If ‘Black Lives Matter’ to brands, where are your black board members?

Brands that profess to support racial justice on social media without a single black board member aren’t helping the cause, they’re just being hypocrites.

black lives matterOnce upon a time I worked for Louis Vuitton. I got to know the people, the products, the history, the brand. And I really liked it. I still have a battered LV roller suitcase that follows me around the world and a dozen great memories of doing things with the people from the brand that were both challenging and a lot of fun.

At the time I was working there, the communications team at Louis Vuitton had commissioned the God-like film director Wong Kar-wai to make an extended cinema ad called ‘Journeys’. It was designed to reconnect Louis Vuitton with its heritage of travel and it was just about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. When the team at Louis Vuitton first showed it to me in Paris, I literally had tears in my eyes.

Back then I was always on planes and trains and the ad not only spoke to me, it crystallised the reason I loved Vuitton so much. I started to show the ad to other executives I worked with and then to MBA students. This, I explained, was how a brand reconnects with its DNA and builds an emotional connection.

About six months later I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’d finished teaching an evening class and wandered aimlessly into a late-night movie theatre. As I settled into my seat, I heard the unmistakable initial notes of the ‘Journeys’ ad. Wow, I thought to myself, this will be a chance to see the thing on the big screen and with an audience of consumers who don’t know this amazing film like I do.

The 90-second ad began to play and the combined effect of seeing it with others, in the real world and on the big screen had an even bigger impact on me than I was expecting. As with most emotional, long-form video the brand took its time to reveal itself. The audience sat spellbound as the ad played until, with precisely two seconds to go, the Louis Vuitton logo appeared across the screen.

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The cinema erupted. “Bullshit!” shouted one audience member. Boos rang out around the theatre. A woman, sat directly in front of me, leaned across to her partner and said: “Total fucking nonsense.”

And I was stunned. I had expected shock, awe and perhaps a ripple of applause. Instead everyone in that theatre – except me – hated it. I ignored much of the movie that followed as I puzzled over this very odd turn of events. Gradually I began to realise that I had, once again, forgotten the oldest rule of marketing: you are not the consumer.

Worse than that, I was part of the brand. I was paid by it. I knew the people. Knew the strategy. Wanted it to succeed. I had watched that ad with the intent and focus typical of all marketers, and completely alien to all the consumers who were being targeted by it. And I had watched it some 50 times more since. I had showed it to others. Gloried in its brilliance. I thought it would work wonders on the consumer.

But I was not the consumer. They sat all around me in that darkened theatre. And they were not in the mood for French luxury. The global financial crash was still sending ripples of economic pain across America. Plus, Cambridge leans very left. If I had exited the theatre and walked five blocks east I would have reached Noam Chomsky’s MIT office. If I had kept going another five minutes I would have quickly been subsumed into the blue-collar birthplace of Mark Wahlberg.

The ad was a disaster for this audience. I had been blinded by being inside the bubble of its production, and missed the implications of market orientation and seeing the ad through the consumer’s eyes as a result. The only eyes that ultimately count.

The marketing bubble

We marketers live in a branding bubble of our own creation. We think brands matter. That our brand matters. We think advertising is important. We think other people care. And with each passing year our branding bubble appears to become less and less transparent. An increasing proportion of marketers lose touch with the consumers they are meant to take their coordinates from, and fall for the bullshit that their brands and their communications make any kind of difference to society at large – and that this impact is a crucial part of their job.

Companies need to become the change they are tweeting about. Walk the walk before you tweet the tweet.

This week that bubble was all but impossible to ignore. America has been riven by the disgraceful, horrific murder of George Floyd. And bubble-bound marketers have been climbing over themselves to speak out, make a difference, take a stand and generally do the usual socially aware hanky-panky that makes them feel good about themselves while making zero difference to anything or anyone out there in the real world.

Inside the marketing bubble we think brands and marketers are being “brave”. Outside, the world burns and no-one gives a fuck about our cute little tweets, clever social media strategy or blacked-out logos.

Take the tawdry corporate soixante-neuf that played out this week between Nike and Adidas. It was a gag-inducing example of bubble marketing at its worst. First, Nike launched a monochrome ad across social media. “Don’t think this doesn’t affect you…Let’s all be part of the change,” it exclaimed as a tinkling piano played a melancholy tune in the background.

While it’s great that Nike wants to make a statement about racism and the lack of representation that African Americans face, it should also be apparent that Nike is not part of the change it seeks to promote. With the exception of its social media campaign, which, let’s all agree, makes two fifths of fuck-all difference to anything, it really isn’t doing much to confront this issue.

Just look at Nike’s leadership team, shown below. I am not talking about the long list of external directors or the lower level officers of the company. I am talking about the people that actually run Nike: its leadership team.

Despite focusing on sports that have a significant skew towards African American athletes, despite making much of its North American profit from black consumers, despite signing many of the world’s most famous athletes of colour as spokespeople, its leadership team is about as black as I am.

And then, just as the corporate hypocrisy was fading, Adidas jumped in and forced me to run for the bathroom once again. The sporting rival was so moved by Nike’s video, it retweeted the ad with its own message of support. “Together is how we move forward,” tweeted Adidas. “Together is how we make change.”

If you want to see a literal definition of what the marketing bubble looks like, go onto social media and look at all the industry arsehats retweeting what a “powerful” and “amazing” moment of solidarity that tweet represented. They are literally storming the White House and choking to death black men on the street in the middle of the day, and marketers are getting emotional about retweeting a video that was, in and of itself, total dog piss in the first place.

