Dr. Judy Foster Davis, a professor of marketing and integrated marketing communications at Eastern Michigan University, says companies that fail to acknowledge problems with their brands run the risk of appearing to be silently complicit with systemic racism, especially those with names or symbols associated with racist practices.
Revenue and any acquired brand equity will also certainly suffer, notes Dr. Kevin Thomas, a professor of multicultural branding in the Race, Ethnic and Indigenous Studies Program at Marquette University.
“Consumers — particularly Millennials and Gen Z — are actively seeking out brands that not only espouse their values but operationalize them,” he says, “and consumers across racial categories are valuing racial justice (for now).”
And while this isn’t the first time these conversations have come up, Davis says the recent global demonstrations are contributing to brands examining themselves and reputations more closely.
“Perhaps it is an inflection point. Brand managers want to be perceived as being on the ‘right side’ of these issues,” she says, noting that companies must be careful not to appear as pandering so that consumers will continue to support their brands. “They need to behave in a manner which aligns with their principles in an authentic way.”
Indeed, how brands respond in these situations plays a large role in consumer trust and can have a lasting impact. “You can set a generation’s perception of your brand within a matter of weeks or months,” says Chambers.
Dropping offensive and stereotypical brand names and symbols is a good start for consumer goods companies, but it’s just one of many moves that need to be made. Companies must dismantle the structural racism within their marketing, hiring, sourcing and distribution processes, says Thomas, as well as examine how these processes have historically advantaged white Americans.
Specifically, this includes diversifying the C-suite, prioritizing sourcing contracts with Black/POC suppliers, investing in ongoing anti-racist training, and investing in grassroots organizations working to make disinvested and gentrified neighborhoods racially equitable.