In early July, a tweet about Jersey Mike’s Subs went viral. It claimed the restaurant chain was changing the name of its BLT sandwich to “BLM” in support of Black Lives Matter. The social media reactions poured in, and some news outlets even covered the statement. The tweet wasn’t an official business announcement from Jersey Mike’s, however – it was a joke posted by comedian/writer Yassir Lester.
The fact that so many people thought it was a real post shows just how prevalent these empty corporate messages and efforts have become.
Social media posts are only a tiny start
Virtually every brand has released at least one social media post, email, or advertisement about racial injustice in recent months. No doubt you’ve scrolled past dozens of these messages in your newsfeed or inbox offering sentiments like “We hear you,” “Celebrate our differences,” and “Working together.”
To stand out from competing clutter, many brands use visual elements like redesigned logos or specially packaged products to announce their commitment to social causes. The most ubiquitous iteration of this in Summer 2020 is a black box, either blank or with white text. These messages are empty – and often hypocritical – without real action, however.
A company’s packaging and product names aren’t necessarily the problem. (Then again, maybe they are.) The real issue is the lack of diverse voices in every level of the organization (especially in C-suite roles). It is the continuation of recruitment efforts that favor white candidates. It is the financing of politicians who support outdated, racist legislation. Corporations can post “Black Lives Matter,” but they must show – through their policies and their spending – that Black employees, vendors, customers and neighbors actually do matter.
“We make change by enacting it within our organizations and therefore becoming the exemplars for others,” wrote marketing consultant and professor Mark Ritson in a MarketingWeek op-ed. “If you care about black lives, you don’t get inspired by an Instagram post. You get inspired by black faces in the boardroom. Companies need to become the change they are tweeting about.”
The right way to use a product to bring social justice: Ben & Jerry’s
Ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s has been at the forefront of using their presence and products to make a difference. While founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sold the business to Unilever in 2000, they still oversee the brand’s social justice initiatives.
Over the years, Ben & Jerry’s has released specialty flavors with names like Pecan Resist, Empower-Mint, and Hubby Hubby, raising awareness and funds for everything from LGBTQ rights to climate action to campaign finance reform. In a profile in last week’s New York Times, Cohen and Greenfield were asked if they ever felt “squeamish” about “politically driven flavor names”.
“It doesn’t make me squeamish if the initiative is genuine,” Greenfield said. “If you talk about Justice ReMix’d [a cinnamon and chocolate ice cream first released in September 2019], the flavor is there to call attention to the issue of criminal-justice reform and the activities the company has done.”
So what has Ben & Jerry’s done to address criminal justice reform? In conjunction with the release of the aforementioned Justice ReMix’d flavor, the company partnered with Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that works with local grassroots programs on racial justice initiatives. A portion of profits from each pint purchased benefits Advancement Project’s Free & Safe campaign.
Through the partnership with Advancement Project, Ben & Jerry’s has put political pressure on government officials to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, and end municipal policies of incarceration due to unpaid bail. The company’s founders also joined the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) in signing a letter to Congress in support of a bipartisan bill ending qualified immunity. (Ben Cohen discussed his views on qualified immunity with TriplePundit in a July email.)
In addition, Ben & Jerry’s corporate website and social media handles frequently post about racial bias and nonprofit groups doing the work to end racism.
So while many companies are desperately attempting to gain attention online as being committed to addressing racial injustice in America, Ben & Jerry’s and other companies like it are putting real action behind their words on social media. After all, as one brilliant recent headline by Forbes Senior Contributor Janice Gassam put it, “Dear Companies: Your BLM Posts Are Cute But We Want To See Policy Change.”
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Megan is a writer and editor interested in sharing stories of positive change and resilience. She is the author of Show Up and Bring Coffee, a book highlighting how to support friends who are parents of disabled children. You can follow her at JoyfulBraveAwesome.com.