Which Brands Will Have an Impact on the Issue of Race in America?

A recent Adweek survey sheds light on brand sentiment

Nike ad still
A still from Nike's "Don't Do It" ad about racism in America. Nike

Key insights:

In this heated moment in America, with a pandemic (Covid-19) and an epidemic (systemic racism) running parallel, brands appear to be evolving into the new institutions.

While trusting a brand over elected officials could be a troubling development, the fact that profit-driven companies are putting substantial money into justice and racial issues shows that government may only go so far.

Adweek recently conducted a survey to determine industry sentiment about which brands will have a positive effect on racism—or a negative one. The idea of brand purpose is ever-evolving, and it’s not lost that some companies may see the past few months as an opportunity to curry favor.

According to Elisha Greenwell, co-managing director of the consultancy Brand Citizens, corporations are in a unique position, and consumers are paying attention.

“Brands play an important purpose in this world because of their resources and influence,” said Greenwell, who joined Brand Citizens in March and was a former strategy director at 72andSunny. “And that purpose should sit at the core of everything they do. You don’t have to choose between profit and passion, or profit and people.”

Greenwell pointed out that, as it relates to the Black community, brands that have put diversity, inclusion, equality and equity are the forefront will continue to emerge as positive forces, such as Sephora’s inclusion of more Black-owned brands.

“It’s hard to jump into a topic like [race] and start doing well instantly, because doing well in this space is about action. And action takes a long time to have an effect,” Greenwell said. “[A brand] can donate a ton of money, but you won’t see that thing that the money can do tomorrow.”

Greenwell hopes that a collection of brands that rely on temporary workers—such as DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber and Postmates—will emerge as “being there for the Black community.”

“As a community, we know that it’s very much about economics and opportunity,” she said. “And it feels like those brands have an extraordinary opportunity to fuel economic empowerment in a real way.”

Below are some observations gleaned from Adweek’s survey, sent to industry professionals and students. Among the 25 responses, some clear patterns emerged.

Brands at the vanguard

Eight respondents felt that Nike would continue to have the most positive impact on the issue of racism in America. Six chose Ben & Jerry’s, and there were single callouts of GoFundMe, Etsy, Intel, the NBA and The Bail Project.

Nike was cited for its ongoing support of Colin Kaepernick and Black athletes. According to Edwin Castro, a freelance UI/UX designer, “many will see Nike taking this issue very seriously and having the foresight to do something about it and bring awareness.”

For his part, Across the Pond: Marketing Transformed podcast host and consultant Samuel Monnie said that Ben & Jerry’s “is a brand that has purpose and social activism in its DNA. They have always been founded on mutual gain for employees, suppliers and the communities they serve. Both of the white founders have openly acknowledged their privilege and have declared their ambition to “dismantle white supremacy.”

Rachel Luo, a student at Barnard College, noted that her choice of The Bail Project was in part because “I’m not sure that corporate brands have the collective imagination/the flexibility to do anything that will truly have a positive impact. Or maybe I’m just pessimistic right now.”

The brands with work to do

Overwhelmingly, survey respondents called out brands that one might expect, such as Donald Trump (and, by extension, the presidency), Fox News and media in general, the NRA, NYPD and, according to freelancer Jasmine Romaine, “brands that choose to ignore the issue of racism.”

Five people chose the National Football League as a brand set to take a hit. A freelance art director who preferred not to be named said, “This brand needs a complete overhaul, and it starts from the top down. They are right: They got it wrong. Now let’s see what kind of real action they can produce.”

Facebook also landed on the list of brands that people believe will have a negative impact, with a media company executive saying that the social network “has continued to support right-wing hate brands and companies.”

Some replied that it was too early to tell. Yet, Carl Pierre-Paul, MediaCom’s paid search manager, said that while no specific brand came to mind, “consumers are becoming acutely aware of canned responses or superficial messages made to placate. Broad messages that sidestep the true problem (systemic racism) under the guise of togetherness and words without action beyond this period of peak awareness will tarnish brands.”

@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.