Next month marks the one year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The footage of his death rocked the nation and sparked global outrage against racial injustice and discrimination.
The video was so shocking that many who would not normally voice their dissent, took to the streets in protest and systemic racism. Through the summer months of 2020 and into 2021, weekly protests, news of riots and cries for justice filled the trending pages of social media and the conversations in people’s daily lives.
Floyd’s death not only reignited the Black Lives Matter movement but also forced brands—many of which had been historically silent on social issues—to review their logos, product names, advertisements and messaging.
BLM has changed the landscape of brand activism
Brand activism is a business effort to impact social change through its values, goals, marketing and communication.
This type of activism has always been risky business and when done incorrectly, can seem insincere to consumers. Take the Aunt Jemima Mills Company, who announced it would rebrand in 2021 from the notorious ‘mammy’ caricature to a more ‘cancel-proof’ design in fear of backlash post-BLM.
For decades, Aunt Jemima’s ‘mammy’ logo had been criticized for its anti-Black imagery reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. In response, the brand has modified the mammy caricature over the years—her skin became lighter and headscarf removed to give the appearance of a friendly maid rather than a mammy.
Despite the cosmetic changes, last year the brand had to come to terms with its racist roots after George Floyd’s death sparked renewed criticism of its logo.
In an attempt to appease consumers post-BLM, Quaker Foods, owners of the Jemima brand, stated it would be “removing the image and changing the [brand] name.”
Though some were satisfied with the redesign, others found the change to be too little too late.
“We have been calling them out on their bullshit for decades,” said one Redditor. “The only reason they are changing it now is to capitalize on the positive media buzz it will give them.”
“This is nothing if it isn’t accompanied by a systematic change within the entire corporation,” said another commenter.
The issue with this type of ‘brand activism’ is that it’s wholly reactive with no real structural change. Rebranding the Aunt Jemima logo and name without attempting to evaluate or change the company’s internal practices, felt disingenuous to many.
Brand Activism done right
Though brands like Aunt Jemima have much to improve when it comes to brand activism, other companies have been doing it right for years.
Sephora, a popular makeup retailer, is a prime example. The company had often been marred with accusations of discrimination from its Black shoppers. Acknowledging it could do more to address the lack of representation in beauty, the brand has made significant changes in recent years to address this gap.
In 2019 Sephora partnered with Gauge—a tech company connecting corporations to diverse panels of ‘real people’ with cultural expertise—to better understand how Black women view the brand and experience racial profiling in stores.
They found Black shoppers wanted Sephora to sell more products reflecting the full array of Black skin tones. As a result, the company began forging relationships with Black influencers and beauty brands to do just that.
The company has since pledged to devote at least 15 percent of its product line to Black-owned brands. It also worked with Gauge in January to implement changes to reduce discriminatory practices in store. This included retraining floor staff, reducing the presence of third-party security guards and enacting new customer-greeting protocols to ensure shoppers are treated equally.
Procter & Gamble is another company that has found its footing in brand activism. In 2017, the company produced its first controversial campaign, The Talk, featuring Black mothers directly addressing racism their children will face living in America.
The campaign was not well received and P&G was accused of ‘race baiting’. However, the company was not perturbed by the criticism.
“Frankly, when we saw the reaction, we knew we needed to continue that discussion,” said Damon Jones, a spokesperson for Procter & Gamble.
So P&G forged ahead with another campaign in 2019, this time with the guidance of Gauge experts. The outcome was a more subtle portrayal of the microaggressions experienced by Black men. The film had no dialogue, just telling glances showing the unspoken discrimination people of colour face daily.
P&G came to realize racial discrimination is often more nuanced and layered than just shouting racial slurs. Many online appreciated the company’s attempt to illustrate this.
Jones noted that producing effective campaigns highlighting racial injustice also aids in brand recognition, reaching wider audiences and this in turn helps sell more products.
“There is an economic benefit as well as a societal benefit,” said Jones. “When you get this stuff right, it’s good for business.”