Brands Are Speaking Out on Black Lives Matter. How Are Consumers Going to Respond?

Backing protesters is divisive; backing small firms is not. What brands shouldn't do: stay silent

Getty Images / Morning Consult illustration by Samantha Elbouez
June 2, 2020 at 12:01 am ET

As protests following the death of George Floyd while in police custody multiplied across the country, many major brands used their platforms to speak up about systemic racial inequality, police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

While in the past brands often avoided aligning themselves with political and social issues for fear of alienating swatches of consumers or striking the wrong tone, some of the country’s biggest companies now have made exceptions to that policy.

It’s the right move, according to new Morning Consult polling. Even though the survey shows that brands’ voicing of support for such causes is a divisive matter, especially along racial lines, there is one thing people agree on: Brands should not stay silent. 

Among all adults, as well as both black and white consumers, more people than not said that if a company declined to make an official statement about the protests, that would cause them to see a brand in a less favorable light.

Some statements are more divisive than others, however, according to the Morning Consult survey, which was conducted May 31-June 1 among 1,990 U.S. adults. 

Some brands spoke out in support of protesters on social media over the weekend, a move that saw a larger share of respondents say that they would have a less favorable view of a brand than the share of people who say they would have a more favorable view of the company, for a net negative 4 points. That attitude deepens to negative 11 among white adults, but black adults report a polar opposite reaction, strongly supporting such a move, for a net positive 32.

Some of the most notable examples of this kind of action over the weekend came from TikTok, Amazon.com Inc. and Netflix Inc., which tweeted their support of black communities and for the Black Lives Matter movement. Twitter Inc. itself turned the logo on its profile image black, set its header banner to black and changed its bio to the Black Lives Matter hashtag.

Responses also differed along generational lines. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of Generation Z and millennials said they view brands that support protesters on social media more favorably, while 39 percent of Generation X and Baby Boomers said the same.

Some brands went a step further: YouTube pledged to donate $1 million to social justice causes. Half of all adults said that donations to social justice groups increase brand favorability in their eyes.

Other types of financial support, such as establishing a fund for small businesses that were impacted by looting during protests or donating to community cleanup efforts, can also promote brand favorability across different demographics. Fifty-six percent of respondents said donating to small businesses would improve their view of a brand, while 51 percent said the same of companies that support community cleanups. 

In addition to brands, business leaders also got involved in putting out statements, but to their staffers. Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook and Snap Inc. Chief Executive Evan Spiegel both sent lengthy notes to their employees addressing systemic racism in the United States, according to media reports. 

Cook commented directly on Floyd’s death, according to a copy of his note published by CNBC. Spiegel did not mention Floyd by name, per the memo obtained by The Information, but he called for the creation of “a diverse, non-partisan Commission on Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations.”

What gets some of the most public support pertains to the messages business leaders convey to their employees. Sixty-nine percent said that it is important to mention the death of George Floyd in company messages responding to the demonstrations, and roughly two-thirds said they find it appropriate for CEOs (68 percent) and executives (65 percent) to share messages about the demonstration. Those actions garner more support than if a statement was put out by a brand spokesperson (64 percent) or its social media account (52 percent).

Brands might also consider asking their employees to participate in racial sensitivity training, as 41 percent of respondents said that would increase brand favorability. Forty-eight percent of black Americans said that would be the case for them, while 39 percent of white Americans agreed.

With the economic impact of the coronavirus still on the minds of many, 74 percent of all U.S. adults said it is important for companies to emphasize support of small businesses in their messaging, and 72 percent said the same of the protection of private property and stores.

That sort of message makes the most impact among older generations: Eighty-three percent of Baby Boomers said they’d like to see companies mention the protection of private property, and 81 percent said companies should mention small-business support. Sixty percent of Gen Z adults said the same of each topic. To reach the youngest generation, the No. 1 thing the companies should emphasize is Floyd’s untimely death.

Retailers such as Target Corp., which is based in Minneapolis and has been significantly impacted by looting during the protests, temporarily closed some of its locations as a result, a move that could also prove beneficial for brands, Morning Consult polling found.

Fifty-one percent of all U.S. adults said they would have a more positive view of a company that adds additional security measures for “at risk” stores, while 46 percent said they would appreciate brands that close those stores completely. Those two measures are more popular among white Americans than black Americans.

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