Branding Expert Kris Ruby

Brand Activism | Should brands take a stand on social justice issues?

The intersection of brand activism, personal branding and corporate brand marketing.

brand activism PR webinar

As racial tensions continue to rise in the United States, one thing is clear: there is no longer a separation of social justice issues from the work we do in public relations, advertising, and marketing.

What is brand activism?

Brand activism is the process of brands using public relations strategies, corporate social responsibility and marketing techniques to take a public stand on socio and political issues. This can include:

  • Environmental activism & protection
  • Social justice activism
  • Political activism
  • Economic activism

Conscious Consumerism & Future-Proofing your Brand

Creating a brand strategy for the future means thinking about new ways to connect with your consumers and target audience. Consumers want to buy from brands that have shared core values and brand alignment. Whether it is supporting a social cause standing behind a social movement, consumers choose brands that have the same values.

Brand activism: do consumers care?

Consumers expect more from brands today. Consumers vote with their dollars! What does this mean for your brand? Consumers expect more from you. They want to support companies and brands that:

  • Use their brand awareness for positive impact
  • Connect with their customer’s core values
  • Support social causes
  • Participate in consumer activism and social movements
  • Display brand values prominently on their web site
  • Have a positive impact on the environment, climate change or societal issues

If you don’t participate in social activism brand marketing, you run the risk of facing public backlash.

Previously, there was a clear delineation between social justice, brand activism, and public relations. That no longer exists. 

For years, I have been actively involved in the conversation around criminal justice reform and I have used my platform to speak on some of the issues that emerged. But I kept most of this to myself because it seemed personal to me. While I spoke about it in media interviews, I chose not to post about it online.

I didn’t want to get more likes because of my work in the area and didn’t want to talk about these issues because I felt they were separate from the work I was hired to do. Plus, most people would not understand why criminal justice reform was important to me, and most could not picture me visiting a prison or having a passion for the formerly incarcerated, so it seemed like a personal brand disconnect. So, I chose to stay quiet about it.

But recently, something changed. As protests occurred last week throughout the United States, I couldn’t help but notice a huge disconnect: thousands of people were protesting in the streets for racial justice campaigns, but very few were protesting for criminal justice reform. Something bothered me about it. Not just a little. I mean a lot. It bothered me so much to the point where I decided to call Marcus Glover and Vincent Bragg, who I have been in talks with for years around the conversation of criminal justice reform.

After speaking with Westchester County Business Journal, we decided to put this program together, in a record five-day time period. I put my heart and soul into creating this program along with the team at Westfair to hold space for this important conversation.

Confession: I typically tune out when people throw out words like “privilege” in my presence. As someone who has worked hard for everything I have built, I find it offensive. It is not a message that resonates with me. But something changed. I spent hours on the phone with Marcus and Vincent preparing for this webinar behind the scenes. Those conversations were priceless.

I listened to their perspective in a way that never would have happened if I saw the same point written on a social media post. When Marcus and I spoke, he shared his struggles with getting people to really see him and hear his message. I shared my similar struggle with clients to hear and see my message, too. I want respect in my client relationships. And if I could be “seen” that is what I would want to be seen for.

After speaking with Marcus, it seems he was advocating for the same thing. That really hit me. Maybe what we both wanted was not that different. Maybe if we both stopped to see each other, we could stop arguing about the language around the discussion and truly listen. As Marcus shared his story, I said, “If someone sees you, what do you want them to do next?” And what struck me is that there wasn’t much he was asking for. And when he asked me the question, I didn’t have an answer either.

Being seen and respected for who we are and our inherent value as human beings is actually the big action to take. As I sit here as a brand marketer, focused on the actions that clients need to take to address these issues, I have to pause: maybe the action is non-action when it comes to marketing. Maybe the action is really seeing someone.

To see someone fully, it is not a loud or public process, it is an internal, silent one.

As a strategic, logical, creative person, I lead with intellect. It is more challenging for me to lead with my heart. But my conversation with Marcus made me realize that part of the action he is asking me, and all of us to take, is to lead with our hearts first, and the other side of our brains, second. It is easy to debate someone point by point; I’ve made a career out of doing it pretty well as a TV commentator.

But it is not as easy to sit and listen to someone. When someone tells you how they feel, it is very hard to argue with their feelings. I can invalidate and debate a point you say, but I can’t invalidate how you feel.

