Ben & Jerry’s is not an ice cream company. They’re a “social justice company that happens to make ice cream.” They’ve long been champions of social justice and acknowledge the role systemic racism has played in their success (see this nine-minute video about “How White Privilege Made Ben & Jerry’s Possible”). And in response to recent events, they’ve doubled down, refocusing all of their messaging to provide resources for dismantling white supremacy.
Stakeholders have increasingly demanded brands be purpose-driven, to lead with their impact on the world, not what they sell. But we cannot all be Ben & Jerry’s. Their activism has evolved since the early 1980s. They’ve had decades to straighten it out. You do not have to commit to dismantling centuries-old, deeply entrenched systemic racism on day one to be a positive impact company. Ben & Jerry’s didn’t. You don’t have to do it perfectly. You just have to start.
At the onset of the global shutdown in early March, brands pivoted strategy overnight. They needed to find a way to be sensitive and relevant, and also stay afloat. They swapped out spring campaigns for tender messages of humanity, solidarity, and support with words on screen over soft-to-upbeat audio tracks.
After a while, these ads became comically generic. There are only so many ways of declaring steadiness and perseverance. But, annoying and monotonous as they were, these promises seemed harmless.
Then came May. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor captured global attention. They set the Black Lives Matter movement ablaze. Brands, now active in the social media agora, with fresh promises of vulnerability and togetherness, now faced an immediate test of practicing what they preach.
Once again, overnight, brands pivoted. They replaced their messages of solidarity in the face of a global pandemic with messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Replacing text-on-screen coronavirus messages, companies released text-on-black-screen statements of solidarity with the Black community. But, this time, pithy plays on brand language fell short.
Nike released a short video, changing its canonical tagline for the first time to read: “This time, just don’t do it.” A history of supporting racial justice (picking up Colin Kaepernick as spokesperson in 2018, for one), on one hand, points to authenticity through consistency of actions. However, as consumers were quick to point out, these social justice campaigns often aimed to sell more products and didn’t promote the values they talked about. Soon after, Nike dropped all clever brand language and released a statement outlining its actions and policies that put their money and energy where their branding is.
At the same time, L’Oreal posted a message of solidarity that similarly deployed a play on their tagline: “Speaking out is worth it.” Immediately, former L’Oreal model Munroe Bergdorf called the company out for firing her in 2017 for speaking out against racial injustice on social media. Had L’Oreal waited for the waters to calm, theirs could have been a cautionary tale. But instead, they dropped their clever tagline and owned up to their hypocritical words. They committed to making a change, starting with bringing Bergdorf back on as a consultant on a Diversity and Inclusion Board. And so their work begins.
We are believers in the importance of brand values. We also believe in the effectiveness of sound strategy. But this is insufficient. Smart brand messaging only works when accompanied by action. It’s not enough to say the right things at the right time. You don’t have to be—and will not be—perfect, but your words must meet your actions. Your values are a guide. But they are also a mirror. Hold it up and look in it with clear eyes.
We believe that Black lives matter. Unequivocally. Here is how we are taking action.