America Is Turning – Should Brands React?

Nearly a month has passed, but the United States is showing no signs of returning to normal. In fact, if one thing is clear, it’s that the Americans don’t know which ‘normal’ they’ll be returning to.

2,200 kilometres separate Central Park and Minneapolis, but within 24 hours, two online shaming incidents put the Black Lives Movement squarely on America’s agenda.

It began with an incident of a woman walking in Central Park with her dog off its leash and her attempts to avoid being ‘shamed’ for it. Drawing her ‘white privilege’ card, the woman called the police and accused the black man filming the incident, of threatening her. Even in America of 2020, her decision to do so came at huge cost, and she was greatly humiliated for it, eventually going on to lose her dog and her job.First Eric Garner, now this. Minneapolis police killed another unarmed black man on video and nobody is outraged. Being black in America should not be a death sentence.

Less than 24 hours later, a Tweet that went viral, showing a policeman choking a black man to death in Minneapolis and condemning police violence, illustrated just how deep the problems really run. In this case, it wasn’t just about the theoretical odds of a black man’s survival when crossing paths with the police. Here was a tragic outcome, and it was only natural that the incident would overflow from the internet and spill out onto the streets.

To deal with the public pressure placed on it, Minneapolis Police fired the policeman and announced that he would be charged with third degree murder. This didn’t help things, nor was there any reason that it would, because a bad comment meant to deal with a crisis only deepens the crisis. In this case, the crisis facing the police is a distrustful public, which accuses it of prejudice.

What is America?

Alongside the peaceful demonstrations, the US started to deal with a wave of disorderly conduct, destruction of property, burglary, arson, attacks and loss of control. But perhaps the most important thing that got lost in the all the chaos was the answer to the question, “What is America?” The protestor’s America wasn’t an America of rioters, nor of Trump, mayors or governors.

It seems that the United States is so divided, that, for the rioters, burglary and vandalism is normal behavior, since the white man “stole, oppressed and exploited” blacks for so long throughout history. For them, it’s now Pay Back Time. There are those that try to romanticize violent protestations in this reality of loss of law and order, while others see real danger to public safety.

A reality of no common future to offer

In the White House sits a leader who is currently facing Presidential elections; whose interests lie in getting re-elected and not necessarily calling for calm and compromise. On the other hand, you have the Democrats contending against him and plotting their own steps ahead of the November elections. For the demonstrators, this is a chance to right all the wrongs of past years, and for the rioters, this is an opportunity to do whatever they want and to export the harsh reality they live in, to other neighborhoods.

What’s missing in the US at the moment is leadership, a backbone and a willingness to pay the price for principles. In a reality where whites think that every protest is a riot; in a reality where all people – whites and blacks – are afraid to draw red lines for rioters; in a reality where blacks think that it’s OK to physically hurt white people, just because they’re white; in a reality where whites embarrassingly declare that ‘All Lives Matter’ also includes ‘Black Lives Matter’, without recognizing the disregard, the repression and the problem; in a reality where none of the parties have a common future to offer – America is in deep trouble.

Brands in a Changing Reality

In this type of reality, companies and brands are inclined to react. In principle, reaction is a good thing. The public expects a reaction. People want to see where the brands that they identify with stand, and whether or not the brand understands them. In addition, the brand is making a statement to its employees. On the other hand, instigators are ready to interpret every statement made, which makes it an obligation to listen carefully to the dialogue and not miss out on anything.

And when America is going through a crisis, the brands that operate within it are also going through a crisis. Part of the problem is financial and operational due to the looting, revenue losses from damage and a feeling of insecurity on the streets. Another part of the problem is the changing brand-audience. It’s not just a question of whether or not to react to demonstrations and riots.

This time around, things run deeper. Every brand comes with a story. The story is based on who the brand is, what its value is and who is its target audience – and all these are currently undergoing transformation, because America is transforming. For example, the pancake and syrup brand, Aunt Jemima announced that it is planning to rebrand. If you read between the lines, you will understand that this move was an attempt to preempt the expected accusations of racism against the company. Nonetheless, this move didn’t prevent the brand from starring in the #boycott hashtag campaign.

The Fuel Vapors are Already Here

Changes made by the public and by brands, are sometimes done forcibly, under the keen eye of different entities – whether activists, those who share the same ideas, interest groups or rivals. This has created fertile ground for shaming with crisis-level potential. Internet surfers can now express their opinions from home, without the risk of taking to the streets.

The fuel vapors are already here, and the struggle is against those who light the match. The super-brand Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example is now being met with a charge – which cannot be confirmed or denied – that it stole its secret recipe from a black woman – try dealing with that. Walt Disney was a racist – try dealing with that. Marvel donated $5,000 to Trump’s campaign – try dealing with that. A lecturer at UCLA refused to relax part of the curriculum for his black students – deal with that!

A lack of leadership and lack of agreement leads to conditions of uncertainty, and these are very problematic conditions for brands that still need to operate and tell their story in a world that exchanges information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and in every direction. At the beginning of the protests, some brands showed their support – support which forced other brands to join. If they did not show their support, they felt the heat.

One of these was the fitness club brand, Crossfit, whose CEO refused to address the protests and even criticized them. As result, sponsors such as Reebok, and prominent competitors and trainers, announced that they were removing their support for, and participation in, activities related to the company. In the end, the CEO was forced to resign.