During the webinar, Marcus did an exercise on privilege, which was also pretty jarring. At the end of the exercise, I had all ten fingers up, Vincent had five, and Marcus had none. This exercise was meant to show the difference in life experiences. Marcus’ point was that while we both grew up in Westchester County, we had vastly different experiences and still do.

My intention in creating this brand activism webinar was to create a piece of content that would truly change the narrative. I wanted you to really hear and see what Marcus and Vincent were saying and to try to see how criminal justice reform was linked to social justice movements. I truly feel the webinar we recorded was a gift for anyone who is able to hear it.

Marcus, Vincent, and I come from all different walks of life. Vincent was in California, Marcus was in Manhattan and I recorded from Westchester. All three of us have vastly different political perspectives. And even though we disagreed, we disagreed with tact, and most importantly, with respect.

Should your brand stay silent?  Brand marketers are embracing brand activism, but buyer beware: it comes with its own set of risks.  

CEOs should talk about social justice issues, but only ones that they have an inherent passion for and a clear track record of standing behind. I didn’t post a justice for George Floyd  Facebook post or a black square on Instagram because it didn’t feel authentic to me. It’s not because I didn’t want justice for Floyd or because I disagreed with the movement, it’s because I refuse to be pressured into how to creatively show my perspective. To me, posting a black square on Instagram is not that creative; anyone can do it. Creating a webinar to hold this sacred conversation, however, is.

We all have something to protest about. But most importantly, we all have different forms of how we communicate that message, and we must be more accepting and less judgmental. If we all protested the same things with the same messages, we wouldn’t be that diverse. If we are fighting for diversity and inclusion, we must be open to diversity of thinking and how that thinking is expressed, too. That starts with listening more than talking.

We all have contributions to make in different ways. As a society, we must stop pressuring people on the right way to contribute to critical conversations. Every contribution is valuable. Some contributions take longer to plan and strategize. It doesn’t mean it’s not happening, it simply means it’s in the works. We are all trying to do the best we can and we are all grappling with the best way and right way to exhibit self-expression on these very pressing issues.

Below please find Ruby Media Group’s contribution to the social justice conversation taking place across the nation. I hope it is as valuable to you as it was to me.

And to Marcus and Vincent, I want you to know, I see you. I may not have always have heard you, but I’m listening to you. We all are. Keep talking.

And most importantly, my friends, keep passing the mic.

I urge you to think about: who is the Marcus or Vincent in your community that you can pass the mic to? That is the next step. And that is the next right action to take. Take it.

RUBY MEDIA GROUP’S PASS THE MIC CAMPAIGN AND PR CHALLENGE TO ANY AGENCY OWNER READING THIS:

If you are someone with a platform and a following, pass the mic.

If you are someone with the spotlight on you, pass the mic.

If you work in public relations, pass the mic.

If you have access to a loud network, pass the mic.

If you have strong media relationships that can extend the reach of a social justice campaign, pass the mic.

I passed the mic to Vincent and Marcus. Now, it’s your turn. Who will you pass the mic to next? The world is waiting.

I do not consider my media relationships or public relations skills a privilege, but some people out there may. Access to media and on-air time may be a privilege considered by some. It is not how I view it, but if it is how others view it, see what you can do to extend that privilege with someone else who could benefit from the air time. I urge you to think about this. If the term privilege turns you off, think about it as sharing. Who can you share your space with to amplify their message? Let me know. I’d love to hear.

BRAND ACTIVISM MARKETING/ PR WEBINAR: WATCH

Key Takeaways:

  • Social Justice Movements are not a social media trend or PR opportunity.
  • Slacktivism is not real activism.
  • A commitment to social justice reform means the act of “committing to.” A commitment is not a social media post. It is a continuous action; not a one-off PR tactic.

Commitments PR firms can make in racial equity and social justice reform

Actionable steps you can take within your agency:

  • Pass the mic. Give others the mic who have a message to say. Put the spotlight on them.
  • Revise Brand Purpose. Help your clients redefine their mission statement and brand purpose. Consumers today want mission-driven brands. If a brand’s mission is not crystal clear, consumers may be likely to skip over them.
  • Train internal employees to consider bias in graphic design, social media marketing, and creative work.
  • Diversify donations. If you are going to make donations, consider organizations like Defy Ventures.
  • Help other people. Maybe you can’t hire everyone that applied to work with you, but you can help those same applicants get jobs with other people within your network. Make those introductions and referrals.

Performative Activism & Social Media Activism:

Is social media activism effective?  Yes, but only if it is backed up with meaningful action from corporate executives.

