Brands, Consumers Prioritize DEI
The unforgettable events of last year, from the racial injustices brought to light by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, to the systemic, disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and people of color, sparked a global reckoning around racial inequity that propelled issues of racial justice, police reform, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into the cultural zeitgeist.
Amid widespread protests and demands for change, social pressure for brands to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement reached a tipping point. Many corporations quickly denounced racism, released public pledges and commitments to advancing DEI, and outlined how their organizations would do more to address racial inequities in the months and years to come.
One year later, we reflect on how consumers and brands have responded to this critical moment and call for change.
Initially, activists and community organizers were concerned throughout last year’s events that promises for change and greater accountability would be performative and fleeting, existing solely in black boxes on Instagram and media statements driven by trending hashtags. In some cases, fears have been abated as consumer interest in supporting Black creators and Black-owned businesses remain high, and corporations make good on their promises to support DEI and Black communities.
For example, Yelp reported that growth in searches for “Black-owned” and similar keyword phrases is up 480 percent, although dwarfed by the initial search volume growth of 12,000 percent YOY in June of last year. Though it appears that consumer interest increases alongside calendar moments rooted in Black culture. Interest-based Google searches for “Black-owned businesses,” while continuing to show spikes in activity since its highest peak in June 2020 (+500 percent YOY), surged during Black History Month in February.
Judging by these trends Juneteenth (June 19), the day that commemorates the true end of slavery to many, is likely to deliver a renewed flood of support for Black-owned businesses and Black creators. Social conversation volume surrounding Juneteenth is already slightly elevated compared to the conversation volume analyzed during the same time period (June 1 – June 9) last year. Social conversation themes remain notably similar YOY, with many of the most popular social posts in recent weeks centered around awareness, education, and ideas for demonstrating action, such as highlighting community activists, as well as Black creators and Black-owned businesses to support.
Social media played a pivotal role in advancing conversations about racial equity and diversity, equity, and inclusion during the past 12 months, especially as most social interactions during the pandemic occurred online. Throughout 2020 and into 2021, social profiles like @soyouwanttotalkabout have skyrocketed in popularity and show no signs of slowing down. By making educational resources and information more accessible, these creators have used social media as a vehicle for holding businesses and government accountable for their promises, prompting saliency and action, and ensuring the fight for racial equity transcends the digital space and doesn’t remain a hashtag.
In recent months, brands have used their ad space, influence, and platforms to prompt social conversations about racial injustice, accelerate DEI efforts, and commit to change, responding to growing consumer demand for an end to the status quo. In contrast to slow progress in government and political action, many brands are stepping up as societal change-makers, playing an increasingly influential role in steering the cultural conversation. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that individual trust in brands has outstripped trust in government institutions, as the role brands play in shaping political and social action has increased tremendously in recent months.
Retailers like Sephora, Target, and Trader Joe’s have committed funds to improve economic opportunities for Black Americans, diversified their product offerings, and expanded their supplier and vendor relationships to incorporate more diverse and inclusive companies.
“We know we are in a strong position to influence positive changes in the retail industry and society at large, and it’s our responsibility to step up.”
— Jean-Andre Rougeot, CEO and president of Sephora Americas
The trust placed in brands by consumers is largely well-earned. Since May 2020, Bloomberg reports that 87 of the S&P 100 index companies have made a statement on racial justice, and 79 companies pledged to give to organizations promoting DEI causes, or for investing in Black-owned businesses or funds. In addition, 66 companies pledged changes to hiring practices (50 of which created additional commitments to improve diversity among managers and executives), nine companies changed the composition of their board of directors, and 70 companies released at least partial data concerning their company’s racial composition publicly.
Brands like Apple and Beats by Dre are leading by example, using their influence to promote messages like Beats’ “Do You Love Me?”. The award-winning campaign supported by PMG features Black athletes, artists, and activists, and celebrates Black culture, resilience, and people. Other companies such as Verizon diversify their media spend to incorporate more minority-owned production companies and use new technology to vet ads for bias.
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However promising the actions and progress from the past year have been, the sobering reality is that there is still more work to be done. Displays of performative posts seeking to leverage the movement continue to pollute online conversations, and police reform progress has stalled in many places. After twelve months we are still at the beginning of a much longer march towards racial equity. As Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said, “Although this is a promising start, there is still a lot of work left to be done. It’s not that we’re necessarily falling short but, rather, we have to keep going.”
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