On May 25, 2020, U.S. citizen George Floyd was carelessly killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Murdered by a police officer in broad daylight with a sworn duty to ‘protect and serve’ him. The horror of the act, captured on a cellphone and witnessed by us all during a non-stop COVID-19 news cycle, laid bare what has been a fact of life for Black people and people of color (POC) in the U.S., and around the world: freedom does not mean equality.
To start, let’s full-throatedly stipulate some basic and fundamental facts about the world we live in. First, systemic racism is real; born of a set of codified biases and bigotry that pervades and impacts every aspect of our societies and lives: employment, housing, education, policing, and beyond. Racial inequality is real.
Second, in moments like this, we hope that actors of good conscience within a civil society will advocate for equality. But calls for ‘equality’ are about making things ‘even.’ Even distribution of rights and opportunities. Equality assumes that everyone is starting off from the same position. That the playing field is level in each actor’s favor, and that all they need to do is apply themselves to the task or job before them, and that their level of success in that endeavor will be a function of their individual merit.
Third, for Minneapolis, a city still shook by the deaths of Philando Castile and Michael Brown years prior to George Floyd, citizens understand that equality is not a declaration. Instead, equality can only come from dismantling the system. The systemic nature of racism means not just that Black people and POC aren’t being given their fair due in terms of opportunity, resource, and treatment; it means that they are starting from a disadvantage.
As a result of those three truths, this paper will focus on Justice and Accountability.
Arguably, justice is only achieved when the most vulnerable party is protected, made whole, and/or becomes better off. As a result, reform and rights generally focus on those three outcomes. Justice demands that we radically transform the system. ‘We’ being the operative word. All of us. Everyday citizens, leaders, and beyond. And that includes brands. Racial inequity is both a collective problem to redress and a shared responsibility to solve. The greater the resources, influence, and platform of any individual actor, the greater their accountability. Brands have played a meaningful role in pursuing justice in the past; in the #MeToo movement, in LGBTQ rights, and in gender equality. Once again, history is calling on brands to use their power, influence, and scale for social justice related to racial inequity.
Because we find ourselves at an inflection point in history, for many, there is no going back. We are no longer in a moment where we are willing to tolerate either pernicious injustice or a blind indifference to it.
Why Should Brands Act?
This is a time for intentional, swift, and meaningful action. The onus is not only on people to buck institutions, but also on the institutions to buck the status quo of society and their role within it.
In recent decades, brands and consumers have become so much more than just buyers and sellers. As companies became beholden to millennial purchasing power, we saw values-based purchasing come into the spotlight. With Gen Z, who will soon surpass Millennials as the most populous generation on Earth, there is even more emphasis placed on social activism. Not only does Gen Z purchase based on shared values, but also they want to work for employers whose values align with theirs.1 And as brands have increasingly taken and sought roles in culture, we’ve witnessed the beginnings of brands as activists.
Social activism is not just a luxury — it is now a requirement. A brand taking a stance, speaking up, and acting on justice is about doing both the “right” thing and the “necessary” thing for your business, customers, and communities. In order to build your brand for days, months, years, and decades, you must view what’s ethical as what’s practical. In this age, acting socially consciously is imperative to attract and retain talent; to attract and retain customers; and, ultimately, to drive better business performance in communities that face inequities.
Achieving racial parity will not be easy. In fact, it requires adopting a new ethos— one that demands empathy, humility, candor, consistency, and courage.
How Should Brands Act?
Increasingly, your colleagues, consumers, and staff are demanding both action & accountability from brands related to justice. For many within an organization, participating in, answering, and leading calls-to-action for change is the right thing to do – for society and for business.
Answering those calls-to-action may include: whether to issue statements, how to change internal culture, what commitments to make, whose voice to uplift, and what ways to support the cause & community, to name a few. But beginning this process may seem daunting.
Every brand must start somewhere and – let’s be honest – we all have progress to make. Ogilvy included.
Here, we’ve outlined six practical steps to acting on your commitment to justice. Don’t be discouraged by where your brand is — just start. And whether you’re at step 1 or 4, now is the time to hit the accelerator.
1. Educate yourself. Pay respect to the movement. Learn the issues. Understand how the “system” works.
2. Listen. Whether or not you’re acting already, listen first and frequently.
3. Uncover and acknowledge your truth. You have to know where you’re starting to get to where you’re going.
4. Define your goals. You won’t hit the bullseye without a target at which to aim.
5. Take actions and track them. Accept there is no perfect plan or playbook; consistency in effort is key.
6. Check your creative intent. Ensure the messaging, messenger, and medium are ethically appropriate for your employees, customers, and beyond.