Here are some questions to ask before hopping on hashtag activism trends like #blackouttuesday.

Before participating in a social media trend ask yourself:

  • Can my company sustain positive, continuous action towards this cause beyond one post?
  • Is this something I am deeply passionate about?
  • Am I posting this because it is in my company’s DNA or because I want to look good to my followers?
  • Has my brand followed through on previous commitments I have made in this area?

If the answer is no to these questions, you may want to reconsider posting anything. You can end up doing more harm than good, and you will most certainly be called out for it.

What is slacktivism and hashtag activism?

“Slacktivism is when brands post hashtags on social media but then never follow up with any tangible action. A lot of brands are trying to do corporate social responsibility right but they’re not necessarily hitting the mark and other brands are just failing outright.”  -Kris Ruby, Ruby Media Group  

PR BRAND ACTIVISM WEBINAR

Every business owner, social media manager, and brand manager is faced with the same question: how does a brand navigate through the protests that are taking place online and how do brands make real change?

Brands are racing to support social justice movements on social media with hashtags, black squares, and donations to organizations. But many of these same brands are now being called out for not having people of color on their board, lack of diversity in the hiring process and not being open to second-chance hiring practices.

Kris Ruby, the CEO of Ruby Media Group, a top New York public relations firm with 13+ years of experience in crisis communications, hosted an informative discussion with two leading advertising executives on the right way (and wrong way) for companies to navigate brand activism.

In this PR webinar and social justice podcast episode we discussed:

  • Brand activism or brand neutrality: What is the right call for your business?
  • Influencer Marketing & Slacktivism: Should you unfollow influencers who don’t use their platform to post about social movements?
  • Hashtag Activism Case Studies: Case studies of brands who got it right and examples of brands that failed (learn from their mistakes with insights and analysis from Vincent Bragg and Marcus Glover.)
  • Criminal Justice Reform: The important conversation missing on social media and why second chance hiring matters in the topic of social justice plus an exclusive interview with Vincent Bragg who shares how the PPP loan is unavailable to those with specific criminal histories and why business owners must raise awareness about this if they want to make meaningful change, fast.

Social Change, Corporate Social Responsibility and Advocacy PR Firm:

What does Public Relations have to do with social justice campaigns? A lot! Public Relations is a critical component of cause marketing. Cause marketing agency’s help create the narrative and push actionable change forward. If you are looking to speak with a social impact marketing agency or would like to create a media campaign for social impact, contact us today.

PR BRAND ACTIVISM PODCAST: LISTEN HERE 

THE PANELISTS

Vincent Bragg is the founder and CEO of ConCreates, a creative advertising agency that is powered by formerly incarcerated and incarcerated men and women.

“I believe that creativity without opportunity is what leads to criminality.”

Marcus Glover spent his advertising career as a brand enthusiast and evangelist. He served 15 years in the advertising industry as an executive and global creative director for many large advertising agencies.  He serves on the National Board of Directors of Defy Ventures.

“What I have advocated for most in the world is people who are deserving of a second chance and in some cases, a legitimate first chance, that is, people with criminal histories.”

CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY WEBINAR HIGHLIGHTS

“If you want change, you must inspire change, you must not force the change.”-Kris Ruby

  • Corporate social responsibility must be embedded in the fabric of your company and corporate culture to be truly effective.
  • Make changes within your organization and corporate culture. The biggest mistake brands make is that they issue press releases and brand statements first before making these changes. Make the changes first; publicize the changes second.
  • Do not overlook the diversity of your customers. They are some of your best storytellers.
  • In a moment of adversity and national crisis, speak to the uniqueness of your customers.
  • There’s a difference between real activism and hashtag activism.

BRAND ACTIVISM: MISTAKES BRANDS ARE MAKING

“There’s a lot of conversation around performative allyship in brand activism like throwing the Black Lives Matter hashtag around and posting a black square on social media. By and large, people are very unsatisfied with these very flashy gestures. What we’re talking about is substantive change. And so, one of the things that we’re asking for is open hiring practices, bringing people into the economy who have served their debt to society, giving them a second chance and in some cases, the first legitimate chance that they’ve ever had.”- Marcus Glover, Defy Ventures

“Ben and Jerry’s stands for criminal justice reform and second chances. It’s easy for them to make a brand statement and follow through because it’s a part of the fabric of their company. A large number of brands are doing it wrong because they’re rushing to make a statement and say ‘we stand with the black community,’ and it’s not really part of a long-term plan of action.”- Vincent Bragg, ConCreates

