If You Want Your Brand to Be a Friend, You Can’t Walk Away From a Conversation About Race

Recognize there's a responsibility to have a voice

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'Don’t stay quiet because you’re afraid to say something, stay quiet because you don’t have anything to say.' Illustration: Amira Lin; Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Beth Egan

Over the past month, people in this country have finally been having the “hard conversation.” It is a hopeful sign that this is a movement for all, not just for Black, brown and other under represented communities. The reality is that now, more than ever, brands have to a part of the conversation. This is because the movement is being driven by youth culture, social media is their means of communications and brands have injected themselves into social media. And lacking leadership from our government, people are looking to companies to fill that gap.

As with many movements, young people are at the crux of this revolution. The difference today is that our youth grew up having a personal relationship with brands. We as marketers taught them to expect that. Millennials and Gen Zers overwhelmingly want brands to stand for something. According to Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer, 64% of customers are defined as belief-driven buyers, up 13% year over year. Belief-driven buyers are defined as those who believe brands can be a powerful force for change, expect them to represent them, solve societal problems and say that their wallet is their vote. A brand’s desire to create more than a transactional relationship with its customers now requires them to demonstrate their commitment to those relationships and speak up.

Brands are being looked at even more now simply because people are looking for leadership.

Brands have a responsibility to have a voice because they insisted that we become friends. Social media is the medium that drives most of the dialogue in these relationships. Brands have reached out. They want to celebrate our milestones with us. Brands have spent a lot of money and considerable resources creating a dialogue, and they can’t walk away now because the conversation is hard.

Brands are being looked at even more now simply because people are looking for leadership. People are looking for comfort that everything will be OK. The institutions we normally look to for leadership have at best been silent—at worst, hostile. People are increasingly looking at business to step in and fill the gap. And it is those brands that have been a part of the conversation for a while that are best at it. That is why Nike was first out of the gate and why the NFL got the side-eye.

But let’s face it; it’s a land mine out there. Brands were still in the midst of tackling how to message in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, which was already placing an undue burden on the Black community. Now, they have to figure out how to talk about racial injustice, police brutality and inequality. But Lewis Williams, evp and CCO of Burrell Communications, doesn’t think there is a place for anyone to be silent. His advice: “Don’t stay quiet because you’re afraid to say something, stay quiet because you don’t have anything to say.”

The reality is every brand has something to say. It is as simple as following your consumers, understanding who they are and then doing something for those consumers or for their community. Will brands stumble? Of course, they will. But if you make a mistake, admit your mistake, do it quickly and then correct it. People will be forgiving. Granted you may take some heat on social media for a while, but as Williams points out, “If you stumble or fall on your face and you don’t come back, then you really weren’t in the game for real anyway.“

We’ve been saying these are challenging times for some months now. It will get harder before it gets easier, and we will all make mistakes. But we really are all in this together.


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@MadAdProf Beth Egan is an associate professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and is a member of our Adweek Academic Council.
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