If we want consumer equality, we have to hold brands to account

We cannot underestimate the power that companies have to shape our lives and cultural narratives

Kendall Jenner featured in a 2017 Pepsi ad campaign the portrayed a simplistic solution to a serious problem: that police brutality could be offset by a can of cola. Courtesy: Pepsi
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In 2017 Pepsi appeared to have found the answer to tackling racism and police brutality. They created an advert featuring the American model Kendall Jenner joining a street march, crossing the line from protester to police, handing over a can of the branded cola to a policeman, following which celebration ensued.

The implication is that the can of cola is what has diffused the tensions with police. In a world where people of colour are disproportionately and often fatally targeted by the police, it is mind boggling to see a brand put itself in the spotlight and portray a simplistic, naive solution: that police brutality can be offset by a can of cola.

For those unfamiliar with advertising, it takes large teams, a lot of discussion and approval and money to make an advert. Countless strategists, planners, gatekeepers, approvers, creatives and senior executives are involved. That something like this would be aired without anyone saying: "Hey guys, let’s not do this" or if they did, they were dismissed, is shocking but not surprising.

You might say, "It’s just a brand, they want to sell stuff. Move on".

But that is to underestimate the power that companies and brands have in shaping both our cultural narratives (and by extension, the lives people lead) as well as our consumer experiences. And consumer experiences are not a trivial matter. It’s not just a case of "shopping": consumer experiences shape aspects of an individual’s life. Whether you’re followed around a store for looking "suspicious" because of your race or ethnicity, whether products are not made to suit your skin colour, whether the treatment you receive at a hospital is discriminatory, or whether a bank is less likely to approve your application for a mortgage or business start-up loan, or any other number of consumer experiences, these experiences shape our lives.

Which is why the anti-racism movement that was re-invigorated in 2020 after the horrific murder of George Floyd in the US became such a pivotal moment for western brands.

Businesses – composed of ordinary people – watched the event and its aftermath, and with little else to distract them while in lockdowns, to really see what happened.

In a non-lockdown era, we would all have moved on to the next thing. But instead, there was now time to process what happened, as well as to reflect on the anti-racism commentary explaining the systemic nature of such events and how racism shows up in every part of society.

It's important to articulate clearly what specifically needs to be done by brands so they can deliver equal experiences to all

It seemed to be a pivotal moment because of the depth, emotion and far-reaching nature of the conversations that followed within businesses and brands in the West. And that these organisations themselves characterised the moment as pivotal. This was the moment that change was actually going to happen. Businesses and brands started to be honest about the inequalities embedded within them and their role in their perpetuation.

Organisations spoke of being more inclusive. Questions were asked about staff representation, employee resource groups held the floor and senior managers listened. Investments were promised. And all of these were important, excellent and laudable steps. Some of us did raise an eyebrow – could that moment really live up to expectations? We sincerely hoped it would. That was, however, not a moment for scepticism but for optimism.

For my part, on the inside of industry, I led the research and articulation of a new business paradigm: consumer equality. We’ve heard of financial inequality, health inequality, social inequality and so on. Consumer equality means ensuring people from minority ethnic groups are given more equal experiences. It is the area that businesses can focus on in order to play their part in tackling wider societal inequality and racism.

Next week (May 25th) is the third anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. As a result, in the past three years, some brands have demonstrated good intentions and taken action. New corporate objectives set in many large and small companies looked at ensuring that the workforce, especially senior leadership groups were more representative. Companies have initiated work to create a greater sense of belonging, with those more diverse workforces. Papers have been written about what companies know, don’t know and what they would like to do. This is all wonderful. But it’s time now to make that paradigm shift that businesses collectively promised to make – delivering on the promise that that was a pivotal time, rather than just refining what already existed.

It's time to remember the visceral emotions of 2020 following George Floyd's killing, and the grand statements that were made at the time. It’s time for businesses to deliver more equal consumer experiences. That would make consumers happier and corporations more money. And all of this could make a difference to society.

And if you’re a consumer, make sure you hold brands to account by pointing out unequal experiences. Give them feedback and support brands that appear to deliver more equal experiences. It's important to articulate clearly what specifically needs to be done by brands so they can deliver equal experiences to all. As consumers, we have the power to demand consumer equality. Let's all make sure we get it.

Published: May 19, 2023, 9:00 AM