1. Educate yourself
Justice in any arena means doing the right thing. Nowadays, Gen Z and Millennials expect brands to speak up, to act, and to educate. The magnitude and influence of a brand far outweighs most individual actors, and, as a result, brands have the ability to tip the scale of justice.
In particular, when it comes to issues of race, there is no single creative brief that can encapsulate all of the emotions – rage, shock, hope, fear, anxiety, optimism – felt by an audience. As a brand – marketing team, communications team, leadership team, sales team, and beyond – learning about racial inequity issues, unintended consequences, and ways to join calls-to-action for justice will be on-going. The commitment consumers expect is for brands to work towards achieving racial literacy. This concept is not often applied to brands. However, given the errors some brands have committed, education toward racial literacy is key.
Here are five mindsets to adopt to get justice right for brands:
1. Know What You Don’t Know:
It’s tempting to try to look “woke” or easy to assume everyone is starting with the same baseline knowledge and feelings, but it’s more nuanced than that. Start with humility about uncertainties and assumptions. Start by accepting that some are more advanced on the subject than others; progress shouldn’t be slowed as everyone attempts education parity. Companies can audit their baseline to identify gaps and goals. Knowledgeable Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) or HR leaders can lead the assessment or reach out to outside DE&I resources to identify knowledge gaps.
2. See the Bigger Picture:
It’s not a moment; it’s a movement. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are part of a wider context. Context is why the Black Lives Matter organization references the broader “movement to fight for Freedom, Liberation and Justice.” Brands should resist viewing any incident as isolated: instead, work to understand the driving individual, institutional, and cultural forces. Press pause: instead of being reactive to a marketplace trigger, ask what the broader context is and how it should be addressed. Outside stakeholders can provide additional perspective to day-to-day teams.
3. Burst Your Bubble:
Seek out different sources than you typically do. In the same way that brand teams set competitive news alerts, do so with current events for social media & traditional media monitoring. Empower your teams to take in and share out content from across the political, financial, and socio-cultural spectrum. Even — and especially — if it makes the team uncomfortable. Marketing/Brand/Communications as well as DE&I and HR leaders can recommend resources and facilitate discussions to help everyone burst their bubble. In terms of race and racism, pay attention to Black voices. Strive for vulnerability. Instead of being fragile, being open and non-assumptive is the way we can truly learn.
4. It’s Not About You:
Don’t act to make your brand look better or the management team feel better. Do it to help those in need of justice. As Ijeoma Oluo, author of “So You Want to Talk About Race” says, “Don’t try to make it about you. Don’t try to make it about your pain and your journey, and keep your energies focused on where you can be of use to the struggle and to the movement that’s happening right now.” When your brand communicates, institute extra checks-and-balances to ensure that the content has the correct focus.
5. Commit to Lifelong Learning:
Justice isn’t one-and-done. Accountability requires sustainability. Racism in particular is deep and wide and complex and changing. For brands, this means implementing institutional education — both evergreen and of the moment. Use the baseline you have from “Know What You Don’t Know” above and conduct an additional survey of what employees want to know in the future. Instilling ownership in the process is one way of ensuring ongoing commitment to learning.
To help us all move to a place of better understanding, Ogilvy’s Diversity & Inclusion team has compiled a list of books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and more here that will be continually updated.
Whether or not you choose to act on justice, listening (in addition to education) is a key step to ensure decisions (marketing or otherwise) are more informed, more empathetic and more equitable. When it comes to race and racism, the next step after achieving foundational racial literacy is to get smart on current discourse.
Here are five mindsets to adopt to get justice right for brands:
1. Listen daily:
As we’ve seen with the Black Lives Matter movement, conversation shifts significantly within a single day, so it’s critical you stay up-to-date daily: Set your team up with alerts for news, reports, podcasts, an events watch, and social listening. Create a space (e.g., Slack, Basecamp) where the daily learnings can be shared and discussed to amplify learning. Assign a “social justice” lead on your team who can track & update others about breaking news; someone who can be empowered to be the voice of the community in meetings and creative delivery.
2. Listen to the Black Lives Matter movement:
Develop an evolving list of keywords and hashtags to stay up to date on key tensions, advancements, and frustrations from movement participants.