“Brands are universal storytellers. They are our common points of reference culturally. We commonly believe that they don’t always get it right, that they’re not always sharing narratives that are empowering voices and helping to move conversations forward and they’re shying away.  I think if we agree that at a very high level, brands have this role, as chief cultural storytellers, then what we begin to see is this slow disintegration and the systems of integrity, the more you go down the food chain, whether it’s in production, not using diverse production companies.  Give impacted people a seat at the table and not just in a token sense, but actually being able to steer the process.” -Marcus Glover, Defy Ventures

“There has been a long road in the advertising PR and marketing business towards diversity and inclusion. And it still is woefully neglectful of the promise that it has. I remember the Coca Cola commercial, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” It was all about diversity in this beautiful mosaic of all these different faces that represent America. But when you really think about it, you have to wonder what level of diversity was behind that? And that was 40 or 50 years ago and we’re still having these same conversations. I don’t think that the marketing, PR or corporate brand industries and platforms are above this conversation and it’s just not going to be as easy as throwing a black square on Instagram. We’re going to have to uproot the tree at the roots in order to really instill a greater sense of diversity and equality in us.” -Marcus Glover, Defy Ventures

ADVERTISING AGENCY DIVERSITY. WHAT IS NEEDED? A PARADIGM SHIFT

“What I’d like to do is establish the realities in which where we’re operating.  We all grew up in the same area walking the same streets, but yet we have such different experiences. And part of this whole period that we are in is learning what it means to be in someone else’s shoes. I don’t necessarily think I am any different than anyone else other than that I’ve had very different experiences. And to the degree that the most effective brands are those that know how to speak to people’s uniqueness, brands are really not, by and large, doing a really great job of understanding these issues.  We’re beginning to wake up to the reality that over time, there are things that have been overlooked in society that are deeply distressing.”-Marcus Glover, Defy Ventures

INCARCERATION, SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENTS, AND BRAND ACTIVISM

“Look at brands who have this built into the fabric of their company. When you think about the companies that benefit from prison labor and why something like this wouldn’t be embedded in the fabric, maybe we could start there. Then you have these brands making claims that say, ‘we stand with the black community.’ It’s impossible to stand with the black community when we’re incarcerated at five times the rate of any other race. And so, to not stand with the formerly incarcerated community is a way that brands are doing it wrong.”- Vincent Bragg, ConCreates

“There are 3,200 brands out there that benefit off prison labor. It’s counterproductive to make these brand statements if you can’t really stand behind them. You can’t say you stand for the black community or stand in solidarity with the black community without actually looking at the fabric of your company. The black community is incarcerated at five times the rate in state prisons and of any other race out there. And so, if this isn’t a part of your company’s value system, then that’s what’s wrong if you’re benefiting off of 17 cents an hour prison labor. Here in California, these individuals fight fires that you see on the news when ten-million-dollar houses in Malibu are burning. Those are incarcerated people fighting those fires and then when they get out of prison, they can’t even be firemen.”- Vincent Bragg, ConCreates 

PRISON REFORM AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE

“If you’ve ever stepped foot in a state office building. If you’ve ever gone to a DMV and seen the countertops, the desks, the chairs, the cabinets, that’s all prison labor.  That is all made by the hands of incarcerated people. That’s not IKEA furniture.  In many jails and prisons, the masks that you’re wearing on your face are made by the hands of prison labor and yet is being paid a fraction of the cost. It only takes two hours of your time to watch a documentary called 13th on Netflix that shows the 13th amendment in the Constitution which gave cover to wealth holders to use and create an extension, a bridge from the plantation system in slavery to the prison system that we have now as a mechanism for corporate profit.” – Marcus Glover, Defy Ventures

ENTREPRENEURSHIP

“I was able to realize the difference between me and any of these CEOs out there was that my product was illegal. If I could transform my hustle into something that wouldn’t get me sent to prison, then I would still be successful when I got out.  It’s the belief system that, hey, this guy isn’t a bank robber. He’s actually a strategist. If we were able to channel that particular mindset and skillset into something in the agency world, I could be successful too.” -Vincent Bragg, ConCreates

New advertising agency model: Paying for creative ideas from inmates behind bars  

“We will get a creative brief that explains what the brand is looking for.  We can blast that out or target it and we have it down to a science. If we’re looking for a Latino male demographic for brands in Texas, we’re not going to target Latinos in California because these are two different mentalities or demographics. We would blast that creative brief out to those specific demographics that we’re looking for insights or opinions on and essentially everybody’s paid for their ideas. Then, once we start to narrow those things down to maybe the top five ideas, those individuals are paid again. Ten percent of my company is also owned by the entire network, meaning when we profit, then the entire network profits, and so there’s a sense of ownership and pride in the brand because there’s ownership in contributing.” -Vincent Bragg, ConCreates

Purpose-driven brand exercise:

Brands who do nothing in the area of CSR risk public backlash and PR nightmares. But brands who say too much can risk alienating half of their customer base.

