For more than two weeks, protests against police brutality and systemic racism, and for equal justice, have occupied the streets and the world's attention.
The protests arose following the killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Two autopsy reports concluded it was homicide, and four officers have been charged.
Last week, as his funeral was broadcast by the major networks, the protests, which earlier seemed to spring up with little organization, evolved to a more coordinated demand for change. The inevitable question — "What comes next?" — is already being answered in certain jurisdictions. Some cities, including Minneapolis where Floyd died, have moved to defund their police departments at least to some extent and to work on reforms to law enforcement tactics.
It's a moment that seems to be morphing into a movement for racial equality beyond policing. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement rose in two weeks almost as much as it had over two years, according to online polling and analytics company Civiqs. There also appears to be broad support for the movement, with 74% of Americans saying they support the protests and 81% saying the police have to make changes, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. A separate Reuters/Ipsos poll found that many independents and even Republicans disapprove of the president's response to the protests, which included dispersing protestors in front of the White House with tear gas.
Expectations for change have extended to retailers, brands and other businesses, which have scrambled to put out messages and in some cases donations in support of racial equality. But consumers won't likely be satisfied with a "message from the CEO" or even donations to Black Lives Matter and other community organizations, according to Michael Nguyen, an educational psychologist at the University of Southern California's online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program, who has worked with companies on issues like diversity and how to talk about race.
"We've had a shared pandemic and now you have definitely one of the strongest protests in recent history," Nguyen said via Zoom. "Most certainly brands can get away with some smooth marketing campaigns. But for many people and even corporations, consumers know you know the right thing to say. They want to know what are you doing about it."
What are retailers doing about it?
In a moment like this, with important social issues at stake, consumers want authenticity, experts say.
Slogans, social media posts and even donations are easy. Authenticity comes from specificity, much like the transparency that is emerging around sustainability issues, according to DeAnna McIntosh, founder of retail and e-commerce consultancy The Affinity Group International.
"Putting money up or donating is a great step in the right direction, but the authentic part is — what are you doing in your own organization?" she said in an interview. "People are expecting both."
Brands themselves set up those expectations through their own storytelling, our experts noted. "For consumers, since social media is already in their face, the brands that they follow, they know what they stand for," McIntosh said. Retailers that haven't done some soul-searching should avoid the temptation to throw up a quick statement, she warned.
That entails sitting down with stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders and "the communities they affect and that affect them" — to assess where you are and what actions are needed, according to Robert Foehl, professor of business ethics at Ohio University's College of Business.
"Putting money up or donating is a great step in the right direction, but the authentic part is — what are you doing in your own organization?"
Founder, The Affinity Group International
"Then of course the net results of that should be a tangible action plan," he said, noting that retailers already know how to do this, at least when it comes to business. "Resource it with time and money and talent. Monitor it, really actuate this plan, work with the stakeholders. The best laid plans don't always hit the mark, so course correct. And if it does do well, ask, 'How do we raise the bar?'"
Consistency in authenticity
Authenticity must also extend to the back room, experts say.
Any company that publicly states "Black Lives Matter" should take diversity seriously within their own organization, for example. Yet as a buyer and in other leadership roles at various retail organizations, McIntosh said she was often the lone African-American on her team, or maybe one of two, out of 30 or so.
"There are not many of us in these corporate environments who can pass on this knowledge to our communities," she said. "A lot of us who were in those environments just got tired — I've got stories for days about how I was treated — and that means the training, the financial knowledge, the strategy is missing."
That robs retailers of talent and interferes with efforts to diversify their workforces. McIntosh pointed to Target as having a strong diversity team that helps focus the company internally. "When you have a team like that it has to be a team of diverse people. They are your ticket," she said. "People are calling for this, making sure you have diverse people in your office. And then our job as a community is to make sure that we are able to get the resources and get the education to have the same opportunities as everyone else."
It's not just an issue at large chains. Questions around diversity also emerged in recent weeks at smaller brands, including some like Boyish Jeans and venture-backed Universal Standard that tout enlightened missions — Boyish around sustainability and Universal Standard around inclusivity. Both recently took heat on social media after posting messages of support for Black Lives Matter, and faced posts that pointed out inconsistencies between their professed missions and how they operate. Boyish was charged with featuring only blonde, white models. Universal Standard was critiqued for lack of diversity in its leadership. Both promised to do better.
Inconsistency also shows up in advertising. Sometimes brands step on their own messages by failing to be thorough in placing their spots, according to Media Matters. The organization found that several retailers, including Amazon, Best Buy and Poshmark, along with consumer products company Procter and Gamble and mattress maker Purple, aired ads on Fox News shows, including Tucker Carlson's as he vilified victims of police brutality, even as those brands posted social media notices supporting Black Lives Matter.
"They've now created an inconsistency about the story that they're telling and content that is out of bounds and misaligned with their story," Media Matters President and CEO Angelo Carusone told Retail Dive in an interview. "That's where it all comes full circle."
Several of the brands said they would pull the ads, in some cases not realizing when they ran because spots were bought as part of packages agreed to a year in advance. Marketers usually have to specify which shows a retailer wants to avoid, Carusone noted.
These disconnections and inconsistencies can be costly, according to Shawn Grain Carter, professor of fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Victoria's Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch have lost young consumers because they failed to pivot from brand stances counter to their desire for inclusivity and progress, she said.
"It's difficult for a brand to stay silent," she said. "Fashion knows that conspicuous consumption depends on relating to the consumer. But if you're not going to be authentic in your messaging and your actions, we see the brands that have suffered."
While the current climate has been compared to the unrest of the 1960s, some observers say the youth and diversity of today's protestors are unique.
