Can Brands Face the Uncomfortable Truth?

It feels odd, disingenuous almost, to think about marketing in the context of the world’s reckoning around racial justice — there are lots of voices to elevate in the movement and marketers are certainly not the ones fighting for a chance to be freed from centurial systems of oppression.

Yet, with marketers sitting in the gap between some of the largest corporations in the world and the public promise they want to make around racism, there is lots of scrutiny around brands these days. Something I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about.

Nextdoor, the hyperlocal neighborhood-based social networking app, followed the suit of many others and came out with this graphic, suggesting that it was building a world where everyone felt safe in their neighborhood. This was followed up the CEO’s note that racism has no place on Nextdoor. Wow. How bold!

Adding a cherry on the top of the irony pie, all of this was happening in midst of people exposing the app’s ripe history of systemic racism and accusations of moderators deleting “Black Lives Matter” posts. Nextdoor’s CEO doubled down on the idea that neighborhoods are good — places where we really “see each other” and “resolve our differences” — certainly nothing controversial there.

But the problem isn’t just lack of hate or basic empathy — none of these will cure every layer of racism. Hate is only one way systems of oppression are built. Sure it’s easily visible — but apathy, ignorance, and access all perpetuate those same systems. All of those exist in neighborhoods with lovely people.

In Brands Have Nothing Real To Say About Racism, Amanda Mull writes about the discomfort of brands associating themselves with the current Zeitgeist:

“Many large companies in the U.S. might feel comfortable invoking the Black Lives Matter movement when there’s little else appropriate for them to say, or acknowledging that racism exists when it’s all anyone’s talking about. But in describing those things as mysterious, intractable phenomena, they pull a neat little sleight of hand. These brands set themselves outside the systems they serve, marveling at the country’s racism as though it’s an invisible pathogen for which no one is responsible, and therefore one that no one can meaningfully address.”

This isn’t just an issue with brands — this is a larger microcosm of how many of us (myself included) are comfortable seeing the world: We like condemning things like racism — seeing these systems as some foreign, vile bastions with no place in a modern, cultured society. But, we’re less comfortable with the uncomfortable truth: the part we play in these systems.

Certainly, we shouldn’t invalidate efforts from Nextdoor, or Nike, or Reddit — not enough is definitely not the same as nothing. Solidarity is needed for allyship. I was even impressed with Nike’s evocative #UntilWeAllWin campaign that got rolled out. It’s a lot better than the FBI awkwardly wishing everyone a happy MLK day every year.

But for real change, we need to step away from the idea that hate and toxicity is the only problem. American author Scott Woods writes:

While I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it.

So, what should brands say? Admit that inhumane police brutality is the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system that has been perpetuated by well-intentioned people for decades? That’s exactly what Ben and Jerry’s said. They got rightfully praised for it — and it was another feather in the cap of an incredible track record they have for activism as a brand.

Is this something that has raised the collective consciousness of the marketing world? Something we’ll see in the future from the Nextdoor, Nike, and Reddits of the world? Only time will tell.

Anti-racism work is supposed to be hard — and as someone who is still learning a lot it myself, I’m still not sure I have any of the answers. But while brands are answering the question of “Do you tolerate racism?”, maybe they should be asking a different question in relation to Mr. Woods proverbial boat of life example: “How much water is in my boat?”

For ourselves, it’s a lesson as well — that we can’t force brands to do the work if we’re not willing to do our own.

I’m currently based out of the Bay Area and work in the growth/marketing space. This piece was originally published as part of my new Substack newsletter, the Marketing Mind Meld. Get in touch here or via @kushaanshah on Twitter.