black lives matter protest sign

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The change we want to see from businesses goes much deeper than a celebrity plastered on to a three-month 360 brand campaign

Twelve weeks ago, speaking at The Grocer’s 2020 conference on ‘How To Perfect Cause Marketing & Avoid Reputational Disaster’ I was asked why Pepsi’s 2017 advert with Kendall Jenner received a very different reception to Coca-Cola’s iconic ‘Like To Teach The World To Sing’ 1970s campaign.

Knowing how much control usually goes into creating campaigns of this scale, I was unsure as to how something so culturally tone deaf could have passed through the various levels of sign-off between the corporation, the creative teams, and the brand powerhouse that is the Kardashians. Surely someone in the decision-making process might have flagged that this well-meaning but transparent jumping-on-the-bandwagon of political activism would not go down well with ‘Generation Woke’?

Off stage I was asked if the Pepsi ad received a bigger backlash than expected because “millennials are more angry now?”, a question that took me by surprise. ‘Anger’ is not the emotion I would use to describe a generation of people who, learning from the both the successes and failings of previous generations, are highly attuned to the critical importance of anti-racism, gender equality, sustainability and mental wellbeing as core pillars of the society we all share. Socially conscious, perhaps. Unjustifiably angry, no. For the record, ‘millennials’ – with the more senior end of the demographic approaching 40 – will soon be the generation to lead the way in finding 21st century solutions to our inherited 20th century (and beyond) problems. And this will happen through a forensic look at the deeply ingrained cultural problems within the powerful institutions – government, media, finance, tech and brands – that hold so much power over our everyday lives.

But not everyone is happy about this. Recently, the term ‘woke’ has been weaponised by traditional mainstream media to discredit those who have higher standards for what an inclusive and socially aware society should look like. As I said on stage, if you have a problem with that, then it reveals more about one’s personal belief system than it does about your standard ‘woke’ millennial.

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Millennials are right to hold those with positions of power accountable. Brands spend millions on ‘engaging’ this demographic with values-led campaigns, when really the change we want to see from businesses goes much, much deeper than a celebrity plastered on to a three-month 360 brand campaign, an experiential pop-up in East London, or – the biggest waste of brand spend in my opinion – making something really big and floating it down the Thames.

At the time of writing, only a few days after #BlackOutTuesday and ahead of scheduled Black Lives Matter peaceful protests across the UK, the internet was rightfully asking “where are Kendall Jenner and Pepsi now?”. Both parties posted the black square on Instagram, and you can make up your own mind about whether you feel they’ve gone far enough. While I won’t rehash the key points as to where this advert from 2017 went so wrong, I will note that in 2020, cause-led marketing and the concept of ‘purpose’ is calling us to go deeper than ‘what’s your why?’. It’s a supercharged look at one’s values and role as an individual, beyond how you work within a company to make products, create brand campaigns and reach consumers.

That means looking at how we can do better on a personal level by unpacking and reorganising beliefs, conscious/unconscious biases and the behaviours of ourselves and those within our ecosystems. Then, as a company, if the decision is made to go ahead with a campaign that calls for real systemic change, make sure it’s done with integrity. Examine the inclusivity or lack thereof within the business as a start, and be aware that the long-standing behaviour as a business is never more than an online search away.

My work has always been about serving those with a vision for better business. I use my position within media and brands to give businesses the information they need to take socially conscious campaigns and make the most ethical media choices possible. And that’s what I’ll continue to do in the face of much uncertainty and the challenges that lie as we try to rebuild our society and create stronger communities. I invite you to join me in deepening the understanding of the difference between being ‘not racist’ and actively anti-racist, examining how we can create positive change, and taking an investigative look at why it is that millennials – like many who have come before them – are a generation still raising awareness and campaigning for a society and business community that prioritises equality and responsible leadership in 2020.