The last few years in the U.S. have seen an explosive movement for racial justice, perhaps the most impactful since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.
Central to that movement has been the Black Lives Matter organization, a member-led global network of activists that has grown to over forty chapters since its founding in 2013.
Seven years on, we’ve arrived at a critical moment – a social awakening. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery – among countless others – have inflamed citizen activism around racial justice.
What makes it different this time around is the scale and spread of the movement.
In cities the world over, people are demanding real and lasting societal change.
And now, brands and corporations have entered the conversation, having made public statements to show their support for racial justice, pledged funds to activist organizations, and promised to overhaul their diversity and inclusion policies.
Many have been criticized for posturing; jumping on the bandwagon of a social justice movement by posting a black square on their Instagram pages and calling it a day.
This neglects the meaningful, ongoing work that must be done to show real support and enact change in areas where brands can make a difference – such as supporting Black owned businesses, or opening doors for Black professionals that have remained closed for far too long.
But what do consumers think? Among the many things that this movement has brought to light, one of them is this: individuals have power to make change. And as consumers, both our voices and wallets are our tools in demanding accountability from the companies we give our business to.
If brands want to join the march toward social progress, they need to understand what consumers really want to see from them.
The global impact is shedding light on local tensions.
Around the world, citizen activism in response to BLM has been explosive. And through a recent study we conducted across 18 different markets, the data reveals how truly global this movement has become.
China, the Philippines, India, Brazil, and South Africa all make up the top 5 countries where BLM has created the strongest mindshift. Consumers in these markets were the most likely to say that the movement has made tackling racism a more important issue for them.
For emerging markets like these, there are many reasons why the movement may have garnered more support in recent months.
For one thing, these countries are likely to have had the least experience with a movement like BLM because of different historical context vs. others where populations are highly diverse, and where issues like racism and xenophobia have been ongoing social problems.
Additionally, these countries are mainly non-white in their own demographic makeup, potentially heightening consumers’ empathy toward dealing with inequality in a global society that privileges the white experience.
The internet populations in these markets also skew younger, and young people are the most vocal about human rights issues across the board.
Unique to China, meanwhile, is the suggestion by some that the government is using BLM as a way to manipulate public sentiment against the U.S.
In other markets, many consumers said that tackling racism had always been important to them. The top five countries reporting this type of activism as an existing priority were Spain, Italy, Brazil, South Africa, and New Zealand.
Two markets noticeably absent from both lists are the U.S. and the UK, neither country making it far up either scale.
Where the U.S. and UK do feature, however, is among the top 5 markets where consumers are actually disengaged – saying that the BLM movement has neither emboldened them to tackle racial injustice, nor was it an important issue for them from the outset.
For two of the most diverse countries in the world to be so far down the list in prioritizing racial justice, this result speaks volumes.
For the U.S. especially, it highlights the deep divide that exists within our culture – despite the support we so readily see across social media posts and brand messaging.
Consumers are calling for action and accountability.
The evolution of BLM from a group of community organizers to a global human rights movement has meant that now, more than ever, brands are under the microscope to take a supportive stance.
But for consumers, actions matter more than words. The performative allyship that too often characterizes the corporate response isn’t enough – people are likely to perceive it as insincere, ineffective, and perhaps even exploitative of a serious issue if not met with real efforts by companies to change their own business culture.
What consumers do want to see from brands, especially at a global level, is real action.
Nearly 90% of people outside of the U.S. believe that brands have a duty to respond to the movement.
According to their international customers, brands should take action both outwardly – by supporting community initiatives, posting via social media, and making charitable donations – as well as internally by working toward better diversity within their own organizations.
While the global opinion appears to be unanimous, perceptions among Americans yet again point to our divided culture. Nearly 1 out of 3 U.S. consumers feel that brands do not need to be responding to the movement in any way.
U.S. consumers are also less likely than their global counterparts to say that making charitable donations, supporting community initiatives, and showing support via social media are the right ways for brands to respond.
For U.S. consumers broadly, the proper corporate response is to spark change from the inside. 46% of U.S. consumers believe that brands should review their hiring policies, compared with 38% of those outside the U.S.
Americans are also more inclined to say brands should be engaging with a diverse mix of suppliers and asking for feedback, both from their employees and their customers.
Young consumers in particular demand more from brands.
Though opinions in the U.S. have been, at a broad level, less enthusiastic than in other markets, the youth sentiment tells a different story.
BLM and other movements for social justice – including immigrant rights and transgender rights – have seen a groundswell of support among young Americans.
And the data reveals that their activism is what brands need to pay attention to.
In the U.S., Gen Z and millennials are 60% more likely than Gen X and nearly twice as likely as boomers to say that the BLM movement has made tackling racism more important for them.
Young Americans are more likely than their older counterparts to want the companies they buy from to take action.
What young Americans want to see further cements our understanding that performative allyship is not enough.
Yes, Gen Z / millennials are more likely to think positively of brands showing their support for BLM on social media – but this sits at the bottom of the list relative to other, more purposeful actions that show true accountability.
For example, half of young Americans want companies to review their hiring policies, and they’re over 20% more likely to demand that brands diversify their suppliers vs. older groups.
Some companies have embraced this type of change already, including beauty giant Sephora, which recently committed to stocking 15% of its shelf space with Black-owned brands.
A culture shift needs to happen from the inside.
Our research into consumer perceptions offers some insight behind the cynicism that inevitably follows when brands make a statement about social justice: allyship without accountability is not enough.
But where does accountability begin?
Putting your money where your mouth is a way to be accountable, and many brands have taken this step.
But not every organization is positioned to donate millions. And even for those who are, doing so while allowing for systemic inequalities to exist within their companies does not look quite like accountability, either.
As the research shows, making a cultural shift from the inside is crucial for brands who want to respond to the BLM movement – and indeed, to the changing world we live in – in a real, impactful and lasting way.
For this to occur, diversity and inclusion initiatives are critical. And while the tech industry has been more vocal and transparent than many others, reports from leading companies in this field show that little progress has been made when it comes to D&I in recent years.
True cultural shifts take time and – most importantly – commitment. A recent TechCrunch commentary on this topic described it poignantly through the words of Latinx activist, entrepreneur, and Code2040 CEO Karla Monterroso: “We’re past the window dressing stage and now it’s time to talk about accountability, consequences, promotions and retention.”