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We’re Living on Social, but Are Brands Living Up?

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About 3.8 billion of us are on social media globally. And with most people working remotely because of COVID-19, we’re spending more time on it than ever before. Add to it the killing of George Floyd and the protests against racial injustice around the world, the prevalence and relevance of social media simply can’t be denied. It’s primarily how brands are communicating during these unprecedented times, more than other channels, traditional press releases, or news conferences. So, what are they saying? And are consumers buying it? Let’s dig in. 

Good (and bad) brand behavior is contagious

According to a recent Harvard Business School study of 12,000 consumers in 12 countries about COVID-19, people are looking for brands to take the health issue seriously, offer advice about what they are doing to help, and not use the crisis to take advantage of people. And they are putting their money where their mouths are: 71% say the companies that put profits above people will lose them forever. Brands can help by educating consumers about coronavirus, offering free or lower-priced products (like the 100,000 mattresses Serta donated to hospitals), and emphasizing the social in social distancing, such as Chipotle’s celebrity Zoom hangout for 3,000 lucky customers. 

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Acknowledge & take a stand

The stakes are much higher, of course, when it comes to weighing in on police brutality and racism. Linda Ong, Chief Culture Officer of the Civic Entertainment Group, puts it this way: “There is only one side to take, and that is of humanity.” Consumers don’t just want the brands they support to weigh in at this critical time in history, they expect it. Sonia Thompson, CEO of the Thompson Media Group, recently told Inc., “Your customers, particularly your black customers, want to know whether the brands they spend their hard-earned dollars on are for them. They want to know that your brand cares about them as people, not just as customers.” A company’s tweets and posts (or lack of them) can help answer what kind of a brand they are.

Always be you

Long before 2020, social media was fertile ground for keeping stuff real. About 46% of consumers have “called out a brand” and 4 out of 5 consumers think the platforms have made brands more accountable. So, when responding to a global pandemic and to systemic racism, brands need to make sure they’re authentic. Nike posted a one-minute video called For once, Just Don’t Do It, imploring people not to ignore racial injustice. It’s got over 15 million views on Instagram and nearly 6 million likes. To help out-of-work bartenders due to the COVID crisis, Miller Lite tweeted an empty bar stating “Taps are off. Tips are still needed.” and started a virtual tip jar with $1 million of their own money.

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Know what you don’t know

A recent Harvard Business Review article points out the tendency to overgeneralize when events like the killing of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery take place. Brands may imagine what “everybody knows” or “how we all feel” when they may not have any first-hand experience, or even if they do, can’t possibly know what every person within a certain race or gender or other identifier is feeling or thinking. In an Instagram-linked message, Best Buy CEO Corie Barry cut through the clutter saying, “We write about these events not because most of us know what this fear must be like. We are as a group, by and large, not people of color. But because it could have been any one of our friends or colleagues at Best Buy, or in our personal lives, lying on the ground, struggling to breathe.” In a similar social post, Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf said, “As a white man, as much as I can try to understand what others are feeling, I know that I cannot really appreciate and understand what people of color experience and the impacts of discriminatory behavior others must live with. But, I can commit that our company will do all we can to support our diverse communities and foster a company culture that deeply values and respects diversity and inclusion.” It’s ok to not have all the answers. 

Life beyond the post

It’s one thing for brands to tweet that they care; it’s a different thing altogether to prove they do. Right now, our feeds are full of inspirational quotes, resources to fight racism, ways to contact senators, must-read books on race, etc. But what happens next? Luxury skincare brand Augustinus Bader is walking the walk, donating to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, and the Innocence Project, just weeks after donating 12,000 bottles of their $265 face cream to hospitals worldwide as a bit of self-care for COVID first responders. And, CEO of UOMA Beauty Sharon Chuter, is taking it even further. “If the whole world is going to say black lives matter, let’s make black lives matter. Talk is cheap. You can’t say black lives matter if you don’t have any black employees in your office.” She launched the Pull Up or Shut Up campaign, which asks brands to provide the number of black employees at their companies and their level. So, how are Aquent and Vitamin T stepping up? Beyond donating to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a 1:1 match for employee donations, we’re hosting open forums to discuss racism, reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and providing paid time off to vote in local, state, and federal elections. And, as our President Simon Lusty says, our work has only just begun.

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In the midst of two of the most transformative events in the modern world, it’s no wonder our devices have become fifth appendages. Who is stepping up, weighing in, and making a difference remains to be seen—and consumers are looking for brands to be part of the conversation as well.

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