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The Business of Making a Difference

How America’s dual crisis has exploded the rise of the reputation economy.

When REI shut its doors on Black Friday for the first time 5 years ago, it was BIG news. The world of retail was unaccustomed to such a bold expression of brand values—one that arguably seemed to go against the ultimate goal of retail: to sell.

Yet REI increased sales 9.3% for the year and accelerated membership growth. — all while leading an explosion of brands making similar moves. Since then, we’ve seen airlines encouraging other modes of transit in order to decrease fuel consumption, as well as ride services discounting on holidays known for alcohol consumption.

Why? Because we live in a reputation economy. Millennials and Gen Z care far more about the values and voice of a brand than their sales lifts and stock projections. And we’re seeing it like never before as brands respond to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement.

More Serving, Less Selling

When it comes to COVID-19 response, brands are showing up in all kinds of ways. But the brands setting themselves apart are the ones staying focused on their purpose, and the needs of their customers and employees. In short, they’re focusing more on serving and less on selling.

For Dixie, that meant going back to their core beliefs. Dixie products have always made life better for people. In fact, the first Dixie cup was invented to help fight the cholera epidemic. So as the world struggled with WFH, home schooling, and staying in touch with loved ones, Arc teamed up with Dixie to ask America: “What can Dixie take off your plate?This socially-driven, six-week promotional campaign is helping 500 people a week get through the crisis. It’s even found Dixie, the leading maker of paper plates, in the unlikely role of replacing people’s broken dishwashers.

Dixie take something off your plate

Brands are also showing up in big ways for essential workers. Retailers like Walmart and Sam’s Club have devoted media space to thanking their front-line employees and implemented hero bonuses, putting revenue from the crisis towards hourly workers bonuses. Non-essential businesses are also taking meaningful action with many stepping up to aid healthcare workers. Crocs and Allbirds have been donating shoes, while Dunkin’ has breathed new meaning into America Runs on Dunkin’ by offering free coffee to first responders—sometimes even setting up shop right outside the hospitals.

Dunking Please enter here

Source: Dunkin’

Actions > Ads

But just as we were all settling into the “new normal,” the death of George Floyd triggered a turning point in America. Systemic racism was thrust into the national spotlight and, partially fueled by brands' visible responses to COVID-19, customers looked to these same brands for a response. It has become an unignorable time for brands to take a real stand, not just espouse sympathy.

"Brands shouldn’t stay silent on racial inequality,” according to a survey released by data intelligence company Morning Consult. The survey found that 71% of Americans want business leaders to address racial inequality in the U.S., while nearly a quarter (22%) of adults surveyed said that they would have a less favorable view of a brand if it didn’t make an official statement.


Within the course of a week, the nation saw a wave of brands rush to speak out and align themselves with anti-racism.

Reebok, Target and Coca-Cola were among the first to speak up and release statements of solidarity with the Black community. From there, other brands quickly started to follow suit and post statements of similar messaging and sentiment, often paired with a “solemn white-on-black.jpeg.”


The public started to view these statements as “empty words,” and quickly flocked to social media to call out the brands’ hypocrisy, internal infrastructure and lack of diverse leaders and talent. While people found it important for brands to pledge their support and solidarity with the Black community, people were demanding brands back up their statements with actions, not ads.

Brand Support

Hashtags such as “#openyourpurse” and “#pulluporshutup” started trending, encouraging celebrity, corporate and consumer brands to donate money, time and resources to the Black Lives Matter movement. While several brands remained silent, many others caught on and combined strategies to make meaningful impact for the fight against racial injustice.

Warner Bros. made its 2019 film “Just Mercy” free to rent on digital platforms throughout June and Xfinity launched the “Black Voices. Black Stories.” content collection Xfinity X1, Stream and Flex for their home viewers. Pinterest ads won’t be served when Pinners search for “BLM” and promised to donate $750,000 in paid media to organizations that support racial justice. Cisco, Intel, Lego and Levis also joined the ranking of brands that pledged monetary donations to the BLM movement and social justice organizations.

It’s no surprise Ben & Jerrys, a brand whose values are rooted in social justice, issued a powerful statement on its website and social platforms explicitly calling for action to “dismantle white supremacy,” detailing the four critical actions the brand supports including urging Congress to pass HR 40. The post set the benchmark for brand statements, largely because the company had affirmed its support of the BLM movement in 2016—they even released a Justice Remix’d flavor last year to bring awareness to criminal justice reform and structural racism. This history combined with the brand’s most recent, powerful statement proved that Ben & Jerry's words are authentic.

Ben & Jerry Support

Source: Ben & Jerry’s

Reputation matters. And now is the time to build it. COVID-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. Black Lives Matter speaks to an issue that has endured for too many lifetimes. Both present us with a point of no return to rethink our priorities, lead with our values, and actually make the world a better place.

June 29, 2020