Brand activism and Black Lives Matter: Moving beyond hashtags

Laura Beeston

Being part of social justice activism was a risk few brands were willing to take until 2020 changed everything.

From a racial reckoning, to callouts on sexual assault, to climate action and taking a political stance, brands are increasingly getting involved in the issues… with mixed results.

At C2 Online — Montréal 2020, leading marketers and branding experts came together to talk about how it can be done right — and how to move beyond simply using a trendy hashtag.

Hawa Arsala, the Director of Cultural Intelligence and Creative Strategy at ViacomCBS Velocity, joined Sharon Chuter, the founder of UOMA Beauty and Pull Up For Change (a grassroots organization that fights for economic opportunities, equality and equity for the Black community), alongside Kirstin Hammerberg, Global VP, Business and Experience Design at Sid Lee, in a conversation led by Alain Sylvain, the Founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs.

And it was truth bombs away.


Consumers want action — and will call out brands on BS

People are in revolt. Calling on big companies, corporations and brands to activate and intersect with social and cultural issues, “the 2020 effect” galvanized people, explained Hawa. “There is a demand now for people inside of brands to be responsive to their communities externally.”

And that comes with responsibility and accountability.

85% of Gen Z want brands to participate in social issues.
85% believe brands who do will earn respect.

As public trust in organized religion and politics crumbles, Sharon thinks today’s public has a much higher cultural expectation of brands than ever before — but there’s a whole step brands need to take before playing in an activist space.

“Right now, a lot of the movements towards brands is just to get them to do the right thing,” she said, pointing to Nike, a brand that actively came out in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM) but got very quiet once the public “started poking holes in the substance [of their message and asking] ‘What does your C-suite look like? What does your head office look like?’

“The focus, really, before starting to become an activist, is to clean your own house first.”

For Kirstin, the current consumer shift in expectation is a moment where brands can honestly ask themselves where their motivation and attention to social justice issues is coming from. Is it, really and truly, a deep reflection? Or is it simply using an opportunity to stand out in the market?

Consumers will know if a brand’s intention is performative versus truly taking action, she said. “Transparency is everything… and it is appropriate for consumers and people to hold organizations accountable.”



Track and release your data

Right now, consumers are asking brands to go past communications and marketing to actually “pull up for real,” said Sharon, so it’s no wonder that many are being called upon to release useful data and metrics on how they are performing and also show what they intend to do.

“The first thing you learn in business school is [that] anything that cannot be measured cannot be improved, right? If you measure it, you can track it, you can see where you are falling short, you can analyze it and then you can create solutions,” said Sharon.

“There is a difference between saying, ‘I hired two Black people’ [and] ‘This is my pipeline and these are my pipeline issues.’”

Do more than tick a box. Dig deep and ask:

What’s broken in my system? How are we tackling a lack of diversity and inclusion? What are active steps we can take? If we hire a Chief Diversity Officer or Diversity Council, are we offloading the issue? What work must we do to educate our CEO and C-suite about biases? Are we looking at our entire ecosystem? How can we improve hiring and recruiting? What about compensation, attrition and performance? How can we use data as a learning tool? And what are we measuring to begin with?

The truth is that, right now, the public attention is focused on structures of power and structural change. “Brands have to navigate this in a way that is really difficult at times,” said Hawa, “but the most important thing is to look within and inward before projecting outward with comms, messaging and things like that.”

Brands also can’t simply hire an external consultant to come in and fix its culture for them, said Sharon. “This is a human problem. We have to tackle it with resilience, and everybody has to be committed to that. Not just your Chief Diversity Officer.”


Be willing to unlearn

The panellists noted that brands need to step back, listen and be willing to admit that the people on top don’t know it all. “It’s important to acknowledge that the conversation we’re having right now is not new,” said Hawa. “People have been doing this work for decades.”

So in the spirit of learning (and unlearning), she suggested inviting experts in to be part of the conversations you are having as a company. “Brands are having a moment of self-actualization, so ‘brand therapy’ feels really important right now.”

Does your brand take the human aspects of self-inquiry, actualization and sense of compassion, and then share them with teams and across organizational structures? And how does your brand model this behaviour to consumers?

“We’re stepping into a space of brand consciousness,” Hawa added. “Brands and companies are legally considered people in the United States. As we move towards the humanization of brands and companies, they are participating as humans in the conversation on social inequity.

“There has to be that element of humanity [pervading] every sort of decision that comes from organizations coming forward at this time.”


Don’t let fear be an excuse to do nothing

“Brands as human” is an interesting idea, agreed Alain, since “humans are flawed, humans make mistakes and they repair those mistakes. There is obviously a fear of making mistakes on the part of brands: they are on high alert, afraid of being cancelled, afraid of coming across as tone deaf.”

Ultimately, fear is something that holds us back, but it can’t be an excuse anymore, countered Kirstin. “There are so many things that we can do to take the right steps forward.”

Sharon had two examples from the beauty industry about brands making mistakes but finding redemption:


“Actually, you’re going to get cancelled for the things you’re not even thinking about,” she said. “Organizations have to make mistakes and learn from [them].”

Employees shouldn’t be afraid to speak up either, Sharon added: leaving your job to go to a company that’s in line with your values is “your contribution to the cause.”

“If employers start struggling to hire good talent because of their practices, change is going to come too… Don’t ever be afraid to walk away.”



There is a call for business leaders to have honest conversations about anti-racism in the workplace — here are tips for taking action from Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors.


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