Example hashtags include: #blacklivesmatter #blm #justice #peacefulprotest #pulluporshutup #wematter #standforsomething #ourlivesmatter #saytheirnames #sayhername #nojusticenopeace #justiceforbreonnataylor #justiceforahmaud #justiceforgeorge #sayhisname #defundthepolice #justicefortonymcdade #silenceisviolence #acab #blacktranslivesmatter #misogynoir #racisminamerica #racism
3. Listen to Black voices:
Develop an evolving list of social handles from key voices and activists within the Black Lives Matter movement to stay up to date on key tensions, advancements, and frustrations. Activate employee resource groups (ERGs) to advise and lead change. Many of the members are ready-to-go now; empower them to be change agents. Ensure external voices help create a fair & equitable agenda for which issues to prioritize and mobilize to solve first.
Example activists include (listed via their Instagram handles): @naacp @blklivesmatter @privtoprog @thegreatunlearn @pullupforchange @opalayo @chasinggarza @osopepatrisse @15percentpledge @rachelcargle @iamrachelricketts @irbamxk @antiracismctr @aclu @laylafsaad @benjaminokeefe @blairimani @mspackyetti @theconsciouskid @taranajaneen
4. Listen to your competitors:
Monitor how your competition (direct and indirect — because culture isn’t category-specific) is participating (or not participating) in the Black Lives Matter movement. Understand both their best practices and their lessons learned. If your competition is all speaking up, your silence will speak volumes. Conversely, if they have yet to speak or act, you have a golden opportunity to be the first and lead the charge. Resist the urge to copy others; each brand has a unique license and territory of credibility they should consider executing within. In essence, acknowledge that every brand cannot do what another brand does.
5. Listen to your audience:
Monitor how your audience is specifically responding to, participating in, or supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Are their behaviors shifting? How is their discourse similar or different than that of the Black Lives Matter movement and Black voices? Which voices and/or issues are they rallying behind the most?
As you put your listening foundation in place, go wide. Go wide in terms of your sources: consider using a variety of quantitative and qualitative inputs including social media data (organic and paid), search intent data (organic and paid), and ethnographic data. And go wide in terms of your ethos: ask your teams to listen hard especially to the things that make them uncomfortable — because that’s where the most transformational learning will come from. Consider using this skill-based training guide that will help you and your team move from empathetic & active listening to swift & meaningful action.
3. Uncover & Acknowledge Your Truth
At their core, justice and accountability can really only be built on the truth. Before you can turn your attention toward the outward forces affecting the issue of justice, familiarize yourself with your own (company/brand) history.
Start by uncovering your truth for three key reasons:
1. Change cannot happen without confronting the truth:
The word “reckoning” has been used widely across culture and business to describe this moment of racial unrest. For your brand to genuinely participate in that reckoning, it cannot do so effectively without owning your truth.
2. The world is watching:
In today’s hyper-connected world, a myriad of brand trackers and social media watchdog accounts pop up overnight in times of crisis and frenzy. Those who don’t address their problematic pasts receive public scoldings by consumers, former employees, or former business partners. We saw a similar phenomenon with the #MeToo movement when those who had been silenced for decades, by threats of legal action or retaliation, were finally empowered to speak and be heard. The times of sweeping bad behavior under the rug are firmly in the past. Similar to #MeToo, your organization should expect that change might be needed as a result of all the education, listening, and truth reconciliation. Not every employee is ready for the journey, and not every leader is equipped for the long-haul.
3. Employees expect more:
It’s not just consumers who buy based on values, it’s also employees who work based on values who will demand truth. They are your institutional conscience: across the world, employees have written open letters; they have taken employers to task for hypocrisy; they have staged demonstrations and protests. They want to be on the right side of history, and they want the companies they work for to be there with them.
Processing and acknowledging your truth
Doing anti-racism work means actively identifying and combating racism wherever you encounter it, including within yourself and your company. This may dredge up some hard-to-swallow truths about your operations or practices, but learning to process this discomfort is imperative in working towards justice. Direct that discomfort towards the “system” of the how the brand, company, industry operates rather than getting lost on assigning individual-level blame. Otherwise, the process stops there and there is no opportunity to remedy what you’ve discovered. Focus on the “system,” and your truth reconciliation will lead to more meaningful results.
