2021's biggest insights Get the report

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was one of the defining parts of 2020. Having mobilized citizens all over the world, it sparked a tide of social activism not seen for decades. Now, a little over a year on from the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black men and women in the U.S., many Americans are at a point of reflection. 

How much has changed when it comes to our perceptions of racial inequality in this country?

Beyond sentiment, has anything changed when it comes to our commitments to action

These questions hold weight not only for consumers at an individual level, but for the institutions and corporate powers that, perhaps for the first time, had to reckon with true accountability on issues of racial justice. 

The BLM movement has changed public sentiment – for some more than others.

When it comes to individual sentiment, the BLM movement has significantly increased people’s awareness of racial injustice; 40% of American consumers are now worried about race relations in the U.S., while one-third are concerned about police brutality. That’s more than the number of people worried about job security, national debt, and gun regulation.

More than just awareness, the movement has encouraged people to take an active stance against racial injustice. Research we conducted in May 2021 revealed that, for 30% of all American consumers, the BLM movement had made tackling anti-Black racism a more important issue for them. 

For certain groups, this was even higher. Millennials were the age cohort most likely to be positively influenced in this way by the BLM movement – 45% said that it made this issue more important for them. Other groups identifying with this sentiment – also more than the average – include parents with kids under 12 (44%) and heavy news readers (36%). 

Besides this, white Americans in general were slightly less likely than non-Black Americans of Color to say the BLM movement has impacted them in this way. 

Non-Black POC face descrimination because of the systemic inequalities of U.S. society, as well, and so it makes sense that shared experiences of struggle can foster allyship. 

However, it also points to how far we have to go to enact institutional change. Without a significant mindset shift among the people who hold disproportionate political, social, and economic power in the U.S. – white Americans – change will continue to be slow and hard won. 

Americans’ personal sentiment is one thing, but what about their view towards corporate activism in the year following Black Lives Matter? To what extent do they feel that brands have followed through, if at all, with pledges and statements made in the height of the movement? As it turns out, it depends who you ask. 

Brand activism shows some follow-through.

A year ago, GWI asked respondents what, if anything, they felt that brands should be doing in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Among U.S. consumers, the answers were overwhelmingly in favor of significant, resource-intensive commitments. Reviewing hiring policies, ensuring diversity in leadership, and supporting diverse suppliers all came up as the top actions. Showing support via social media, in contrast, was at the very bottom. 

This data largely reflected the conversation of the time; many companies were coming under fire during the height of the BLM movement for posting black squares and hashtags on social media and then calling it a day. 

The PR frenzy toward corporate wokeness even introduced a whole new term into our lexicon, “performative allyship.” 

A year later, however, and the pendulum seems to be swinging toward true accountability for many high-visibility, influential brands. 

UPS, for example, donated $3.9 million to civil rights groups and historically Black colleges, and also recently reported that 43% of its management staff is now made up of people of Color. And in the wake of a pandemic that devastated communities of Color, Johnson & Johnson committed to a multi-year $100 million dollar program to reduce inequality in the healthcare system. 

Holding brands accountable is also easier now because of resources like the Black Dollar Index, an advocacy group that rates companies based on their commitment toward D&I, or AdAge’s live tracker on both brands’ and media’s response toward racial justice. 

Positive initiatives show that, in many cases, brand activism has indeed translated into brand follow-through. 

However, it’s often the positive stories that make the most noise. Those who dig into the weeds of the issue often find the waters to be a bit muddy.

Earlier in the year, a MarketWatch article revealed some of the complexities of true accountability, having reported five of the nation’s biggest banks had asked shareholders “to reject racial-equity resolutions after they expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement last year.” 

Inconsistencies like this add context to some of the differences we see in consumer sentiment. 

When asked to what extent they believed brands had followed through on their pledges of activism toward BLM, about one-third of people said “a little” and one-fifth said “a lot”. Very few (9%) said “not at all,” though a sizeable 20% weren’t sure. This shows that while accountability has gotten easier to spot, it’s still not as obvious as it can be. 

But there’s an interesting disparity in these findings. It emerges when we cut the data by those who say the BLM movement made tackling racism more important to them vs. those who said that tackling racism was always important to them. 

Those who’ve been recently inspired to tackle racism have a more favorable view to the corporate response; 36% say that brands have followed through “a lot.” Comparatively, only 17% of the other group feel this way. 

Additionally, 17% of those who say that combating racism had always been important were unsure of brand follow-through; compared to only 5% of their newer activist counterparts. 

These findings have both positive and negative implications for companies. In a positive sense, it’s likely that public brand activism may be a factor in raising awareness and inspiration for consumers who had not been as committed to tackling anti-Black racism before. This is a good thing, and it’s likely to continue as we move toward a stronger ESG focus across many industries. Brands can be agents of change – and should be. 

In a different sense, it also suggests companies need to be sincere and transparent in their efforts, because people who’ve always had stronger, more committed activist tendencies – such as the “it’s always been important to me” group – will dig beyond the jazzy headlines to understand true corporate accountability. 

And what’s more, the side of deeper, dedicated activism will only grow over time, especially as younger consumers rise to prominence and drive forward the movement. Their expectations for transparency and accountability can’t be ignored. 

Toward a more inclusive culture, BLM and beyond  

Our data validates exactly these themes. According to the GWI USA survey, consumer demands for brands to be “inclusive” and “respectful” are on the rise. As is consumers’ desire for brands to support diversity & inequality in the workplace, and their overall interest in social justice issues. 

Among younger people, these views are even stronger. 

The winds of change are blowing toward a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable culture and society. Undoubtedly, the Black Lives Matter movement was a huge catalyst for this change, but it can’t be the only thing working to push both people and institutions forward.

Luckily, as the data tells us, it doesn’t have to be. Public sentiment and corporate actions are moving in a more progressive direction. It’s important that we keep that momentum going toward a more inclusive society and brand culture. As consumers, we have both our voices and our wallets to enable us to do so. 

Click to access our connecting the dots 2021 report

You’ve read our blog, now see our platform

Every business has questions about its audiences, GWI has answers. Powered by consistent, global research, our platform is an on-demand window into their world.