Together is not “how we make change”. It’s as socially unrealistic as it is grammatically incorrect. We make change by enacting it within our organisations and therefore becoming the exemplars for others. 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. Walk the walk before you tweet the tweet. Though that second step really isn’t necessary.

But Adidas cannot do that. Once again, its leadership team is just as white-bread as Nike despite also being in a predominantly, or certainly significantly, African American-influenced business. Its own executive board looks like it has just come in from a fun day of golf at an exclusive Scandinavian country club.

I am certainly not saying any of these senior people are racists. I am not even lobbying for more diversity at the executive levels of these companies – it would be nice but I have no clue about how diversity and leadership actually work. What I am saying is that this social media support for Black Lives Matter is not reflected in the way these companies operate and that, rather than lecturing consumers and society on how we should behave, they might want to put down their smartphones and sort-themselves-the-fuck-out first.

Widespread hypocrisy

And that stark blend of hypocrisy and social commentary – do as I tweet, not as I actually do – is everywhere in marketing. It’s not fair picking on just Nike and Adidas when a huge number of companies pay social media lip service to black lives, while simultaneously ensuring that none of those lives are lived out at the executive level at the very top of these companies.

Take Spotify, for example. In a very competitive field of entrants, it probably emerged as the most stupidly patronising brand of the week.

Not content with a home page that featured blacked-out channels, playlists and podcasts, the streaming service also inserted an eight-minute and 46-second track of silence across selected playlists and podcasts “as a solemn acknowledgement for the length of time that George Floyd was suffocated”. A Spotify spokesperson noted that “we are using the power of our platform to stand with Black creators, amplify their voices, and accelerate meaningful conversation and long-needed change”.

Then there was L’Oréal telling us that “speaking out is worth it”. I really hope so. Because I am telling L’Oréal that rather than advising the rest of us on how we should be living our lives it should take a long, hard look at its leadership team. Because change begins at home, not on social media.

And the same goes for that most worthy of companies, Apple. The brand was also among those observing ‘Blackout Tuesday’. It spent the day using its various platforms to “support Black artists, Black creators and Black communities”. Its usual Beats 1 radio schedule was cancelled for the day and replaced with an all-black playlist. Apple Music was also stripped back to focus on a single playlist ‘For Us, By Us’, featuring exclusively black artists.

Which is great. But kind of not great. You have that feeling of watching your uncle Terry and his wife trying to dance to hip-hop at a wedding. If Apple were really serious about the issue of black representation, it would move the focus away from messaging and music, and towards its leadership team and corporate advancement. I do not think it is appropriate to be talking about a “steadfast support of the Black voices that define music” but have none of them in your executive team. At least your logo is black, I suppose.

Again, I am not saying that companies have to have black people in their leadership teams as a general policy. But if you believe what you are telling the market about black voices, it should start with switching out some of your white executives in your upper echelons for executives of colour. Not because these people are bad. Not because you have to encourage more diversity in the boardroom. But because you are claiming to care about black issues and black representation – so do something meaningful about it.

Of course, that won’t happen. Social media is as easy and inexpensive to implement as it is ineffective. The ultimate box-ticking tactic. And it has the added chaff value of making it look like a company gives a shit about black people, which will, paradoxically, enable them to continue to employ absolutely none of them at the top of the company.

“We may not currently have any black people on the board,” comes the prepared answer, “but did you see our fierce tweet about inequality last week or the blacked-out logo we produced the week before? Respect.”

Lack of change

I could literally keep writing this column, and getting angrier and angrier for the rest of the day. The research I did for it took about an hour and resulted in (checks notes) 46 examples of companies that claim to care about black lives and yet have managed to construct a leadership team – in this advanced age of 2020 – that manages to steadfastly avoid any and all black faces.

And, before you ask, I am not trying to be politically correct here. I am a man who uses words like ‘fuck’ and ‘tits’ – a lot. The long suffering sub-editors at Marketing Week will confirm, readily, that I gave up on appearing socially and politically aware a long time ago. I really don’t care about any of that PC bullshit and am strongly suspicious of those that trot it out at every possible occasion.

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But that lack of personal concern for ‘cool’, and the giving of not even the faintest of fuck about how I come across, makes me weirdly qualified to speak up against the companies that use social media to project one image while concealing an almost total disregard for equality and fairness at their highest strata of corporate strategy. If these companies really wanted to do something meaningful, they would get off social media and get on with changing who is in charge. One black COO is worth a billion ‘Black Lives Matter’ tweets.

There was a rumour of a famous industry meeting between Beyoncé and Reebok last year. They supposedly met to discuss the possibility of a co-branded collection. According to reports, the Reebok team were midway through their pitch when the star stopped the presentation and asked: “Is this the team that’ll be working on my product?”

The Reebok group, who have since steadfastly denied the incident, confirmed that this was indeed the project team. At which point Beyoncé got up and walked towards the door. “Nobody in this room reflects my background, my skin colour, and where I’m from, and what I want to do,” she reportedly said over her shoulder. And exited the room.

It’s a confronting story. But you can see Beyoncé’s point. If you are serious about black lives, show me some. Otherwise it’s talk. Social media talk. From inside a brand bubble that remains part of the problem. Not part of any long-term solution.