How Brands Can Take an Authentic Approach to Addressing Systemic Racism

Issuing a statement is the first step of the response, says Zekeera Belton, senior director of client services at Collage Group. Consumers expect brands to be educational and actively anti-racist.

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Editor of Altered

July 1, 2020 | 8 minute read

Now that brands have issued their public statements acknowledging the reality of systemic racism in America, consumers are paying attention to what comes next. 

To better understand how brands can authentically meet consumers’ desire for long-term change, I spoke with Zekeera Belton, senior director of client services at Collage Group, a market research and consulting firm that helps Fortune 1000 brands authentically connect and engage diverse consumers in the United States through insights, data, best practices, and subject matter expertise. Prior to Collage, Zekeera served as a marketing director for Penn, Good & Associates, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. that develops marketing campaigns addressing health and social disparities among diverse audiences. 

Zekeera spoke about how brands can authentically show up in the fight against racial injustice—and how they can commit to anti-racism in the long-term. In addition to taking action internally and externally in their communities, she noted that one way brands can make a difference is by educating their consumers on systemic racism and the history of oppression. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

You shared with us that topics related to disparity are close to your heart. What drew you to focusing on disparity, and how did that lead you to where you are today?

There’s a saying in the African American community that it takes a village to raise a child. And I definitely had a strong village of mentors and coaches. That’s a big reason why disparity is so close to my heart—my village investing in me, and then challenging me to also invest in the community. That’s where my interest and dedication come from—to not only amplify the voices of diverse consumers, but to also really support social and corporate efforts to drive change. 

Growing up, I can’t tell you how much I just wanted to see myself outside of The Cosby Show and to be reflected in advertising or stories that I could relate to. Coming from parents that worked two or three jobs, being a latchkey kid, and being constantly reminded that I needed to work twice as hard as my non-Black counterparts to succeed—those weren’t narratives that I saw being told. I was drawn to Collage Group because they were addressing some of the nuances of  these experiences and working with some of America’s most iconic brands.

Let’s talk about those brands. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a number of brands react to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the eruption of protests around the country. Among these reactions, what has stood out to you?

What has stood out to me is that it has opened up conversations across corporate America at the board room and C-suite level. That is unprecedented. At least, I hadn’t heard conversations around the ills of systemic racism and the impact that it has on these companies’ Black consumers and their employees in my over-15 years of being in the workforce. And not only are those conversations beginning to happen, but we’re also seeing unprecedented action.

What stands out are brands like Nike giving their employees Juneteenth off, Sprite donating to the Black Lives Matter global network and partnering with them locally in Atlanta, and the NFL and Aunt Jemima publicly apologizing around their contribution to perpetuating systemic racism.

What we’re seeing at Collage Group is that consumers expect brands to respond, but not only through tactless statements of support—also through action and commitment.

And last but not least, Ben & Jerry’s. They have been in the fight for a little bit longer, but they made a bold statement to the public saying, “Hey, we have to dismantle white supremacy, and that silence is no longer an option.” Ben & Jerry’s even takes it a step further, calling out elected officials. They talk about specific legislation like H.R.40, which is about creating a commission to study the effects of slavery and discrimination from 1619 to the present and the impact that has had on Black and brown people over the last 400 years. 

Have there been any noticeable trends or patterns in terms of what consumers want to see from brands right now?

What we’re seeing at Collage Group is that consumers expect brands to respond, but not only through tactless statements of support—also through action and commitment. 

Over 50 percent of consumers believe that brands should educate people on systemic racism and oppression. Nearly half of consumers believe that brands should be providing training to address implicit racial bias and express support for people of color. And then we’re seeing that consumers are feeling that brands should donate to organizations that support racial justice and civil rights.

They’re looking for brands to express the commitment to driving change and reexamining their internal company policies and values. Consumers have a high BS thermometer—we especially see that in our research amongst Gen Z and Millennials.

What do you think will be important for brands to do to become more actively anti-racist in the long term, both externally and internally?

We work with brands all the time in developing their three-to-five year strategic plan to drive growth with diverse consumers. In addition to developing a three-year business strategic plan, companies should also consider developing a strategic plan for how they plan to address systemic racism within their walls. 

So, that’s one. Second is instituting mandatory training on what racism actually is. We’re seeing consumers really want to understand: What is implicit bias, and how does that demonstrate itself in the workplace? Part of that is dedicating time to overall training and cultural capability building. 

Third is dedicating efforts to hiring, mentoring, and retaining diverse, more specifically, Black talent, and ensuring your internal staff is reflective of the communities that you serve.

Externally, I think brands need to be very prescriptive in their messaging about what they’re doing so that it doesn’t feel like lip service. Look at where your headquarters are. What can you be doing to impact your community specifically, and very directly? What does that look like over the long term? This includes paying attention to supplier diversity and ensuring that you’re doing businesses with diverse suppliers. 

Last, but not least, it’s really important to understand what your brand promise is and what your brand voice is. Not every brand has permission to address this issue. Whether you are nestled in food, music, entertainment, or content, you need to understand where you have permission to play so that your contributions don’t come off as contrived—but rather, as organic to your mission and your brand promise.

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That’s really interesting that you mentioned that, in terms of where brands have permission to play. I imagine there were a lot of brands that felt like they “didn’t have permission” to speak to systemic racism or to the movement for racial justice. How might brands navigate that?

Take an example. If I am a music provider and my mission is to be the purveyor of music and art, I should think about what I stand for. Leadership may say, “Hey, we don’t really want to touch that because we don’t believe that systemic racism is our issue.” Well, then that’s a problem. You definitely don’t have permission to play because you don’t believe in what you’re saying, and consumers will see and feel that.

But continuing with that example, a music company could do a history of music, for instance. Coming from the African American standpoint, the call and response, music, and spirituality played a major role in creating this sense of hope for enslaved people. 

A lot of those songs—they call them the Negro Spirituals—are really what led Black Americans to be resilient, and to have that hope that change was coming. So, when consumers say “Educate us,” that could mean educating them about music and how that carried us through. Or, maybe it’s giving diverse artists a platform to mentor and nurture their craft, or giving them an opportunity to display their talents and amplify their voice.

If there’s one thing that you want a reader to absorb from this interview, what would it be?

We all have a collective responsibility to be change agents, and leverage our platforms—whatever they may be—to address and tackle inequality and systemic racism. Brands simply making a statement about what is happening is just table stakes. What people want is for brands to take tangible actions and be the catalyst for real change.

What’s your greatest hope for what’s ahead?

That there is a continued interest in the fight against inequality and that the response isn’t just a trend right now. Personally, I am hopeful because I’ve seen the solidarity. Going down a couple of weeks ago to protest in front of the White House, and just seeing people from all walks of life, across ethnicity, across sexuality, age, gender, standing side by side—it just felt very, very different. And I wasn’t around when Dr. King marched on Washington, but that must’ve been the feeling. That energizing feeling of just coming together in solidarity. That’s my greatest hope.

Editor of Altered

Lizzy leads audience development at Atlantic 57, creating the digital and in-person experiences that delight audiences and deepen engagement with the Atlantic 57 brand. Prior to joining, Lizzy worked on Atlantic Media’s strategy research team, where she worked across Atlantic Media brands to support new product development, assess new business opportunities, and make strategic recommendations for internal stakeholders. She holds a B.A. in Literature from Duke University.

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