As protests against racial injustice sweep the country, U.S. corporations have pursued a wide variety of strategies to express their solidarity with the BLM movement. But these corporate actions often fall flat, appearing inauthentic to many consumers. What can corporations do to effectively and authentically support racial justice? The authors suggest a 4-part framework to help businesses better understand how different types of brand actions are likely to be perceived, based on whether the action is corporation-oriented or societally-oriented, as well as whether the action is undertaken more passively as an ally, or more proactively as an activist. Ultimately, the authors argue that the most authentic brand actions are those that proactively advocate societally-oriented, anti-racist actions despite potential risk to the corporation.
“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
-Angela Davis, American political activist, academic, author
Recent protests demanding social justice and the affirmation of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have provoked a flurry of activity among corporations as they drop brands that have racist connotations, reposition other brands with ambiguous to outright offensive racial implications, explicitly state their solidarity with the movement, and donate money to racial justice causes.
But do consumers perceive these actions as authentic — especially when many of these companies are not Black owned and/or have a lackluster history of Black corporate leadership? And will these strategies result in long-term brand loyalty?
What is brand authenticity?
The literature defines brand authenticity as the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful to itself (continuity), faithful to its customers’ expectations for the brand to deliver on its promises (credibility), motivated by caring and responsibility towards the community (integrity), and reflecting values that consumers consider important (symbolism).
Continuity and credibility are focused solely on the company and its customers, so these actions can be said to have a corporate orientation. Integrity and symbolism, on the other hand, are more focused on social issues outside the immediate scope of the company, and so these actions can be said to have a societal orientation.
While both orientations are important and valid ways of expressing a brand’s authenticity, actions with a societal orientation are likely to be perceived as more authentic when it comes to social issues such as racial justice.
In addition to orientation, brands can also choose to participate in these actions more actively or more passively. Specifically, they can choose to play a supportive non-racist role as an ally, indicating support for change with limited action, or they can choose to be an activist proactively involved in anti-racist actions and campaigns.
As marketing professors who have studied consumer relationships with brands, we present a framework to help companies understand how authentic their brand actions will appear to consumers. By examining the intersection of orientation (corporate or societal) and type of participation (ally or activist) as presented in the table below, several brand actions of varied levels of authenticity emerge.
Atone: To make amends for past wrongdoings. These are corporation-oriented actions that companies take as allies. Essentially the bare minimum, these actions show that the corporation is at least aware of the need to act given past brand decisions that fly in the face of social justice. For example, if a company has products with negative racial connotations, such as Quaker Oats’ brand Aunt Jemima, it can choose to discontinue the brand. However, atoning for past sins with a mere withdrawal or a repackaging of a product, while important, is both fairly passive and self-focused, and as such, consumers likely to view these actions as low in authenticity.
Allure: To proactively attract consumers. These are actions that are still corporation-oriented, but are more proactive than mere atonements: A corporation can be an activist and support a cause in a way that’s also directly in their self-interest. For example, Aerosoles announced it would support racial justice and combat discrimination by donating 10% of sales proceeds to the NAACP. This is a proactive approach to supporting an important social issue, but it is still self-serving, since it will also bring in more revenue as consumers seek to support the cause through their purchases. As such, consumers are likely to view these sorts of actions as low-medium in authenticity. (Note that this is different from another popular strategy in which brands donate 100% of their profits or a fixed dollar amount. In these cases, corporations do not benefit as directly from increased sales, so we would rate this strategy medium-high in perceived authenticity.)
Acknowledge: To recognize a broad social issue. These actions are relatively passive, but they acknowledge social issues in a wider context than limited, corporation-oriented actions. As allies, corporations take societally-oriented actions in support of racial justice that might not lead them to profit directly, but are also unlikely to have a negative impact on the business. Netflix’s curation of BLM content, for example, is an action that supports a social mission and aligns with their business model, but is unlikely to drive significant new revenue. As such, consumers are likely to view the authenticity of this brand action as medium-high.
Advocate: To actively support a cause or policy. To quote Ibram Kendi, author of How To Be An Antiracist, “To be anti-racist is a radical choice in the face of history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.” To advocate for important social issues in a manner that will feel truly authentic to consumers, corporations must take an active, societally-oriented approach — one that may have even a potentially harmful impact on business goals. Nike is a great example of a company that took a stand without obvious self-interest: When Colin Kaepernick was abandoned by the NFL after kneeling during the national anthem, Nike made the risky decision to use him as the face of their Just Do It campaign. Despite widespread backlash, the company did end up seeing a surge in sales. Because of the corporate risk and the implications for broad racial justice, this campaign exemplifies a high-authenticity action.
Today’s consumers are vocal about social issues, and they are quick to take disingenuous corporations to task. A majority of Americans of all generations — 60% of the U.S. population — say that how a brand responds to racial justice protests will influence whether they buy or boycott the brand in the future. Additionally, 60% say brands should take steps to address the root causes of racial inequity and 57% say brands must educate the public.
And Millennial and Gen Z consumers have expectations of brand authenticity that far exceed those of generations before them. These adult consumers are the most racially and ethnically diverse in American history, and they want corporations to stand for something beyond traditional consumer benefits and product quality. A June 2020 survey found that 69% of Millennial and Gen Z consumers think brands should be actively involved in the BLM movement. To connect with these younger consumers, brands need to take a stand against racial injustice in a way that is authentic to the corporation as well as their customers.
Armed with this framework for brand actions outlined in this article, corporations can strategically assess the level of authenticity of different actions, enabling them both to better understand the impact of past actions and to better gauge how future planned actions are likely to be perceived. For brands that want to build a reputation as role models with a significant societal impact, the way forward is clear: The most authentic brand actions are ones that proactively advocate societally-oriented, anti-racist actions. These are actions that come with some risk, but they are also most likely to be rewarded with real consumer loyalty.