Tens of thousands are marching against racial injustice worldwide. In doing so in the middle of a pandemic, many are taking a risk. But it’s a risk that’s worth it for a lot of people – particularly those of colour, who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. As Nike’s famous Colin Kaepernick campaign put it, they are choosing to believe in something at the risk of sacrificing everything.
That campaign came in 2018, two years before George Floyd’s murder and two years after the former NFL player Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. Since then, marketers and consumers of all backgrounds have held Nike up as an example of how corporations can and should speak out.
For this reason, Nike is the last brand you’d expect to do a tone-deaf Dove or Pepsi ad. Part of that is to do with brand authenticity which, despite being the most overused buzzword in marketing, still rings true in some cases. Nike feels authentic because, you can assume, it has a profound relationship with the black athletes, musicians and creatives it works with.
But away from its ads, many have said Nike has a long way to go internally and particularly at its most corporate level. Despite having three women, which is more than most, its executive board of eight is all white. And at vice president level, just 10% of Nike’s workforce are black to 77% who are white.
Board shaming isn’t new, but the scrutiny is up, with calls for brands to put their donations where their mouths are. Nike is giving more generously than most, pledging $40 million over the next four years to organisations that prioritise social justice, education and addressing racial inequality in America. But for some, it’s not the generosity of the donation, it’s that donating can feel like the onus on charities, instead of companies taking a hard stare at their board and asking what they can do to solve inequality in high-paid job roles.
Reddit – a new kind of gesture in the fight against injustice
Reddit’s co-founder Alexis Ohanian can be praised for taking one of the most transformational steps of any company recently. On June 5, he shared plans to step down from Reddit’s board so a black person can replace him. Ohanian also pledged to use gains on his Reddit shares to help the black community.
It’s a grand gesture but is it one to be celebrated? You could say this sort of action dwarfs Nike’s donation. But one, this isn’t the time for point scoring, and two, you need to put this into the context of Reddit’s role in amplifying hate speech, as so many other social media companies have long done.
Just days before Ohanian’s statement, Reddit’s former CEO Ellen Pao called out the company for addressing the Black Lives Matter movement while turning a blind eye to the racism that gets shared on the platform every day.
“You don’t get to say BLM when reddit (sic) nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long,” tweeted Pao, in a scenario that’s reminiscent of so many companies who have been quick to condone racism only to be brought to book.
Nike vs Reddit – who is right?
Years ago, doing good as a brand or corporation used to fall under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Companies would put a certain amount of resources into fighting climate change or helping underserved communities. But in 2020, CSR around race is going from monthly initiatives to every brand’s focal point.
We need more CEOs and board members of colour to steer the ship, not just influencers, senior creatives and diversity officers. At the same time, no one wants to be hired based on their skin colour alone. Hiring a BAME CEO to deal with BAME issues only isn’t progress, which is why donations such as Nike’s are needed to reform education, business and society.
For real corporate action to be meaningful, we need a two-pronged approach that identifies how to improve diversity in the world’s biggest companies, while working with societies to ensure more talents are given a pathway into top jobs at the Nikes and Reddits of this world in the first place.
Outside of donations and board appointments, real change will also come when tech companies – who are among the most powerful in the world now – follow their human stance with a digital one by recognising that the same algorithms that line their pockets are often the same algorithms that fan the flames of racial hatred. Are they prepared to believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything?
Kunal Pattany is a public speaker, technology commentator and the founder and CEO of Digital Human. With 15 years’ experience in marketing for leading companies like Kantar, he has turned his attention to the impact of digital and AI on humans and society’s response to innovation. To find out more about Digital Human, click here. To talk with Kunal about speaking opportunities, email firstname.lastname@example.org 👋