  1. Think beyond bottom line profits: how can your brand make the world a better place to live in?
  2. Purpose-driven brands: What is your brand’s purpose? How can you convey that purpose in marketing collateral?
  3. Corporate Social Responsibility: What are the three CSR areas your brand can tackle in a socially responsible way?

Need help developing a corporate social responsibility PR plan? Contact us today. While brand activism can be good for business, it can also be bad for business (and profits) if not done correctly.

BRAND ACTIVISM CONSULTING AGENCY SERVICES/ BRANDING EXPERT 

Brand neutrality in the outrage era: a winner or losing PR strategy?  Should your business support a social cause? It’s complicated. That is why a brand strategist can help you navigate the process and create a complete marketing communications strategy before your brand takes further action. Contact us today for a free PR audit.

Want to learn more about brand activism? Here are some resources:

RESOURCES:

Westfair: Brand Activism Public Relations Webinar

Corporate Social Responsibility, PR and the rise of CEO Activism

Brands take stand on racism: Tracking brands response to racial injustice  

Brand Activism: From Purpose to Action

ABOUT THE PANELISTS

MARCUS GLOVER is a successful entrepreneur and consummate storyteller. His breadth of experience and expertise at weaving together relevant trends, cultural influences and technologies has made him a sought-after adviser and speaker. As the founding partner of the private equity firm M. Glover Capital and board chair of Defy Ventures, Glover catalyzes change through social impact investment and criminal justice reform. Through close collaboration with local stakeholders, M. Glover Capital’s investments drive job creation to economic stability and wealth generation for systems-affected communities. Through Defy Ventures, which fights mass incarceration and recidivism by building on the natural talents of incarcerated men, Glover mentors youth and teaches yoga and meditation.  As a global creative director and chief marketing officer, Glover produced some of the most memorable advertising campaigns within pop culture urban lifestyle, music, sports and entertainment, including an award-winning Super Bowl commercial. Based on his agency experience, Glover is highly active as a consultant for early-stage ventures and leads workshops on brand and personal storytelling for founders and leaders. Glover has created successful ventures with some of the world’s most beloved celebrities and athletes as an agency owner. He has also served as executive producer on films such “The Beautiful Game” and “Bilal,” and served on the Board of Harlem Arts Festival and Liberation Prison Yoga.  For more information about Defy Ventures, visit https://www.defyventures.org.

VINCENT BRAGG is the co-founder and CEO of ConCreates, an advertising agency that employs creatives with criminal backgrounds. Everyone at his advertising agency has served time in prison. The creative agency is staffed entirely by people who are incarcerated or who were previously incarcerated. After being sentenced to several years in prison, Bragg quickly learned that some of the most outside-of-the-box thinking happens inside the box. During his incarceration, he watched as his fellow convicts were able to make something from nothing – books, music, entire meals – all created between four barren concrete walls. It was here Bragg realized the cells meant to imprison them for twenty-three hours a day were actually breeding grounds for creativity. Throughout the rest of his sentence Bragg naturally assumed a leadership role among his fellow inmates – a set of skills he previously obtained from his extremely successful run as marketing vice president of X.Radio.Biz. Using his years of experience from the marketing and entertainment industries, Bragg organized think tanks, book clubs, led a cancer walk, and developed an animated series – all behind bars. Years later, still inspired by the sheer amount of talent he saw in prison, he founded ConCreates: a creative agency that crowdsources ideas from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women. Today, he serves as the agency’s CEO, developing radical ideas for brands with his team of radical thinkers – the ConCreators. Now the same skills that put his creative teams behind bars are helping them find careers and become contributing, creative members of society. ConCreates hopes to shatter the stigma associated with the one-third of the U.S. population that has criminal histories by providing people with a second chance to be valuable members of society and reduce recidivism.  The ConCreates network is made up of a diverse range of thinkers that span geographies, socioeconomic groups, and ethnic backgrounds.