Acknowledge the past – good, bad or neutral – and make a plan to move forward. Instead of weathering the media storm (or waiting for it to past), proactively address it head-on, and communicate with your employees first what your brand has done or is doing to remedy its practices. If it’s your brand’s first time engaging on the subject, say so. Own your narrative. The worst thing your brand can do is be silent on a subject of racial inequity that directly effects your employees & customer/client realities.
- You may find that your brand has been contributing to the cause all along or that there is a similar and related issue on which you’ve spoken up. Knowing your own history will provide legitimacy in any action you take or statement you make going forward. Now is not the time to get “credit” for any commitments you’ve made in the past (e.g., PR campaigns). Rather, now is the time to double-down and talk about new and/or expanded efforts.
- You may find that this is your brand’s first-time engaging with the issue at hand or that your truth is disappointing. Don’t be deterred. It’s never too late to start doing the right thing. To quote the wisdom of Anne Frank, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
- In acknowledging your truth, you may find that the “system” of the brand or company has failed to produce Black voices in leadership. Non-Black leadership teams ought to be incredibly careful to not perpetuate stereotypes of being a “savior” to Black employees or the Black community. Recognizing that systemic racism has led to status quo practices that have prevented minorities from climbing into the leadership ranks, now is the time to correct those wrongs. Promote and empower Black employees ready for leadership through demonstrated knowledge, comfort, relationships, and empathy. The current moment requires a different type of leader – one with a high emotional intelligence rather than financial savvy alone.
Checking your foundation:
To begin in this moment, start by checking:
- On your Black employees: Is there a way you can support them through this time? Ask them what “support” means rather than assuming that either a declaration of support (e.g., #BLM statement or black square in social media) or donation is what they feel will move the needle.
- On your numbers: Is the number of Black employees in your company reflective of the percentage of Black people in the U.S. population? Are they represented across departments or concentrated in specific ones? Are they represented in leadership and across levels? Are they equitably compensated?
- On your environment: Is the culture of your company welcoming to minority populations or does it require them to assimilate in order to succeed? Who writes the definition of “professionalism” for performance evaluations, for instance? Is there mentorship or sponsorship in place for underrepresented populations to ensure retention? Do all employees receive implicit biases and sensitivity training? Is everyone aware of what a microaggression is, and are they empowered to respond, intervene, and/or report when they witness one? Are managers reviewed by their direct reports at stages before an exit interview?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, transparency does not always have to come in the form of self-flagellation. A paragon of this unsolicited honesty is Cocokind, a small, San Francisco-based skincare brand. It would be easy for them to say, “we’re still a small company, and that’s the reason our employee base is not appropriately representative.” Instead of absolving themselves of blame, they addressed the issue directly, releasing a report of their corporate team’s racial and ethnic demographics. They also committed to updating this report annually to promote accountability in their commitment to racial equity and representation on their team.
4. Define Your Goals
Now, it’s time to turn outward. But it’s nearly impossible to reach a new destination without a map. Set yourself up for success by determining where you are going and planning your route to get there.
“American brands have rushed to show where they stand, but it’s still uncertain what they intend to offer — what they can offer — beyond greater awareness of their existence and a vague sense of virtue.” (“Brands have Nothing Real to Say about Racism,” The Atlantic, June 3, 2020). Once you have uncovered your truth, it’s time to act on it.
To ensure accountability and effective action, here are five steps you can take to ensure that your brand makes the progress toward justice that it intends:
1. Be Clear:
Corporate America loves a good vision and a plan; and, better yet, they love a lofty purpose or mission statement. Oftentimes, they don’t apply this to social justice or in the fight against racism. Sometimes, a company’s value-system doesn’t even include something essential to creating a value-based relationship with customers: empathy. But it isn’t sufficient to just “do something” or “do anything.” Listen externally and internally to determine which priorities to set that matter most to the Black communities in the office and in your customer base. Show solidarity? Create social change? Be a good corporate citizen? To test if your goals are clear enough, see if they lend themselves to “plans.”
2. Be Honest:
Your team should be relentless in asking “Why?” Specifically, why are you striving for social change or allyship? What would success mean to your employees and external audiences? We encourage you to do things for the right reasons — morality & ethics. But we recognize you (being brands and businesses) also have financial and operational reasons. We encourage you to be upfront about them. Critical assessment of your motives goes a long way. Being a student of what other brands are doing and drawing on outside, objective perspectives here is especially important.
