000 mentions in 2016, following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Even recent advertisements include efforts to call out their stance on the movement, or to consciously feature a more diverse cast than ever before. Some companies, Walmart for example, have already implemented reactive changes to their company processes. They’ve recently removed locks placed on products proved most likely to be used by customers of color. Cassi Pittman Claytor, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, explains this practice is yet another way corporate policies perpetuates bias. This policy is symbolic of the way people of color in America face constant additional burdens and are reminded everywhere that their needs and mere existence is “different”.
How Brands Can Make an Authentic Response
While changes in policy and efforts in advertisements are noticeable enough to be powerful, the trick is to make sure these efforts come off authentically. An article by Melissa Jacques emphasizes this point by calling on corporations to continue to highlight POC voices in their brand’s campaigns and social media from here on out, not just when it’s trending.
In The Drum’s analysis of a few large companies’ responses, it seems the majority have realized that to stay silent during a time like this could have detrimental effects on how consumers view their brand. It’s not an easy course to navigate, as many have been criticized for speaking out on this issue while having a lifetime of homogeneously white workspaces, racial insensitivity, and questionable decisions behind them. But overall, consumers and agents of social change want action and reflection, statements are just the essential first step. Belinda Smith, global diversity ambassador at the World Federation of Advertisers, says it best: “for all the messaging I’ve seen, some brands in ’solidarity’ have been spread through organic sharing... why are you all so afraid to put media budget behind those messages if you do, in fact, stand with us?”
This is important to let sink in. Social media engagement has undoubtedly created the need for companies at large to determine a new course of action. But how are they going to revamp their budgets to do so? How will brands continue their diversity initiatives when they don’t feel all their consumers’ eyeballs on them? How will the rest of us be continuously conscious of the way we buy, sell, work, and employ, when the protests die down and when social media sees less activity?
The world of quarantining and social distancing has reinforced something powerful—the megaphone we call social media. Our voices have been amplified, and I’m sure we would see far less companies standing in solidarity with this movement had the megaphone not been turned a few notches higher. The challenge will be companies continuing to carve out media budgets to fund diversity initiatives when no one is breathing down their necks. The challenge will be continuing to keep money and time allocated to ensure the commitments to join in the fight for racial justice are honored.
How Brands Can Internally Drive Diversity Efforts
To prove their initial statements, companies can analyze their current team, identify where gaps of minority representation exist, and seek to fill these positions with people they perhaps would have overlooked in the past. They can implement new initiatives and continue to audit them to make sure the efforts last. A perfect example of this is the beauty industry’s #PullUpOrShutUp campaign, which challenges brands to be transparent about how many Black people and POC they have employed, especially in corporate and leadership roles, and also to share their plans to increase diversity.
We live in a time when consumers are so apt to choose brands whose values align with theirs. A company who shows their true commitment when the media hype dies will be the one not only seeing consumer-retention but will truly pave the way for a more inclusive environment in the future.