How companies decided that black lives matter

Apple shut radio stations on its Music app on Tuesday, giving listeners a single stream that played “Fuck tha police”, NWA’s 1988 rap record that threatens a “bloodbath of cops”.

At the same time, Lego told online affiliates to remove links to 31 mainly police-themed sets of bricks, as part of its own stand “against racism and inequality”.

Daring? Disgusting? They are certainly extraordinary actions from brands that have carefully cultivated a middle-of-the-road image over decades. And they are not without risk. Police rank above religion and significantly ahead of big business in US opinion polls.

But after nationwide protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, more companies than ever before have chosen to speak out.

That sometimes extends only as far as an anodyne expression of sympathy, the equivalent to the “thoughts and prayers” trotted out by politicians after a mass shooting. But the volume, including some genuinely surprising examples, is a profound break from previous corporate silence on divisive social issues.

Lego told online affiliates to remove links to police-themed sets of bricks © Alamy Stock Photo

Those who go furthest risk a backlash, but might also profit. Nike blazed this trail in 2018 when it launched an advertising campaign featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had divided US public opinion by kneeling during the national anthem to protest against police violence. When the ads were launched, with #NikeBoycott trending on Twitter and some people threatening to burn their shoes, the sportswear company’s shares fell 3 per cent. But Nike’s sales increased after the campaign and its stock has since risen 30 per cent.

There is now more risk than in the past in failing to take a stand — as Facebook has found out this week with protests from employees angered at its failure to follow Twitter in flagging Donald Trump’s violent language about shooting looters.

But what stand to take? Although they are betting billions of dollars of brand equity with their statements, companies are facing calls to offer more than words. A common response to corporate messaging has been the tagline “open your purse”. And even when they have — such as Goldman Sachs with a $10m donation to a new “fund for racial equity” — it has been decried as insufficient. Why not $100m? asked one critic. Why not $10bn? demanded another.

Mark Mason, Citigroup CFO, wrote a powerful blog post citing the dangers black Americans face in their daily lives

A more stinging criticism is levelled at companies with overwhelmingly white leadership. When Saatchi & Saatchi posted on Instagram under a “Black Lives Matter” headline, the first commenter pointed out: “As seen on your website, there are no Black people on your top leadership team. Change comes from within — start there.”

As it happens, in that case, the criticism is misplaced: the advertising agency’s global head, Magnus Djaba, is black. But more broadly it rings true. The most powerful corporate responses to the Floyd killing came from black executives, such as Citigroup’s chief financial officer Mark Mason, whose blog post a week ago was rawer, more personal and more prompt than most corporate press releases. Mr Mason cited killings of black people by police as “reminders of the dangers Black Americans like me face in our daily lives . . . I’m talking about something as mundane as going for a jog”.

Robert Smith, head of Vista Equity Partners, used the moment to tell his colleagues about the murder of his uncle at the hands of a white gas station attendant: “This was almost 50 years ago, and the pain still lingers.”

They are among the most senior black executives in the US but neither is the head of a Fortune 500 company. There are only four black CEOs on that list, 0.8 per cent of the total. The corporate world’s next shift should be to improve on that statistic.