3. Be Measurable:
There is still a great deal of work to be done on what metrics make sense, but it’s becoming clear — from private sector CEOs to the public sphere — that there is no accountability without measurement. One litmus test is that if you can’t think of a way to measure progress, it likely means you need to define your goals more rigorously. Once you’ve decided on clear KPIs, ensure that you put a timeframe against them — justice is faster achieved when your metrics are time-bound.
4. Be Action-Oriented:
Your team should create action plans against each goal and pressure-test each goal, against “meaningful” for Black employees, the Black community, and world-at-large. For every “what” (goal) there should be both a “how” (action plan) you are going to achieve that objective and “why” (intentional, meaningful outcome) being measured.
5. Be Expansive:
Don’t just check boxes. Think deeply and comprehensively about what needs to be achieved. To do this, consider the different audiences to whom your brand is accountable — for instance, your consumers, yes, but also your employees, and society at large:
“Success” when it comes to combating racism is going to be a long, hard road. But without goals and meaningful outcomes, you won’t know what success should even look like.
5. Take Actions & Track Them
There is a range of actions you can take, but as long as your actions contribute to the solution, there is no “wrong” action. The only wrong action is inaction.
There is no merit in making a statement without action accompanying it. Brands that make empty statements will be exposed if they’re not living up to their promises internally and externally; worse, they will miss the opportunity to contribute to real change. As individuals are out of work, school, or stuck at home due to COVID-19, brands will encounter new headwinds. Audiences have more time than normal to use social media to find & blast brands that are being passive yet profiting from the Black community.
Action should be tangible, specific, and measurable. Think beyond the one-time donation to an organization doing work for your cause of choice. Donations are a great place to start, but if you’re truly looking to make an impact, make donations sustainably. Set up a consistent, recurring donation or commit a sum of money over time. Recognize, though, that most problems are not so easily solved with money. Get creative with your solutions.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of actions your brand can take to address a social issue:
6. Check Your Creative Intent
We’ve all seen it. The tone-deaf commercial, the insensitive bandwagon social media post, or the inauthentic gesture. Consumers today are savvier than ever, and they have a platform to share their perspective. Social media has empowered the consumer watchdog and turned brand communications into a dialogue with consumers and individuals.
As Generation Z and Millennials gain more purchasing power and matters of justice continue to dominate public discourse, now is the time to ensure your creative intent, process and decision makers are thoroughly examined. In some cases, this may be a matter of overhaul, not tweaking.
Kai D. Wright, co-author of this paper and Ogilvy Global Consulting Partner, developed a “culture-ethics” pressure test: be earnest, empower, and express empathy, which brings together a combination of methods to help leaders ethically amplify the “culture” of communities.
- Being earnest requires finding and defining the time commitment needed to move a community forward. Earnestness means staring at a creative idea and saying we can make this campaign, initiative, ad, or message stronger by aligning it to community expectations of sincerity.
- Delivering empowerment involves creating meaningful change for the community. As a tip, engage employee resource groups internally; they’re often under-leveraged in giving the opinion of the communities they represent. Moreover, find voices of leaders in communities to amplify an invitation into the conversation early. When the idea is in creative development, do not just treat them as influencers and an extension of your media buys, but rather as valued voices in collaboration.
- Showing empathy requires developing community-specific solutions. Executives need to immerse in the “culture” of their consumers – food, music, art, fashion, and beyond. There’s no substitute for immersion – not focus groups, not man-on-the-street interviews, or any other fly-by tactic that checks the box of seeing a consumer in the wild.
Check your creative intent, process, and decision makers with this list of questions:
A Note on Ethos
When it comes to matters of justice, staying surface level in your marketing and communications simply isn’t enough. Modern society & discourse demands more, your employees demand more, and your customers demand more. The guidance outlined in this paper provides practical steps you can take, but the ethos by which you do them is equally as important. Humanity recognizes humanity. Are you showing guts and pushing outside of your comfort zone? Are you being candid with employees and customers? Are you being humble as you listen and learn from others before asserting solutions? From your Instagram post, to your internal training initiatives, to your executive speeches, to the partnerships you establish – it all represents your DNA as a brand and is a part of a modern marketer’s responsibility.
- Jude Cohen, Strategist
- Jonathan Daly, Group Planning Director
- Kathleen Diamantakis, Group Planning Director
- Charlotte Tansill, Executive Director
- Kai D. Wright, Global Consulting Partner
¹ 77% of Gen Z respondents to a Deloitte survey prioritized working at organizations whose values align with their own.