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Racism no longer for sale: How brands struggle to adjust to the new BLM reality

In the aftermath of the continuing #BLM protests, which has devastated streets and caused injuries, and all coinciding with the ever-present coronavirus threat, it is clear that everyday life will change dramatically. As this tectonic shift occurs, big brands are trying to fit in and adapt to a new reality. It's a hit and miss process that will probably last for years, as companies identify and perfect marketing strategies for a truly multicultural environment. However, finding the fine distinction between legitimate cultural exchange and demeaning exoticisation and appropriation will be a bitter and lengthy process. The current marketing chaos provides proof.

Attempting to respond to the current agenda, brands had to react in somehow, and many issued various statements in support of #BLM. However, in a culture where racism has been ingrained for centuries, a heartfelt commercial was never going to be enough. Companies need to understand the image it wants to project and then do more than just deliver it but live it. They all still have a long way to go.

Companies have to change from within

In public statements, L’Oréal was resolute in its determination to stand by the black community, even declaring it would never again use the word “white” in its products. Back in 2017 though, it ended its cooperation with Munroe Bergdorf, a black trans woman, after her anti-racist Facebook post in the wake of a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The conglomerate defended its decision by saying it “supports diversity and tolerance towards all people irrespective of their race, background, gender and religion,” and Bergdorf’s comments on white racism contradicted those values.

Nike has also been in the vanguard on the anti-racism front, even issuing a themed “For once, don’t do it” video, which condemned protests. The very same Nike designed a pair of sneakers featuring an early version of the American flag, as used by the American Nazi Party. Much of Nike’s popularity comes from black athletes who wear and advertise its clothes and shoes, however, the main beneficiaries of the company’s huge revenues are white; only 10% of its executives are black.

“The people of colour who need to be part of the conversation when a company decides to talk about racism aren’t normally in the room when those messages are put together,” said Gary Coichy, CEO of POD Digital Media, a multicultural podcast network. “It’s a situation that means attempts to address diversity and inclusivity aren’t properly supported.”

Reddit, notorious for condoning racism online, released an address from Steve Huffman, the company’s CEO, in which he called for empathy and understanding, though explicitly allowing racism in another address delivered in 2018.

Brands go out of their way to look responsible in the eyes of their customers. They want to appear to consider the life changes underway in America.

Many companies take no direct action but instead adopt vague notions of “brotherhood”, “equality”, and “freedom”.

“We need to move past the ‘stand by you’ statements, that only win in marketing circles, to tangible, meaningful action for people of colour,” said Leila Fataar, founder of cultural marcomms company, Platform 13. “Some brands and categories don’t have a traditional connection to black culture or their audience are not predominantly made up of people of colour.” 

New brand names have to have meaning

In June, PepsiCo, the owner of Quaker Oats, announced it was planning to withdraw Aunt Jemima from packaging on its brand of syrup and pancake mixes because it is ”based on a racial stereotype.” The same happened to Uncle Ben’s, Mrs Butterworth’s and Cream of Wheat packaging. A day later, Dreyer’s Ice Cream announced it would change the marketing and name of its Eskimo Pie; native Arctic people see the 100-year-old brand name as derogatory.

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Nestlé joined the race as it stopped selling cookies under the Colombian Beso de Negra brand and is on the way to rebranding its Australian-based Red Skins and Chico's sweets because the confectionary names are now “out of step” with the company’s values.

According to research, Americans generally approve of replacing any iconography that fosters stereotypes.

Younger age groups however think that this gesture would say something about the company’s identity, while older respondents believe it is more of a PR campaign.

Abas Mirzaei, a senior lecturer in marketing at Macquarie University, said that dropping a brand name overnight is unrealistic and risky for the company’s identity. “While it is a good time to reflect on branding and communication practices, to make sure a brand’s direct and indirect communications isn’t out of sync with the general public’s values, it is important to understand that brand names won’t become iconic overnight, thus changing a name overnight isn’t the solution,” Mirzaei told Inside FMCG. “Instead of dropping brand names altogether, it may be more beneficial to adjust names, or more importantly, come up with new taglines and slogans that are more effective as they can be used to adjust the negative connotation associated with the old name.”

