4 Min ReadBusiness 03 July 2020
Lately, brands have been bravely stepping up to take a stand against racial injustice and other societal ills affecting our world. Almost immediately after the murder of George Floyd, Nike came out with its "Don't Do It" ad. Walmart pledged $100 million for the creation of a center on racial equity. Ben & Jerry's rolled out a new flavor called "Justice Remixed." Pepsi / Quaker Foods has decided to drop its Aunt Jemima brand, whose identity is based on a racial stereotype, and Facebook has created "Lift Black Voices" to highlight stories from Black people and share educational resources.
Brands have been speaking out on other social issues, too. In mid May, Twitter introduced new labels and warning messages to offer additional context on some tweets that contained disputed or misleading information, particularly about COVID-19. Later in the month, it began labeling tweets by Donald Trump that it deemed as glorifying violence. And now, Facebook has pulled a Trump campaign ad that used Nazi hate symbols.
Brands must also step into activism from a place of authenticity. Their actions should be founded on true beliefs rather than on motivations of growth and profit.
Ever since Nike supported Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, brands, and the public at large, have questioned whether it's wise for them to take a stand. Angry customers that protested Nike's stance by burning their Nike products made the question loom even larger.
Without a doubt, today is different. Marketers and business leaders are raising their voices to say that silence is no longer an option. And it's true. Much of this advice rests on the rationale that customers need brands to behave like activists and that brands will get left behind if they don't sync up with the times.
While both of these things are also true, there's a lot more to the story.
Above all, brands have the unique power to reshape views and habits. By definition, they are incentivized to get people to buy their products and have decades of experience convincing consumers to do just that. They possess the motivation and the capabilities to influence tastes and opinions and the tools and resources to spread messages far and wide, among both consumers and their employees. All of this allows for their ability to change social norms and influence conversations.
With such power and influence, I believe it is simply no longer acceptable for brands — that also generate great wealth for shareholders — to remain silent. Especially in these times when consumers are craving positive examples to fill the void left by governments.
Marketers and business leaders are raising their voices to say that silence is no longer an option. And it's true.
This is one reason my own life's mission has been centered upon helping brands leverage these capabilities to spark positive social change. In 2008, I spearheaded Global Handwashing Day while working at Unilever with Unilever's Lifebuoy soap brand. Over 20 million children participated that first year, and it ultimately shifted the hygiene habits of millions of people around the world. The Lifebuoy team has just announced that it has now reached one billion people. I've taken a similar approach to help Pepsodent toothpaste improve oral hygiene in Africa and Knorr bouillon cubes fight anemia through encouraging mothers and girls to eat more green leafy vegetables alongside its iron-fortified cubes. I discuss all of this in my new book, Brands on a Mission: How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose.
However, when stepping into an activist role, brands must behave responsibly. This means a number of things. First, they must make a conscious effort to act with integrity and cause no harm. Nike's support of Colin Kaepernick is one example. As Nike said at the time, we must all "believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything." Second, they must use respectful language and images when tackling stereotypes.
Crucially, they must also ensure that their actions ("brand do") align with their words ("brand say"). Ben & Jerry's is a stellar example of alignment between "brand say" and "brand do." Its messaging about equality is reflected on its board. For many years, the company has supported work among indigenous Americans too — financially and with legal aid protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. It has worked with the LGBT community; in 1989, long before it was legally required, it extended health insurance benefits to partners of its LGBT employees.
Brands must also step into activism from a place of authenticity. Their actions should be founded on true beliefs rather than on motivations of growth and profit. If they are not authentic, their customers will know and drift away.
With such power and influence, I believe it is simply no longer acceptable for brands — that also generate great wealth for shareholders — to remain silent.
Finally, they must play a role in helping educate the public by presenting scenarios of positive change and educating people about the reasons it's needed. CBS Sports not only stopped broadcasting for eight minutes and 46 seconds to protest the George Floyd's murder but also partnered with Color of Change to ask viewers to demand an end to "broken windows" policing, add legitimate civilian oversight boards with full investigatory power, and reduce police budgets, among other things.
We are at a pivotal moment in history. With the right choices, brands can help change the world.
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5 min read
Except for 16, I have celebrated all of my milestone birthdays in New York City.
