Did you do that on purpose?

Heavyweight brands including Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and L’Oreal have tried to flair their woke credentials when actions would have spoken louder than words

Brands that try and attach themselves and their values onto contentious issues such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement are teetering on a well-trodden and highly perilous path.

It was back in 2017 in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that black model Munroe Bergdorf took her stand, calling out white privilege, racial violence and institutional racism. Just a week earlier she’d been signed as a new face of cosmetics powerhouse L’Oréal Paris, the first transgender model to be offered such a role.

Within days, the brand cauterized its relationship with Bergdorf, claiming that her comments were “…at odds with the brand’s values of diversity and tolerance towards all people irrespective of their race, background, gender and religion.”

This week, following the death of the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, L’Oréal shared a post on its Instagram in which it worthily stated:-

“Speaking out is worth it — L’Oréal Paris stands in solidarity with the Black community, and against injustice of any kind”.

Bergdorf was suitably pissed that her former employer would try and get away with such flagrant hypocrisy and double standards and as such, she called them out. Her feelings can be neatly summarised in this exert from her Tweet:-

“F*** YOU @lorealparis”

Before closing with the succinct, and accurate summation:-

“You do NOT get to do this. This is NOT okay, not even in the slightest,”

L’Oréal isn’t alone in backing the #BlackLivesMatter movement off the back of recent civil unrest in the United States. Social Media is abuzz with bold, concise and purpose-laden snippets of worldly wisdom, and on Tuesday 2nd June many brands joined the millions of pop stars, celebrities and individuals in showing their support for #BlackoutTuesday with black squares (or, in some cases, branded variations on the theme).

On such a tonally tricky issue, these brands would have spent plenty of time and Dollars working out the most effective/ sensitive/ meaningful and safe angle to shoehorn in their support on the trending social issue du jour.

Spewing urgently from the keyboards of ad agencies and PR departments worldwide, the cause-related branded content would’ve been floated upwards, past Marketing Directors, sideways through Legal Counsels, bounced into Corporate Governance and then placed gently under the nose of CEOs for sign off before filtering back in mildly edited form to the eager mitts of PR and social media lackeys who hash tagged them to the hilt before pushing the button. Latching a brand onto a cause in this way is akin to the barnacles and whale lice that attach themselves to humpback and grey whales, stealing a free ride and residual food as their unaware hosts float across the ocean.

Adidas and Nike, two Megabrands with more clout than most media organisations, have collaborated to back the cause and show their disdain for racism with adidas retweeting Nikes ‘For once, don’t do it’ message. As you’d expect from Nike, the digital ad is powerful, moving and slick in equal measure — asking its hundreds of millions of fans and followers:-

“Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us.”

Despite some historical form with the exploitation of workers in China and Indonesia, Nike has emphatically tried to enhance its woke credentials in recent years. For the 30th anniversary of the ‘Just Do It’ campaign in 2018, the sportswear giant worked with black former Quarterback Colin Kaepernick who had become infamous for protesting police brutality against African Americans by ‘taking a knee’ during the National Anthem at a game back in 2016.

This stand against institutional racism won him as many detractors as fans, but Nike stuck by their man and earned a huge brand boost (and no little respect) on the way. Reports on its 50-year history of abhorrent working conditions in the developing world fell largely silent.

So ‘woke washing’ is not a new nor necessarily ineffective phenomenon but appears to have become more prevalent and militarised in the age of social media.

In 2015, Starbucks demonstrated its tone-deaf credentials with aplomb when it asked its baristas to write ‘Race Together’ on cups to encourage debate about racial oppression following the police shootings of two unarmed black men and the ensuing civil unrest. For the whitest of white brands, it was a gross miscalculation and they were made to pay for their error in judgement by an angry public in the ensuing fallout.

Pepsi famously nuked its reputation, almost irrevocably, in 2017 when it tried tom piggyback onto #BlackLivesMatter, implausibly employing model Kendall Jenner to diffuse a race riot with nothing more than a can of Pepsi.

Last year, Gillette leapt onto the then trending #MeToo movement in a bid to awaken its apparent credentials in the fight against toxic masculinity. They changed their hallowed strapline to ‘The Best Men Can Be’ as the suffix to a truly dreadful piece of advertising that men around the world (the lead razor buying demographic) read, correctly, as a pithy example of nonsensical, headline-grabbing opportunism.

It goes without saying that the current situation in the USA is deeply disturbing, the killing that ignited the furore was tragic and avoidable and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is essential, even if fixing the issue it’s been designed to highlight is long, long overdue.

For brands, the line between showing support for a vital cause and coming across as opportunistic chancers is too thin to feasibly follow without, at some point, falling off. Whilst raising awareness of the anti-racism cause by individuals, posting black squares across social media in their millions, is laudable and effective, the limpet-like efforts of brands to gain kudos in the same way rings hollow — and loudly.

Brands are entities, not beings. Their positioning, personality and tone is decided by committee and acts the face of organisations, often with thousands of employees and millions of moving parts. They’re incapable of sentient thought or human emotion, thus any attempt at conveying real beliefs will ultimately be hollow.

Without a significant historical positioning on the topic in question, brands that raise their benevolent flags in an opportunistic response to circumstance inevitably look like bandwagon jumpers — no matter how slick the execution and moving the copy.

Purpose is something that is earned, not purchased.

Hoped for, but not expected.

Awarded, not demanded.

The people behind the world’s most powerful brands should just ask themselves whether they should have deployed their significant marketing power to latch onto a such a powerful cause in the name of brand enhancement, poorly hidden behind the veil of social purpose.

And the answer is no.

Because right now, black lives matter — and brands don’t.

Harry Lang the is the founder of Brand Architects

I'm a UK based Marketing Director specialising in brand, customer acquisition, PR and copy. I write regular features for Marketing Week and Campaign.

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