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Brands risk backlash over Black Lives Matter. Should they still speak out?

Global brands including L’Oreal and Adidas have recently been accused of racist behaviour, ranging from discriminatory hiring practices, to lack of diversity in marketing campaigns, to unequal treatment of people in their stores.

The allegations follow a flood of corporate messages in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice amidst global protests sparked by the death of African-American man George Floyd in police custody in the US last month. 

The dissonance between some brands’ statements about equality on social media and their internal behaviour has led to harsh criticism from employees and consumers and demands for real change.

Local luxury label Zimmermann also came under fire this week after fashion watchdog Diet Prada leaked an old version of its hair and make-up guidelines for store staff, which many people pointed out were virtually impossible for black women to follow.

“Hair can be worn in soft, textured loose waves, or blow-dried straight with a center parted [sic] or side part,” the document states. According to Diet Prada, the guidelines were used up until September 2019. 

Just a few days before, in response to Zimmermann’s Instagram post in support of Black Lives Matter, a former intern in the US, Desiree Celestin, accused the brand of turning a blind eye to another employee’s racist remark towards a black model. 

Zimmermann has since released a statement acknowledging that it needs to do more to fight racism. 

“We have a responsibility to actively do better and make changes without delay, not just in America but here at home in Australia and in our teams globally,” the brand said.

Given the backlash that Zimmermann and other brands have faced after voicing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, it might not be surprising that some businesses have stayed silent on the topic, wary of saying or doing the wrong thing, or drawing attention to past mistakes.

But some marketing experts think brands should still speak out, even if they are not perfect allies yet.

“We should still encourage brands to take a social stand, even if it comes across as opportunistic. It still pushes the public debate over the long term,” Abas Mirzaei, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University who has been studying ‘woke’ marketing campaigns for the past two years, told Inside Retail

“Even if Pepsi is opportunistic and Adidas comes under pressure, they trigger the social debate which is really important for any cultural change.” 

Mirzaei acknowledged that for change to occur, however, brands need to do more than just make statements. 

“If we’re still fighting against racism in 10 years’ time, then Nike can’t just change their logo. We’re going to be asking what else have you done? How many black people have you recruited?”

Louise Grimmer, a senior lecturer at University of Tasmania’s business school, has a slightly less positive view of corporate statements about Black Lives Matter, but still acknowledged the role they can play in making society a better place.

“There is no denying of course that major brands such as Nike have an incredible influence over consumers and many would argue that their stance on Black Lives Matter has been very significant in contributing to the conversation,” Grimmer said.

“I think Nike is one of those brands that can very easily demonstrate a clear alignment between their core brand values and movements such as Black Lives Matter. But there are other brands that I don’t think can so easily make this connection.”

Yatu Widders-Hunt, a director at Cox Inall Ridgeway, said brands have a history of making a difference on key social issues.

“I think brands can be vocal and values driven on these issues. We have already seen some powerful examples of sustained leadership on issues such as marriage equality and constitutional reform, which has helped to drive social change,” she said.

Regardless of what brands have done in the past, Widders-Hunt urged them to think beyond social media to make a difference in the future.

“Looking at how brands ‘live these values’ is also important – do they have Reconciliation Action Plans for instance? Being part of social campaigns is important, but commitment, action and sustained support are the most important things. We have a long road ahead of us,” she said.

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