Elaine Underwood
Aug 11, 2020

BLM: Brands don't need to be saviours, but can't be silent

Netflix and Yorkshire Tea earned praise for their reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement, but Starbucks came off as inauthentic, according to a report from TBWA's 65dB social-insight unit, which looked at how BLM brand activism landed around the world.

Emmanuel Anjembe, 65dB’s managing director
Emmanuel Anjembe, 65dB’s managing director

In the weeks following the tragic May 25 death of George Floyd, brands were quick to tell the world about their solidarity with Black Lives Matter (BLM), which was reignited. Google, Twitter, Nike, even General Mills’ Gushers, posted about their support of the movement.

But while many brands were talking about BLM, it didn’t mean they were making a great impact on the world at large. A new report, Listen Up! What Global Response to the Black Lives Matter Movement Tells Us About Brand Activism, from 65dB, TBWA Worldwide’s consumer strategy and social insight practice, found that only 1% of people’s online conversations about BLM also included references to brands and their social activism.

Yet, noted Emmanuel Anjembe, 65dB’s managing director, “To be silent in this world we are living in right now is actually not an option anymore.” Therein lies the paradox: People may not be talking that much about brands’ roles in BLM, yet in July, 90% of respondents outside of the US told Global Web Index they have a duty to support BLM.

Six weeks of social-listening, conducted by agency teams in the US, UK, France, Mexico and Japan, indicated that people expect brands to support social movements but that they should always remember their places, which is not leading the cause.

The report covered the period between May 15 (10 days before Floyd’s death, establishing a baseline) and June 30. In addition to tracking how people in each region reacted to the upsurge in US activism, it also tracked 16 major brands and how their responses provoked public sentiment.

A key insight is for brands to not play Superman. “People don’t expect brands to be saviors or even activists,” he said. “People are going to ask you, ‘What are you doing inside your own house? How many Black people do you have in your executive committee?’”

Netflix arose as one of the most positively discussed brands online for its response to BLM. The streaming network curated a collection of programming that was educational about racial issues, being both true to the brand and useful to viewers.

“People praised what Netflix did, they were thankful,” said Anjembe. “The brand activism wasn’t about Netflix being an activist, but helping the ones who wanted to do something, not being a hero but being an enabler.”

A brand that did not fare so well was Starbucks. Its seesawing responses caused people to question how genuine its BLM support actually was. The coffee chain donated $1 million to community nonprofits (good), then banned employees from wearing Black Lives Matter branded apparel at work (bad), then made amends by distributing BLM-supporting T-shirts to employees who wanted to wear them.

“This was one of the most talked-about conversations. There was a lot of heated debate,” said Anjembe.

Still another brand, Yorkshire Tea, built goodwill by telling an online commenter, who had praised the company for having no response to BLM, to stop buying its product. “We’re taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post,” concluded Yorkshire’s response. “We stand against racism.”

“That was honestly appreciated,” he said.

Anjembe noted that outside of the US, BLM activism reverberated slightly differently by market. For example, in the UK, conversation peaked June 2, spiking in tandem with Blackout Tuesday social media protests and news stories about security forces questioning media credentials during a US demonstration.

In France, people commented on what was happening in the US but also looked inward at instances of police violence against Blacks in their own country. In Japan, the conversation tilted toward discrimination toward ethnic minorities there, while in Mexico, a campaign by Panam athletic shoes garnered attention.

“They (Panam) put these racial slurs on the shoes that were very typical in Mexico and it got a great reaction,” said Anjembe. “Black Lives Matter was adapted to the local context.”

Anjembe and his team are talking through findings and conclusions to TBWA agencies, including TBWA Chiat Day in Los Angeles, which was briefed last week, to interpret for their respective clients. The analysis calls out a series of marketing myths, including ones that say brands should be quick to respond, loud with opinions, global and at the forefront of activism.

Campaign US

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