Despite increased attention on the issue — and the rollout of piecemeal reform policies in some cities — data indicates that police violence in the U.S. is actually getting worse.
The Washington Post's real-time database has recorded more fatal police shootings every year since it launched in 2015, with 2022 being the deadliest to date. Communities of color, particularly Black communities, continue to be disproportionately affected. Already this year, U.S. police have shot and killed 195 people, according to the database. Many, including the killings of Tyre Nichols, Keenan Anderson, Anthony Lowe Jr. and Manuel "Tortuguita" Terán, were highly publicized. Yet most of the brands that proclaimed to "stand with" Black communities following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 were largely nowhere to be seen.
So, why have brands gone silent on the issue of police violence, and how can they do better? TriplePundit connected with leaders in sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to get a better understanding.
Like the Black Lives Matter movement itself, the corporate pledges made after Floyd's murder were about much more than police violence. Companies committed billions of dollars in funding to tackle systemic inequities across society and the economy. Some succeeded in creating measurable progress — including the push to get more Black-owned brands on store shelves and devote more mainstream advertising spend to Black-owned media companies.
But by and large, many of these initially outspoken brands have failed to follow through. "It’s easy for everyone to jump on the bandwagon," Emerald-Jane "EJ" Hunter, founder of the DEI-focused integrated marketing firm myWHY Agency, said of corporate stands in favor of racial equity. "But it’s hard work and often calls for financial investment for companies to actually do the work, and do it well."
Particularly during uncertain economic times, programming that is viewed as "nice-to-have" or unrelated to the business is always at risk of being cut. And unfortunately too many brands still view their racial equity work this way.
"Many brands aren’t willing to part with the investment so take the lazy route by making a statement and claims and hope, just like many things, followers and consumers will forget over time what they said they would do," Hunter told us. "The commitment simply isn’t there to do what it takes to make the shift and change, and therein lies the problem: Until companies make the investment and give it the time that it takes, we’ll never see change."
"The issue of police violence has also become so politically charged, it’s safer for brands to not go 'too hard' on this stance for fear of being cancelled," Hunter said. While brands may be more keen to back off given the "anti-woke" political climate, consumer expectations — particularly among younger demographics — are only growing.
"Remaining quiet when police brutality continues to disproportionately impact communities of color is no longer an option," said Alix Lebec, founder and CEO of Lebec Consulting, which specializes in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and impact investing. "Eighty-two percent of millennial consumers expect corporations to align with their social and environmental values — and to stand up for key societal issues in real time."
Although it may seem safer to stay silent, brands that go bold — and back it up — stand to see real benefits. "Ben & Jerry’s is one of the best examples of a company and brand that immediately spoke up after George Floyd’s murder caused by inhumane police brutality in an authentic manner," Lebec said. "From its voice, consumer products, donations and stance on public policy, Ben & Jerry’s took action. This is a brand that leads with empathy and purpose."
The brand continues to work with grassroots racial empowerment and civil rights organizations like the Advancement Project, Close the Workhouse Coalition and the Power U Center for Social Change. "Taking bold positions on political topics has often helped the ice cream brand," Hunter added, citing a 2020 analysis from YouGov which found customer affinity scores double after Ben & Jerry's publicly condemned white supremacy and police violence. "The brand’s activism isn’t just the right thing to do. It also can help, in all honesty, your bottom line."
Still, what's a leader to do if their company remains hesitant? "One thing a business leader can tell their boss when they receive pushback is to look at the generations to follow and what matters to them. If their company wants to be around for years to come, they’ll soon be challenged by Gen Z and millennials for whom why businesses exist matters more than what they do," Hunter said. "You won’t exist for much longer without aligning with a cause or issue or a why that goes beyond dollars and cents."
"It doesn’t have to be specifically police brutality," she added, "but should that be the cause, then it’s worth knowing that advocacy work equals longevity for a brand. It also takes time to become the likes of Ben & Jerry's, so start now, be intentional, and practice what you preach internally and externally."
Hunter highly recommends connecting with outside experts or enlisting an agency to help you get better about acting and communicating around issues like police violence and equity more broadly.
"This isn’t the time to risk making mistakes with a DIY approach. You’re in this boat because if you had known better, you would’ve done better," she told us. "Nothing is worse than getting it wrong. Let the experts guide you so you do it right."
For most brands, the first step in "getting it right" will start internally, with building inclusivity in operations, hiring and promotion practices, and supply chains. "It begins at home, so ensure you’re all squared away internally before making external statements that become void of truth once you’re called out on your internal practices," Hunter advised.
Lebec agreed. "In addition to speaking up, companies need to truly live the values they espouse," she said. "This includes engaging in catalytic and trust-based philanthropy, impact investing and public-private partnership, supporting public policies that value equality and sustainability, and showing up for local communities."
If brand leadership has money to invest, the way they choose to do it also makes a big difference — both in terms of maximizing impact and supporting changemakers of color who are often overlooked. "Donate and invest in local, minority-owned businesses and nonprofits that have a strong track record with local communities, are typically underfunded, and have the potential to create more thriving local economies," Lebec told us.
"Corporations can also leverage their philanthropy in ways that will attract other forms of financing to the table — such as impact investment capital — and financially support organizations that are really making a difference here in the U.S. and across developing and emerging markets," she said. "Investing directly from corporate balance sheets, for instance, could unlock billions to trillion dollars of capital for economic and social equality."
Don't have money? Lend your voice. "Support public policies that are leveling the playing field for underrepresented business owners and entrepreneurs and are pro-equality and sustainability," she advised.
However they do it, brands would be wise to recognize the urgency of getting started. "In 2023, companies need to be vulnerable, action-oriented, timely, creative and authentic — or risk losing relevancy and loyalty," Lebec said.
Image credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.