“Replacing the name is a passive approach and won’t have any impact on society, nor will it impact those affected.”

Fashion can no longer be “exotic”

Though many people say that, in a highly competitive environment, anything goes and racist stunts are just another weapon in the attention-grabbing arsenal, they are very harmful weapons. The backlash provoked by a fashion brands’ missteps proves it. According to many experts, fashion brands, actually just like others that do not depend directly on politics, tend to exist in a deep state of denial, and behind several ostentatious gestures, they hide deeply ingrained archaic views on looks, size, and race.

Another reason is the highly escalated production process. “There is such pressure on speed that there is no time for consideration. When you are moving this fast, there is no time for perspective,” remarks Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, a marketing firm.

The accelerated distribution of marketing content, made simple and omnipresent by social media, contributes to the problem.

Once a mistake has been made, it is virtually impossible to withdraw it from all the Facebook and Instagram accounts in which it has been reposted.

All the latest fashion statements inciting indignation were united by the blackface theme. Though the Pew Research Center reveals that almost one-third of Americans think it’s okay to wear blackface for Halloween, with 39% of whites and 19% of blacks seeing it as a sign of free speech or cultural exchange. According to Professor Mia Moody-Ramiez at Baylor University, it’s inappropriate because it projects a demeaning black stereotype. Historically, white performers mockingly painted their faces black with a big white mouth for 19th-century street shows, portraying black people as lazy and ignorant criminals.

Katy Perry’s fashion pulled her latest black shoe designs; black mules decorated with protruding eyes, nose and red lips. Condemned by critics as a blackface visualization, the footwear was inspired by “modern art and surrealism”, according to the design team. Gucci was also driven to take a sweater off the market, it featured a loose black collar, which resembled a blackface mask. In an official Twitter apology, the brand noted it was going to make a “powerful learning moment” out of the outrageous situation. Italian designer Prada is another example; the company apologised and withdrew a line of accessories in the shape of a brown-skinned character with exaggerated red lips.

West European eyes remain blind to subtleties and rush to make ill-considered statements while declining to delve deeper.

Adheer Bahulkar, a partner at consultancy A.T. Kearney, says that brands need to pay attention to issues that might not be noticed within their own culture but that are “highly sensitive in another culture.”

To make amends, companies are now trying to address the problem. Gucci set up a new position, a global director for diversity and inclusion, and it plans to launch a scholarship program to cultivate diverse design talent. Prada is creating a diversity council to “elevate voices of colour within the company and fashion industry at large”, with the artist, Theaster Gates and film director, Ava DuVernay as chairpersons. Following a racist sweatshirt blunder, H&M devised a diversity and inclusion team and hired former Viacom executive Ezinne Kwubiri as head of inclusion and diversity for North America.

Films should be explained, not censored

In a whirlwind of total recalls and retitling, the objective sometimes gets lost in the process. Historic movies that depict slavery and racist scenes have also been subjected to scrutiny. However, merely eliminating the problem is not the solution. Removed at first from the HBO streaming service, “Gone With the Wind '' was soon back, now displaying a disclaimer stating that the film “denies the horrors of slavery” and contains “racist depictions”.

But AMC's "Mad Men" refused to pull an episode in which the main character, Roger Sterling impersonates a blackface performer. In a statement to USA TODAY, Lionsgate's Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications, Peter Wilkes said the company is planning on giving the context to the blackface scene in Season 3’s “My Old Kentucky Home" on a title card at the beginning of the episode, reading "This episode contains disturbing images related to race in America".

Actor Idris Elba, a committed advocate for freedom of speech, said in an interview with RadioTimes, that he was against censoring or removing shows and movies altogether. Instead, they need to have a rating system or a disclaimer, “I think, moving forward, people should know that freedom of speech is accepted, but the audience should know what they’re getting into. I don’t believe in censorship. I believe that we should be allowed to say what we want to say. Because, after all, we’re story-makers."