I turned 16 in Arnold, Missouri. Arnold is a small town (though not small anymore) 20 miles south of St. Louis. St. Louis is known for the Gateway Arch, a beautiful arch of shiny stainless steel, built by the National Parks Service in 1935 to commemorate Thomas Jefferson's vision of a transcontinental U.S. St. Louis is also known for its custard, a frozen dessert that is so thick, they hand it to you upside down with a spoon inside. Something else about St. Louis you should know is that there is a courthouse just steps from the base of the Gateway Arch where one of the most important cases in history was tried: Dred Scott v. Sanford.
I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive.
Mr. Scott was born into enslavement around 1799 and, in 1830, was sold to a military surgeon who traveled back and forth between his military posts in Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1842 the doctor and Mr. Scott both married, and they, all four, returned to St. Louis. Still enslaved, Dred Scott filed a lawsuit against the doctor's wife for his and his wife Harriet's freedom. We don't know exactly why he chose this moment in time to file a lawsuit, however, he did. At the time of filing his, now, famous lawsuit, he was 50 years old. Ultimately, The Scott family did not gain their freedom, but their profound courage in filling this case helped ignite the Civil War and what we would come to know (or think we know) as freedom from enslavement for all human beings. Powerful then and even more powerful now.
My next milestone was turning 21, and I did it in the Big Apple. Having only moved to "the city that never sleeps" a few months prior, I knew nobody except my new friends, the bus-boys from the restaurant I was working at, Patzo's on the Upper West Side. And, yes, pazzo is actually the correct spelling of the Italian word, which translates to "crazy." Trust me we all had several laughs about the misspelling and the definition going hand in hand. I worked a full shift, closing out at around 11 PM, when, my kitchen team came out from the line with a cake singing, "Cumpleaños Feliz." It was fantastic. And the kindness of these almost-strangers was a powerful reminder of connection then as it still is today almost 29 years later.
I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy.
When I turned 30, I had just finished a European tour with Lucinda Childs dance company. The company had been on tour for months together and were inseparable. We traveled through Paris, Vienna, Lisbon, and Rome. We ate together, we rode on a bus together, we had drinks after shows together, and we even took turns giving company class to get warmed up before a show. It was deeply meaningful and dreamy. We ended the tour back in New York City at BAM, The Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was an incredible way to end the tour, by being on our home court, not to mention I was having an important birthday at the culmination of this already incredible experience.
So, when I invited everyone to join me at Chelsea Pier's Sky Rink to ice skate in late August, I was schooled really quickly that "tour" does not mean you are friends in real life, it means you are tour friends. When the tour ends, so does the relationship. I skated a few laps and then went home. This was a beautiful lesson learned about who your real friends are; it was powerful then as it is today.
Turning 40 was a completely different experience. I was in a serious relationship with my now-husband, Joe. I had just come off of a successful one-woman dance show that I produced, choreographed, and danced in, I had just choreographed a feature film, John Turturro's Romance and Cigarettes, with A-list actors, including Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini, who became a dear friend and had even been on the red carpet with Susan Sarandon at the Venice Film Festival for the movie a year earlier.
And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age.
This was a very special birthday, and I had, in those 10 years between 30 and 40, come to cultivate very real friendships with some wonderful colleagues. We all celebrated at a local Italian restaurant, Etcetera Etcetera (who is delivering for those of you in NYC — we order weekly to support them during COVID), a staple in the theater district. Joe and I were (and are) regulars and, of course, wanted to celebrate my 40th with our restaurant family and friends. We were upstairs in the private room, and it was really lovely. Many of those in attendance are no longer with us, including Joe's Dad, Bob Ricci, and my dear friend Jim Gandolfini having transitioned to the other side. Currently, that restaurant is holding on by a thread of loving neighbors and regulars like us. Life is precious. Powerful then and today even more so.
I write this article because I'm turning 50, still in New York City. However, I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive. And I could not be more filled with hope, love, possibility, and power. This year has included an impeachment hearing, a global pandemic, and global protests that are finally giving a larger platform to the Black Lives Matter movement. Being able to fully embody who I am as a woman, a 50-year-old woman who is living fully in purpose, takes the cake, the rink, and the party.
I'm making movies about conversations around race. I've been happily married for 11 years to the love of my life, Joe Ricci. I'm amplifying and elevating the voices of those who have not previously had a platform for speaking out. I choose who to spend time with and how long! I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy. Being 50 is one of the most amazing things I ever thought I could experience. And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age. I'm 50 and powerful. Dred Scott was 50 and powerful. This powerful lesson is for today and tomorrow. We have the power. No matter what age you are, I invite you to use your powerful voice to join me in making the world a better place.