When ‘black lives matter’ is seen as a branding opportunity

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Over the last few days, many enterprises and brands have put out branded communication in support of what has come to the known as the ‘Black lives matter’ campaign – with the recent riots in the US being the context. Essentially, such ads or corporate messages call for an end to racism. ‘Being silent is not an option’ and variants thereof are the most common expressions or reason-why brands are taking a stand or at least appearing to do so. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’ is the oft-quoted ‘reason’ or the supposed motivation behind brands and celebrities (who are brands in their own right) putting out social media messages in support of the movement.

Marketers, ad agency professionals and the members of PR community have given their views on brands associating themselves with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Most agree that mere tokenism or paying lip service in expressing solidarity will not do much good in terms of improving brand equity. ‘Generic statements are a distraction’ and ‘talk is cheap‘ said PR leaders in the UK. Professor Mark Ritson asked in his inimitable style ‘If ‘Black Lives Matter’ to brands, where are your black board members?

Reason behind the compulsion: FOMO

Over the past few years, many influential consultants, research papers and publications have weighed in on the idea that young consumers have a preference for brands which take a stand on social issues. And who doesn’t have that demographic, especially the millennials, as a key target group? Even in countries and categories where a large portion of the actual buyers are an older demographic (e.g. cars in the US) the advertising almost always portrays a younger audience. Marketers perhaps believe that portraying younger people in advertising imbues their brand with a cool quotient. Of course, examples to the contrary also abound – a relatively new campaign for Pepsi in India features a Hindi film super star who is currently 54. In markets like there could be many categories where a younger audience (including college students) may form a bulk of the audience thanks to the easy price points for entry (e.g. pre-paid telecom, food delivery).

Even in the case of ‘Black Lives Matter’, a recent consumer survey by PR Week in UK revealed that about half the public thinks brands should not speak out on the protests, but a similar percentage thinks it is right for them to comment on COVID-19. However those who think brands should speak on the matter are the younger audience.

Breaking the responses down by age group, however, shows that nearly 60 per cent of those aged 18-34 said brands should speak out on the issue – and nearly half of 35-44 year olds agreed with them.


I am sure the younger demographic will voice similar opinions in other countries too. So when research after research points to such, it will be very difficult for product managers to ‘stay out of the conversation’ – if such social media posts can be called that. One can see that trend in brands compulsively commenting on every major news event or occasion – be it the COVID-19 pandemic, Independence Day or the SpaceX’s mission. Fact is, such communication, or moment marketing as it is known, rarely breaks the clutter of social media timelines or 24×7 news cycles. More importantly, the ROI on such efforts is unclear in my view. A part of the reason is that there is highly engaging user-generated content on current events from the general public and celebrities often armed just with a smartphone. Danish Sait, a comedian from Bangalore, India creates a lot of buzz on social media for his humorous video posts on current events – created in lightning speed. Yet, brands feel compelled to participate as they might either worry that their competition will steal a march on them if they remained silent or genuinely believe that their customers will question their lack of taking a stand.

Tokenism in the age of social media

Want to take a stand on the need to save the environment? Or make a meaningful contribution to raising awareness on tiger conservation? It’s simple – all you have to do is ‘like’ a Facebook post, forward a message received on WhatsApp or change your Display Picture on Instagram. Even with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ many users simply posted a black image on Instagram as their expression of solidarity with the issue. Beyond making the user feel good momentarily that they too have made a contribution and such activities getting a mention in media (who have the need fill column space, get eye balls and online ads) they don’t really solve the fundamental problem. Everyone knows that but we carry on, cause after cause as the nature of social media makes it easy for us.

I am not mocking the sentiment of the ordinary consumers with a social media account. To them, it is a platform for creating awareness and hence compelling a brand change its logo to black or putting out a tweet on PRIDE is a small victory. But the deeper malaise which needs to be rectified is beyond social media. Some pundits have pointed out enterprises have no right to comment on inequality or the need for diversity if they do not practice it themselves at the Board or Leadership level. I agree with this sentiment partially. The reason is that executive leadership changes in order to maintain diversity (of gender or any other parameter) is not going to happen overnight. Enterprises should have invested in hiring and training from that angle at every level decades ago. Here is a screenshot from an article from Business Insider on the issue:

Back from my advertising agency days in the 90s, I have noticed a high representation of women in the erstwhile ‘media department’ of ad agencies which then morphed into specialist media agencies. Today, in India, a lot of the leaders in such media specialist agencies are women. So if the industry consciously invests in having a diverse talent (based on merit of course), change is possible. But it doesn’t happen overnight either in advertising or other industries.

Scepticism and backlash: to be expected

Trolling and backlash in social media is to be expected when enterprises take a stand on social issues. Bigger the brand, more the attention. Check out some of the reactions to such posts:

So taking a stand is fraught with risk, possibility of media attention due to the backlash and even loss of business. Do all brands have a stomach for such eventualities?

Celebrity brands: hypocrisy personified

Another aspect of ‘brand’ activity pertains to celebrities. In the Mark Ritson article mentioned above, there is a reference to an incident involving a brand and a celebrity.

Source: Marketing Week

Such a stand from a celebrity is a rarity. Most of them, especially those in the Indian film industry feel the need to create a ‘campaign’ associating them with such issues which hardly concern them. They could be driven by the need to stay in the news, appeal to the younger demographic who could be enamoured by such a stance. But what is glaring is the inherent hypocrisy. Many of such celebrities have happily endorsed fairness creams (a big industry in India) and are part of the industry where gender bias, objectification of women, inequality of many kind (wages, for one), discrimination, stereotypical and biased portrayal of certain communities are all common. In fact, industry insiders have also called out the double standards. Visibility for such campaigns only serves to increase scepticism towards cause-based campaigns (some of which maybe genuine) and does more harm than good, in my view.

In this context, another interesting view is that ‘it might be a marketing ploy, but it also shows leadership‘. The author argues:

It’s easy to dismiss these statements as low-cost tokenism or politically correct wokism. It may be there’s a hard-headed business decision behind each message, weighing the costs and benefits to the bottom line.


In my view, the reality is that we will continue to see more of such instances – of brands being compelled to stake a stand on social or political issues and convey higher brand purpose. What ultimately matters is action more than talk – only a handful of brands will be able to claim genuine action in that context. Actions, not just ads as some brands and agencies believe.

Do share your views.

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  1. Ambika Bhandari Reply

    Amul ads are also focused on current issues. I think that’s why it’s still relevant to date. What are your views on it?

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