When the brands come to protest

This has been a rough 72 hours. Our nation, once again, is being ripped at the seams. 

But it’s ok, because this time, the brands are here. 

Over the last several years, companies have shifted to what they call ‘brand purpose.’ It’s their reason to exist, beyond selling products or services. And they sell the brand purpose through ‘cause marketing,’ balancing traditional marketing with ways of bettering society, often through activism. The idea is simple: put your money where your mouth is, especially as companies continue to message and sell to youth.

Last year, Business Roundtable, an organization made up of 181 CEOs across America’s largest and most influential companies, put this in writing, saying that they are moving away from shareholder primacy and into an environment that “benefits all stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.” 

This is as deep a business philosophical shift as we’ve seen. Of course, it’s a long distance between an airy statement and implementation, but the message is clear: It’s not just to say we’re making our shareholders richer; we need to have a relationship with consumers.

In an interview this morning, David Lieberman, associate professor of professional practice in media management at The New School, told me, “A lot of companies realize young people feel their wallet is their vote. They don't want to be part of a system supporting companies whose values they're not so sure about..they see what they buy as being an expression of themselves and their values.” 

He added that it’s not just consumers voting with their wallets, it’s current and potential employees. 

“Young people don't want to work for companies that don’t have values,” he said. “That’s become a big deal. You’re choosing between two companies to work for, which company do I feel better working for. It’s not just about money.”

However, as Meredith Ferguson, managing partner at DoSomething Strategic, told me last year:

“Marketers are missing the mark in how to get [cause marketing] right and use it as a connection point. If you do cause marketing, you need to understand it’s deeper and more than a simple campaign.”

And this is the challenge. Brands glom onto events, cultural moments, the way flies are attracted to garbage. Part of the issue is brands feel they are compelled to say something, rather than do something. 

This brings us to this weekend, where it seems like every company took to social media to provide lyrical support to protests. You can go to any news site to see which and how brands sent their messages.

But I want to highlight two: Amazon and Nike.  


This message is nice, but rings hollow when, in April, Amazon fired Gerald Bryson, a black warehouse worker in Staten Island, for “organizing and protesting” how Amazon has not given adequate protection against COVID-10. Amazon also smeared another black warehouse worker, Christian Smalls. In leaked documents from an Amazon meeting, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky wrote:

“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” wrote Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in notes from the meeting forwarded widely in the company.

“We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,” Zapolsky wrote. “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.”

Amazon likes to tout its diversity breakdown, but employees, according to Recode, expressed disappointment at Zapolsky and the organization. 

“It’s absolutely disgusting that they would talk about a coworker like that,” one current Amazon corporate employee told Recode. “I highly doubt they would have used those words if he was a white employee.”

Amazon also continues to sell its facial recognition software, which MIT Technology Review called “the invisible backbone” to the agency’s crackdown over the last couple of years, to police departments across the country, which has shown, through various studies, to be racially biased. 

The flip side: does it even matter? Interbrand has Amazon as the 3rd best brand in the world. Morning Consult ranks Amazon as the No. 2 most trusted brand.


The sneaker company has long associated itself with causes. It’s most recent, if not notable, is how it tied itself to Colin Kaepernick, who has become a modern symbol of protest. And while the company has stood up for Kaepernick’s kneeling, it has also seen the benefit of associating itself with protest.

Interbrand ranks Nike as the 16th best brand in the world. Indeed, when it pushed out its now-famous ad over Labor Day weekend in 2018, the company saw a 31 percent spike in online sales. 

Over the weekend, it posted an ad of support, to be the change that’s needed. It’s a good ad. 

But it’s easier to support someone else’s struggles, and as Cindy Gallop noted:

The company also has a long history of being on the wrong side of history. From child labor issues in the 1980s and 1990s, to its 2007 $7.6 million settlement of a racial discrimination lawsuit, to 2018’s big gender discrimination class action lawsuit, the company is often caught between ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ 

This Business Insider headline tells a story: “Inside Nike: Sources share claims of sexism, cheating, abuse, at the world’s wokest brand.” 

The point is this: putting out a message of solidarity loses its importance when a company, which has shown through its decisions and actions, to not actually stand for what they are saying. 

As white America grapples with the hard truth that for 400 years they have created and sustained a racist and sexist systemic structure, Corporate America, which has largely benefited from this—whether directly, from hiring practices to salary inequities, or indirectly, from co-opting black culture to sell products—find themselves caught between multiple worlds and multiple timelines, a past that doesn’t exist any more or a future that offers promise and equality. 

Companies standing up and getting behind social issues is new. It can also be helpful. Money matters. We know this. And we are living in a moment where people are waking up to the inequities of race and class and gender. A company can choose, through the power of how they treat their employees, which direction society moves in. Companies have historically shied away from taking a stance. They don’t have that option anymore.

Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

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Some interesting links:

  • Madison Avenue Pushes to Blur Lines Between TV Anchors, TV Ads (Variety)

  • How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change (Barack Obama)

  • Amazon pursues ties with Disney and other publishers in connected TV (Ad Age)

  • A COVID-19 Surge in Young People May Sabotage Reopening (The Daily Beast)

  • As Protests and Violence Spill Over, Trump Shrinks Back (NYT)

  • Shameless plug: I talked with Carat’s CMO, Robert Schwartz, on his podcast: The Human Element. Take a listen. (Spotify)