A Year After George Floyd's Death, Brand DEI Commitments Are Due

Give your employees grace and space to grieve

Inspiration meets innovation at Brandweek, the ultimate marketing experience. Join industry luminaries, rising talent and strategic experts in Phoenix, Arizona this September 23–26 to assess challenges, develop solutions and create new pathways for growth. Register early to save.

On May 25, 2020, we watched George Floyd murdered before our eyes. His death, of course, evoked the painful recollection of far too many others: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all those before and since. But the moment that video rocketed around the world, our year of “racial reckoning” began. Communities mourned. Protestors marched. And brands promised to be part of the solution. 

Fifty-two weeks later, those promises have come due. 

For most, this won’t go well. Brands will say too much and do too little; or they’ll take unilateral steps without stopping to listen. A small minority, however, will get it right, putting community voices at the forefront and leveraging their unique platforms to drive real change.  

The moment is complex. But the path for brands is surprisingly straightforward. Here’s how. 

Listen to, but don’t overburden, your employees of color 

It’s essential that you listen when employees and leaders of color speak––and that you actively notice the biases or barriers that might pop up when they do. But this influencer should be a boon to their professional arc, not a burden. 

Over the last year, a lot of work has fallen to employees of color. This manifests in many ways: employee resources groups given wide new swaths of responsibility on top of their existing ones; heads turning to the one or two Black/Latinx/LGBTQ/AAPI staff members to unilaterally speak on behalf of entire groups. The outcome is additional daily burden falling to communities that have already faced a harder climb.

The next time you see this happening, think for a moment about how the situation would change if the workstream were different. You would never ask a single white employee whether your marketing strategy will resonate with white people. Don’t do it to your staff of color. Invest in understanding these perspectives just like you would in any other community. In some cases, this will mean creating new roles, elevating existing voices to positions of leadership, or engaging new tools and partners that parallel your investment on other constituents. Diversifying your staff and leadership team is critical. Just make sure that as and once you do, those folks are equipped with the same tools as everyone else. 

Respect and make room for trauma and pain 

The coming days will be difficult for Black people. Don’t make it worse with a post that intends empathy but inadvertently rehashes the trauma of this time last year, and the many painful days in between. If you plan to engage in some way, find some beauty of courage or leadership that needs uplifting and hold it high. Provide visibility and financial support to organizations and individuals working for change every day of the year, anniversary or otherwise. In some cases, the most powerful thing you can do is to pass the mic—to lend your platform to others to speak in the tenor or their own voice. 

If you choose to speak in yours, make sure it’s to communicate concrete commitments and actions that are tangible, measurable and long-term. This will feel most organic and sustainable if you start with your core business, then trace a line to a major justice issue that desperately needs fixing. Sephora, for example, lacks expertise in policing and criminal justice, but they know about shopping––specifically, the very different experience people of color have when they set foot in a store. So they’ve set out to drive change on racial bias in retail specifically––to try and root out the smaller injustices that add up to the tragic ones. Procter & Gamble is not a foundation, but happens to be among the world’s biggest advertisers, so one of their new racial justice campaigns focuses on driving change in the advertising industry. Think about your locus of control. This is where you begin. 

Give employees space and grace

Your employees need to know that they have space and freedom to process this specific anniversary as they see fit. And if your immediate reaction upon reading this is that this will be difficult for managers or leadership to do, then you likely have a considerable additional amount of internal work to do. The well-being of your employees of color depends on your ability to communicate in these difficult moments as much as on your specific policies and programs. Whether you’re facing inside or out, be as tender in this moment as you are tenacious in your determination to be a force for change.

With everything uncharted about the waters ahead, one thing we know for sure: The old playbook can’t meet this moment. Brands must now decide whether they’ll lead from a place of courage, or wait until they have no choice. Here’s to a crucible summer.