The right way for companies to weigh in on racism, according to experts

Key Points
  • Many companies have released statements or ads about racism and police brutality in the days since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.
  • The actions have ranged from financial commitments to sentiments from brands saying they stand against racism and police brutality. And while some have been welcomed, others have fallen flat for appearing hypocritical or opportunistic. 
  • Experts spoke with CNBC about how companies can help or discuss these issues in a meaningful way. 
ViacomCBS' "I Can't Breathe" spot.

Countless companies have come out publicly in recent days to condemn racism or police brutality or to reflect how they're responding following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. Floyd was killed by a white police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

And while some responses have been well received, others have fallen flat for appearing hypocritical or opportunistic.

Some companies let their wallets talk: YouTube tweeted it would be pledging $1 million to the Center for Policing Equity. Peloton said it would donate $500,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Glossier published an Instagram post saying it would give $1 million in total to organizations combating racial injustice and grants to Black-owned beauty businesses.


Some went for the emotional punch: ViacomCBS networks on Monday played eight minutes and 46 seconds of breathing sounds to remember Floyd. Nike released a video Friday night titled "For Once, Don't Do It," imploring viewers not to "pretend there's not a problem in America." 


Microsoft used its social handles to "amplify voices from the Black and African American community at Microsoft." 

Some vague responses were parodied.

"We at [Brand] are committed to fighting injustice by posting images to Twitter that express our commitment to fighting injustice," reads a parody statement in a tweet from game critic Christopher Franklin that has been shared more than 20,000 times. "To that end, we offer this solemn white-on-black.jpeg that expresses vague solidarity with the Black community, but will quietly elude the specifics of what is wrong, what needs to change, or in what ways we will do anything about it." 

Amazon tweeted its solidarity with the black community. But, it drew criticism on social media from those who noted the company had fired people who protested its treatment of employees during the coronavirus pandemic. Amazon was also called out for its role in selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement.

When it comes to speaking out on a topic like this, a brand's history with an issue matters. Advertising and marketing experts spoke with CNBC about the right and wrong ways to weigh in. 

How brands can speak in ways that matter

"People want to feel that black lives matter to brands before we get to the streets. Before something is burning. Before we are marching for our lives," God-is Rivera, global director of culture and community at Twitter, told CNBC. "I think it's really important that brands first have to really think about, have they built equity with this community?" 

Nike's ad against racism has been called out for the company's lack of racial diversity on its executive leadership team. (Nike responded by sharing the names of a few black executives who lead brands or are part of its leadership team.)


But Rivera said Nike built equity with its inclusion of Colin Kaepernick in a 2018 ad campaign, after he protested police brutality against African Americans by "taking a knee" during the national anthem in 2016.

"Nike, although they absolutely are not a perfect company — I don't know that there is one that exists right now — but I do know that they have done some work," Rivera said. "They built some equity in saying that these types of issues matter to them and this community matters to them." 

Companies also shouldn't pull a one-off publicity stunt. It should be a deeper look inward, she said. 

"If brands are going to talk, they need to be really clear on what is the action they're going to take," she said. "If they're saying that they stand with this community, the brands should be aware that obviously they're in a position of having resources, having a platform to be able to support the community in ways that have much more outsized impact than, say, many who are marginalized within that group can do."  

She said brands should figure out what they can do to provide value. 

"Listen before doing. Listen and ask what is needed," she said. Rivera said that means digging in with the community and organizers to figure out what has the most impact. 

Doug Melville, chief diversity officer at Omnicom Group's TBWA\North America, said companies should communicate with their employees first.

"Have them feel comfortable knowing that this is the corporation that they work for ... it makes them aware and they're set up to be allies of the messaging of the brand," he said. 

Melville said he acknowledges that brands may not have it all figured out, but that this is a moment to learn and move forward. 

"Criticizing is not the answer," he said. "We need to use these times to teach each other and not criticize." 

Bozoma Saint John, chief marketing officer at Endeavor, who was previously chief brand officer at Uber and the head of consumer marketing for Apple, said Monday on CNBC's "Squawk Box" that it's important to employees for companies to "put their money where their mouth is." Saint John also praised Twitter, mentioning that the company put "Black Lives Matter" in its social media bio. 

"Even if it's not perfect, acknowledging this very moment in time is extraordinarily important," she said. 

Wendy Melillo, an associate professor of journalism in the School of Communication at American University, said brands should start by deciding their position on corporate social responsibility, and then figuring out what the company believes in and goals it hopes to accomplish. 

"That means they have thought through where they stand as a company, so that each time a national or international event happens and they want to weigh in, they're not just giving a knee-jerk reaction," she said. 

She said doing this in an ad-hoc way and just putting out a statement for the sake of being in the conversation is not the way to go about it. 

"People are just going to call that out. It's not truthful, it isn't transparent, and most importantly, there's no action message, it's just words," she said. 

Vague platitudes also aren't the way to go. 

"The more vague the messaging, the more consumers are going to call companies out," She said. "It looks inauthentic and it looks opportunistic." 

Nike has consistent messaging: Marketing expert on brand response to protests
Nike has consistent messaging: Marketing expert on brand response to protests