In February, I wrote an article about the risks and benefits of adopting “cause-based marketing”.
The overall message was this: If your company is going to promote a cause in your marketing, it must be a cause that you genuinely care about and you must be careful with how you support it. If you don’t genuinely care and are only doing it for marketing purposes, people will be able to tell and your brand will suffer for being insincere. If you do genuinely care but aren’t careful, your genuine intentions may get lost on consumers, leaving you with a terrible PR mess to clean up.
In light of the protests brought about by the tragic death of George Floyd, this topic is more important than ever. Anyone with a public voice, whether it be a company or a celebrity, is feeling pressure to make a statement and support the cause. However, when it’s a cause like this that is centered around people of a particular race, it is easy for people not of that race to not completely understand the issue, resulting in lots of public backlash when someone tries to make a statement and misses the mark. There are also those who are against the cause and receive even more public backlash when they express their opinion. No matter what you believe, America is in a very sensitive moment in its history. If you are going to use your platform to make a statement, you need to be extremely careful with what you say and how you say it.
With all of that said, how should you go about involving your company in the current discussion without destroying your public image? First and foremost, there is no safe way to do this, especially when it involves a cause like racial injustice, where the issue is extremely serious and is the #1 most talked-about issue among Americans. When the issue is this serious and this prominent, involving your company in the discussion is always going to be extremely risky. However, many would argue that not getting involved in this particular cause is even riskier and there are still ways that you can get involved while minimizing the risk of public backlash.
The first question to ask yourself is whether or not you really understand the issue at hand. Every group of people faces unique challenges that other groups can never truly understand. Whether the group is defined by race, economic status, or any other category, that group understands their own issues much better than people outside that group, and the Black Lives Matter issue is no exception. Therefore, unless you are a member of the black community, or very closely involved with the black community, you likely don’t have a complete understanding of what the George Floyd issue is about and the history related to it. If that is the case for you, the best way to get involved would be to avoid saying or doing anything on your own and instead use your platform to amplify the voices and actions of black Americans. In doing so, you are directly supporting the cause without stating your own opinion and potentially coming off as ignorant in some way.
The best example of this would be the #ShareTheMicNow day, which took place on June 10, where 46 prominent white women handed over their social media accounts to 46 prominent women of color for the day. Participants in this effort included extremely high profile people such as Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Katie Couric. This gesture was received with overwhelming praise due to the fact that the white women involved were acknowledging that they don’t completely understand the issue and instead of sharing their own opinion, they decided that their platforms would be better used to amplify the statements of people directly affected by the issue, which was women of color. They directly supported the cause without making a statement of their own, which would have opened themselves up to intense public criticism if they said anything that didn’t quite hit the mark. This is also the approach that we at Watermark are taking. Since our company feels it is right to support the cause, but feel we can’t, and don’t have a complete understanding of the issue, we are using our voice and our marketing expertise to help Creative Strategies for Change. This great organization mobilizes arts and education to bring people from all backgrounds together to help them understand each other’s cultures, struggles, and everyday life challenges. We have launched a fundraiser for Creative Strategies for Change, with a goal to raise at least $10,000.And with any donation of $20 or more, Watermark will send a “Better Together” gaiter (face covering) All proceeds will go directly to Creative Strategies for Change. It’s our way of not just issuing a statement, but taking action by helping people who are being a catalyst or change every day.
If you do feel like issuing a company statement, the name of the game is this: keep it simple. With every word you say, you are opening yourself up to the risk of saying something that can be misinterpreted, or is flat-out wrong, so it is best to keep your statement as simple as possible. A great example of this would be the actions of Goodby Silverstein and Partners. They used their San Francisco HQ as a massive billboard displaying the message: “Being black is not a crime.” In doing so, they made their stance on the issue very clear, while keeping their message simple enough that most everyone agrees with it.
Overall, the current Black Lives Matter movement is a massive and sensitive issue. While most businesses feel the imminent need to make a statement or take action, it is critical that they do so with great care and plenty of thought, else they get it wrong and forever hurt their brand. To echo what I said in the original article, if your main goal in making a statement is to help your brand rather than support a cause, you’d be best to not say anything at all. If you do genuinely care about the cause and want to use your platform to help, be sure to take extreme care with how you do it.