In a streamed town hall meeting June 3, President Barack Obama said the crowds were a "far more representative cross-section of America" than back then, and pointed out that, despite some violence "a majority of Americans still think those protests were justified."
Carter points out that in the recent protest crowds is the very demographic that fashion brands in particular have been chasing.
"Gen Z and millennials have suffered the most — the Great Recession, the expense of college, the expense of living — and they are tired of policies and institutions that promote such disregard for justice," she told Retail Dive in an interview. "To see a cop lynch an unarmed Black man and have it filmed on social media with three other policemen standing by. This happens in a country that's supposed to stand for democracy?"
More than half (54%) of consumers believe brands "have an important role to play in social conversations about issues like #metoo and race relations," according to research from Kantar Monitor. Millennials are most likely to seek out such "brave brands," followed by Gen Z (at 46% and 42% respectively), compared to 31% of Gen X and 22% of baby boomers, Kantar found.
Several experts note how the power of social media, which marketers have long been keen to harness in order to tell their brand stories, is now amplifying the current moment. The devastating video of Floyd's killing was seen by millions globally thanks to social media, leading to protests and activism worldwide.
"Younger generations are definitely more aware of what's going on around them, and social media is a big reason why," McIntosh said. "They've grown up with that and seeing anything and everything, from everyone at any time. Because they're that aware, it gives them an open mind from the beginning."
Young people are also taking note of brand action on social media, with 73% of Gen Z and millennials telling Morning Consult that "they view brands that support protesters on social media more favorably," while just 39% of Gen X and baby boomers said so. "That's how young people communicate — TikTok, Instagram," Carter said. "Their parents are on Facebook now."
Social media not only fuels the stories that marketers want to tell, but also gives their customers a voice. "From a marketing perspective, it's very clear that the backlash from social media will be fiercer. There's heightened sensitivity and awareness, and a kind of customer that wouldn't say anything before but will now because it's their way of participating," said Media Matters' Carusone.
Even before the protests, demand among younger consumers had evolved past a desire for sustainable products to include "lasting contributions" to societal issues as well, according to a January report from the NPD Group. Beth Goldstein, NPD executive director, industry analyst, accessories and footwear, said then that such sentiments were likely to strengthen this year across many demographic groups.
Meanwhile, change is dependent on those with the power and money, and that means older people and institutions, according to USC's Nguyen. "You hear 'The system is broken and we need to fix it,'" he said. "However if you really examine it, the system is actually working beautifully, maintaining power and profits for the same people. For us to be better and move forward, we actually need a different system."
From the top
While CEO messages and donations aren't enough, research shows how important it is for company action to come from top leadership.
Communications directly from CEOs garner the support of 68% of people surveyed by Morning Consult, more than the 64% from a brand spokesperson or the 52% of the social media account. Mentioning Floyd's death in company messages about the protests is important to 69%, and giving to social justice groups boosts brand favorability among half of all adults, according to the report.
Indeed, messages in the wake of Floyd's death from the CEOs of Target and Nordstrom, saying that mourning and action around racism are more important than looted stores, demonstrated stronger leadership than many public leaders, Carter said. In Nordstrom's case, it is carrying on a longstanding tradition of conducting business in a meaningful way.
"When Blake Nordstrom died it touched a lot of people because he stood for what was good and right about retail and fashion," she said, noting the unexpected passing of the Nordstrom brother and executive last year. "There are very few stores that have the founders and family owners of the next generation running the business, and not by empty suits of Wall Street or private equity. Customers understand that, and it's important even though right now their customers aren't many millennials."
The department store also pushed back on several social media replies like "All lives matter," taking the risk of alienating some customers. Nguyen compares that to Target four years ago proactively allowing transgender people to use fitting rooms and restrooms according to their identity, which provoked backlash from some customers and shareholders.
"Nordstrom was wise to not just let 'all lives matter' slide," Nguyen said. "Grounding it back to the Black Lives Matter movement, especially the one occurring now — we're not comfortable with being uncomfortable. But where there is no discomfort there is no growth."
Doing the right thing is good
Doing the right thing, which sometimes warrants risky steps to ensure that a brand's story is aligned with its reality, is not just good, but also good for business, according to Georgetown University marketing professor Christie Nordhielm.
"Culture, and the notion of right and wrong, is very much affected by marketers," she said in an interview. "Then it becomes a question of corporate philosophy, which is part of the reason why people consume."
The young, diverse groups of people who have taken to the streets are also consumers of brands, and have power in their purchase, say Nordhielm and Carter. Moreover, when people flourish and live long lives, they have money to spend.
"This is an opportunity from a greater perspective than just to earn money, but from a purely capitalistic standpoint, there is an obligation to do right in order to protect consumers and expand your consumer base, and you don't expand your consumer base through divisiveness," Nordhielm said. "Taking the long view is a good business decision and good for society. If you're a CEO or a CMO, that better be the thing that's keeping you up at night."
This challenge comes at a vulnerable time for retailers. The COVID-19 pandemic forced most to temporarily shut stores in order to stem the spread of the disease, depleting sales and losing that touchpoint with customers, and that's not over. How they handle the emerging calls for social justice could be especially important in light of prevailing consumer expectations. As the protests against the killing of George Floyd were ongoing, Morning Consult found that 71% of Americans believe it's important for business leaders to address racial inequality in the U.S. And Kantar found that 68% of consumers "expect clear values" from brands.
That represents a lot of people eager to hear what the story is.
"If retailers don't have a long-term plan it's going to reflect in their sales, and they might not make it because coronavirus was the first strike," McIntosh said. "I do think this time is different than any other time. Maybe it's because of the length of that video and the inhumanity of it."