The age of accountability: ‘Business as usual is dead. Hooray for that’

Facebook and the Washington Redskins are learning that partners will no longer accept excuses for not meeting their standards.

Emboldened by a new culture of challenging the status quo, brands are putting institutions on notice, from an 88-year-old professional sports franchise to the world’s largest social media company. 

FedEx, Nike, Coca-Cola and Starbucks are among the brands exerting their influence with companies they do business with, demanding big, history-making changes. And those progressive brands are being cheered on and counseled by agencies that are encouraging them to be ambitious.

“It’s great to witness brands adapting, flexing and changing, while using their values to drive the moves they are making,” says Melissa Waggener Zorkin, global CEO and founder of WE. “That’s going to be imperative for brands that wish to remain relevant and thrive in the times we’re living...Business as usual is dead. Hooray for that.” 

Lisa Rosenberg, partner and president of consumer brands at Allison+Partners, says this unique time in history can’t be highlighted enough. 

“Amidst all this upheaval and cultural momentum, brands have been given unofficial permission to be part of and create sustainable change around previously established norms,” she says. 

Never say NEVER

Despite protests from Native American groups for more than a decade, the Washington Redskins said last week that it is beginning “a thorough review” of its name and logo. The catalyst for that change is widely believed to have been FedEx, the sponsor of the team’s home stadium, which said in a statement that it had “communicated to the team in Washington our request that they change the team name.” 

Nike, the NFL’s official apparel partner, also released a statement that said, “We are pleased to see the team taking a first step towards change.” Earlier, Nike stopped prominently featuring the team’s products on its ecommerce websites. 

Even starting a review process is a dramatic about-face for team owner Daniel Snyder, who told USA Today in 2013, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.” 

Meanwhile, Facebook is facing intense advertiser pressure and criticism over its laissez faire policies on hate speech and disinformation. More than 100 brands, including Coca-Cola, Unilever, Adidas and Starbucks, are pausing advertising throughout July on the social network in support of the #StopHateForProfit initiative. 

The movement was started by leaders from advocacy groups including Color of Change, Free Press, the Anti-Defamation League, and NAACP. 

Facebook commissioned an independent two-year audit of its policies, and released the results for this week. The report found that the company has taken steps to cease hate speech, but largely hasn’t moved quickly enough. “[Positive decisions] could be obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights,” the report found. This includes exempting politicians from fact-checking and allowing posts that spread “hate/violent speech.”  

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said this week that Facebook will “put more of [the audit’s] proposals into practice soon” and noted that the company has been listening to the advice of civil rights organizations.   

Both companies are examples of what can happen to even the most powerful organizations if they don’t evolve to keep up with the times.

“Reputation challenges often occur when we miss or underestimate these shifts in the hearts and minds of our stakeholders,” says Oscar Suris, executive MD of C-suite strategy and crisis at Zeno Group. “More than ever, brands need to stay attuned to the times. What worked last year – your message, your imagery, your policy, your brand name – may no longer work today, simply because the public’s values and priorities have changed.”

Especially now, as the Black Lives Matter movement shows no signs of slowing down. Brands like FedEx get that – and that consumers expect them to act as catalysts for social change. They aren’t asking, but putting partners in positions where they have to change. 

“These tactics are especially effective now because we are living in unprecedented circumstances,” Waggener Zorkin says. “People are looking around and seeing the status quo and saying, ‘That doesn't work anymore or we've evolved, so we should as a company, too.’”

Hannah Peters, U.S. CSR head and better impact practice leader at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, agrees, saying, “This has been building for years, but the focus on corporate responsibility has never been greater.” 

“If brands are going to take a stand, there has never been a better time to do it,” she says. 

The age of accountability 

Since early April, Porter Novelli has been tracking consumer sentiment on brand involvement as it relates to social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion and racial inequality “on a biweekly basis because our world is changing so rapidly,” says Whitney Dailey, VP for marketing and research and insights.    

In the two most recent waves of research for the PN Purpose Tracker, fielded June 10 and June 26, it found seven in 10 Americans believe companies have “more responsibility than ever before to address social justice issues.” 

Sixty-four percent of respondents said, “It’s no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues.” And 73% percent of Americans even agreed with the statement, “I wish more companies would be honest about their past mistakes of biases in addressing or talking about race.” 

However, it is not just important to join the conversation, according to research from the Omnicom Group firm. More than three-quarters of Americans (78%) agree that “the most important action a company can take coming out of the current conversation is to change its business policies and operations to promote racial equality.” 

To that end, Nike removed Redskins-branded clothing from its online store, and other companies followed suit. Walmart tweeted, “Given today’s announcement by the NFL and the Washington team’s ownership, we are discontinuing the sale of items that reference the team’s name and logo.”

According to the PN Purpose Tracker, 84% of Americans also believe “companies have a responsibility to hold their advertising platforms accountable for fake news and hate speech.” Seventy-six percent also say they would stop buying from a company that advertises on  such a platform. 

Pointing to the research, Soon Mee Kim, EVP and global diversity and inclusion leader at Porter, says companies have clearly been emboldened by their employees, consumers and other stakeholders. 

“Advertisers seem to be creating and affecting change, but I think it’s really in response to a very vocal consumer base and what has happened in the past few months including with George Floyd,” says Kim. “Issues that were not new, like with the Washington Redskins, or just problematic even six to eight weeks ago are now, in this moment, especially sensitive and cringey.” 

Rosenberg adds that this includes companies that haven’t spoken out before or whose previous positions may have been different. 

“It is OK for a brand who has never entered this kind of conversation to do so now. First of all, company leadership changes, but the world does too. A brand’s past shouldn’t stop them from trying to do what they now think is now right and saying so,” says Rosenberg. 

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