There’s Also The Other Side

There are two types of messages on the internet: Initiate or Respond. In messages that are initiated, it’s possible to control the timing and content, and even promote the message via a campaign. The timing of a reactionary or responsive message is mandated by internet surfers and the message cannot be promoted. On the other hand, a responsive message touches on very specific points and is much more viral-worthy than initiated content. This means that the message of support by the 14th brand won’t be as widely distributed as the response by the first brand. However, a very honed response can also go viral. This was the case with Yorkshire Tea.

 

The brand was forced to take a stand, when a surfer by the name of Laura tweeted that she was proud of Yorkshire Tea that it did not support the protests. In response, the brand replied to her through its Twitter account: ‘We're taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post. We stand against racism.#BlackLivesMatter’ The tweet garnered 85,000 Likes and 20,000 re-tweets.

In some circles, the tea brand’s forced support was well received; however, some surfers opposed the tweet, saying that they were boycotting the brand, reported that they had dumped it in the garbage, shamed the brand for shaming the customer, and occasionally challenged Yorkshire Tea by asking it if it still supported the protests based on the riots taking place. It should be noted that the surfers’ online shaming of the brand means that they were more bothered by the brand’s negative response to Laura than by the protests themselves.

CMOs catch 22

Among many CMOs there's a feeling that it doesn’t matter what you do; you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This is also true in a reality where people are walking around with virtual weapons, just looking for targets. As such, even though taking a stand is not a marketing concept per se, it has significance to marketing.

In these cases, it is imperative to control the risks and not to make decisions based solely on the public’s demands. Decisions should also be made based on the questions: ‘Who is the brand’s target audience and what does the brand stand for?’ In these cases, when the results of internet monitoring don’t necessarily reflect a reality that’s good for the brand, the importance of Big Data and the ability to know one’s audience, its discourse and needs even better, is amplified.

Because sometimes it’s not necessary to take a stand at all. Instead, it’s enough to leverage the situation to make changes that may seem like support for the protests without annoying the other side. The decision by Band-Aid to market plasters in all shades of skin color is an example of identifying with the protests without making waves.

We are Listening to You

In a statement published by Band Aid, it said: “We hear you. We see you. We are listening to you. We share the struggle against racism, violence and injustice and we are committed to taking steps towards change for the black population.” In this way, they got in line with the protestors demanding change, and backed it with an important product that suits its darker-skinned market; but at the same time, in the eyes of its audience critical of the protests, the brand was not seen as one that supports violence.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

We hear you. We see you. We’re listening to you.⁣ ⁣ We stand in solidarity with our Black colleagues, collaborators and community in the fight against racism, violence and injustice. We are committed to taking actions to create tangible change for the Black community.⁣ ⁣ We are committed to launching a range of bandages in light, medium and deep shades of Brown and Black skin tones that embrace the beauty of diverse skin. We are dedicated to inclusivity and providing the best healing solutions, better representing you.⁣ ⁣ In addition, we will be making a donation to @blklivesmatter.⁣ We promise that this is just the first among many steps together in the fight against systemic racism.⁣ ⁣ We can, we must and we will do better.

A post shared by BAND-AID® Brand Bandages (@bandaidbrand) on

Sometimes, all that is needed is good timing, such as Crayola, which marketed a new series of pastel crayons, with the option to draw 40 different skin-shades from all over the world. According to the company, it worked 3 months on the product, long before the incidents in Central Park and Minneapolis. However, its statement was made in close time proximity to these events and Crayola was seen as a group that was meeting the demands of the protestors – again, without being seeing as a group that condones violence.

Where to From Here?

In a reality where there is violence on the streets, the chances that George Floyd will be the last victim of police brutality are not only slight, but actually impossible. Law enforcement officers are on the radar of smartphone cameras; they are being filmed at every incident, and every incident creates a new wave of online shaming and moral judgement against the police force and the officers themselves. Add to this a wave of opposition, angry at the loss of power so badly needed to bring back law and order to the streets.

America will remain divided and, as long as the protests continue and remain exploited by independent interest parties (or anti-establishment entities, as Trump claims), it will be difficult to meet the goals of the protestors. The demonstrations will either dissipate because the protestors want to disengage themselves from the violence, or the violence will end only when disproportionate force is used against it. Both these scenarios play into the hands of Trump, who will leverage these current events to the November elections. As long as there are no clear signposts along the way in an attempt to stop the violence and create a new order in American society, demands to keep the old order may very well lead to his re-election.

Quiet May Return to the Streets but e Protests will Continue on the Internet

As far as brands go, the story is far from over. Even if things disappear from the street, they will still remain present on the internet. Whoever was quick to take a side will be forced to be accountable to the other side. One thing remains clear, and that’s the difficulties facing Nike and Colin Kaepernick to continue to do business together.

Kaepernick is the man who symbolized things that were yet to come, by taking the knee during the national anthem – a protest that led to his successful career as a football player being hacked down. He was also chosen by Nike to lead the 30 year anniversary campaign for its Just Do It brand. With all due respect to the lengths that Nike went to choose a former player and for their support of the protests, the fact that the brand chose a man who supports ongoing violence was seen as too extreme, even for a groundbreaking brand such as Nike.

The goal that America will be the land of the free, for black people too, is a worthy goal, but difficult to measure. It will be difficult to evaluate when we reach this goal exactly, especially when such a legitimate demand can be exploited by interest parties when they come into cross paths with authorities and brands. Brands will continue to be judged by this new norm and soon they will be judged on how they capitulated to this norm. Whoever thinks that America will be able to patch up this gaping wound very soon, should think again.

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