The mainstreaming of the Black Lives Matter movement was one of the defining events of 2020. Having mobilized citizens all over the world, it sparked a tide of social activism not seen for decades. Now, a little over a year later, many Americans are at a point of reflection.
How much has changed when it comes to our perceptions of racial inequality in this country? Beyond sentiment, has anything changed when it comes to our commitments to action?
These questions hold weight not only for consumers at an individual level but for the institutions, marketers and the larger corporate powers around us that, perhaps for the first time, had to reckon with true accountability on issues of racial justice.
Public sentiment has changed—for some more than others
When it comes to individuals, the BLM movement has significantly increased people’s awareness of racial injustice; in a recent survey, 6 in 10 Americans said racism is a “very” or “extremely” serious problem in the U.S., and 56% said police are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person vs. a white person.
More than just awareness, the movement has encouraged people to take an active stance against anti-Black racism. Research conducted in May revealed that for 30% of American consumers, the BLM movement had made tackling anti-Black racism a more important issue; for certain groups, this was even higher, including millennials (45%), parents with kids under 12 (44%) and frequent news readers (36%).
Americans’ personal sentiment is one thing, but what about their view toward corporate activism?
Brand activism shows some follow-through
A year ago, we saw that Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of companies making significant, resource-intensive commitments in pursuit of a more equitable culture. Reviewing hiring policies, ensuring diversity in leadership and supporting diverse suppliers all came up as the top actions. Showing support via social media, in contrast, was nowhere near as important.
Many companies were coming under fire during the height of the BLM movement for posting black squares and hashtags on social media and then calling it a day. The PR frenzy toward corporate wokeness even introduced a whole new term into our lexicon: “performative allyship.”
A year later, the pendulum seems to be swinging toward true accountability for many high-visibility, influential brands.
UPS, Johnson & Johnson and Bank of America are just a few household names among many that have made substantial, long-term financial and cultural commitments toward reducing racial disparities. Additionally, resources like the Black Dollar Index have made it easier than ever for people to hold companies accountable on the diversity and inclusion front using their buying power.
Positive initiatives like these point to true brand follow-through, but dig a bit further into the issue and you’ll find some muddy waters.
For example, a MarketWatch article from earlier this year revealed the complexities of true accountability when it reported on five of the nation’s biggest banks asking shareholders “to reject racial-equity resolutions after they expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement last year.”
People who have always had stronger, more committed activist tendencies will dig beyond the jazzy headlines to understand true corporate accountability.
Inconsistencies like this add context to some of the differences we see in consumer views, and marketers would be wise to listen, take note and act in ways that support their stakeholders’ beliefs.
Across all consumers, about one-third think brands have followed through “a little” on their pledges of activism, while one-fifth think they’ve followed through “a lot.” Another sizable one-fifth of consumers say they aren’t sure; accountability is, evidently, not always easy to spot.
But there’s an interesting disparity in these findings, and it emerges when comparing perceived brand follow-through among people who say the BLM movement made tackling racism more important to them versus those who said that tackling racism had always been important to them.
Those who’ve been recently inspired to tackle racism have a more favorable view of the corporate response; 36% say that brands have followed through “a lot.” Comparatively, only 17% of their long-term activist counterparts feel this way.
These findings have both positive and negative implications for marketers and brands. In a positive sense, it’s likely that public brand activism may be a factor in raising awareness and inspiration for consumers who had not been as committed to tackling anti-Black racism before, giving brands the opportunity to be agents of change.
In a different sense, it also suggests companies need to be sincere and transparent in their efforts because people who have always had stronger, more committed activist tendencies will dig beyond the jazzy headlines to understand true corporate accountability. And what’s more, the side of deeper, dedicated activism will only grow over time, especially as younger consumers rise to prominence and propel the movement.
Toward a more inclusive culture, BLM and beyond
These themes will be crucial for brands to thrive in the future, far beyond the Black Lives Matter movement. Research indicates that Americans’ demands for brands to be “inclusive” and “respectful” are on the rise—as is their desire for brands to support diversity and inequality in the workplace, and their overall interest in social justice issues. Among younger people, these views are even stronger.
The winds of change are blowing toward a more diverse, inclusive and equitable culture and society. Undoubtedly, the Black Lives Matter movement is a huge catalyst for this change, but it can’t be the only thing working to push both people and institutions forward.
And it doesn’t have to be. Public sentiment and corporate actions are moving in a more progressive direction, and it’s important that we keep that momentum going. As consumers, we have both our voices and our wallets to enable us to do so.