Marketing During Times of Civil Unrest: How a Brand Builds Character.

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

By Patrice Stephens-Sobers

CEO of Pink Ship Ltd

Photography: Jamil Taylor IG: @freejamilnotjamal Location: Fairfax District, Los Angeles

Unless you live under a rock, you know that 2020 has been a whirlwind to say the least. From WW3 scares, to a global pandemic and the uprising of the largest civil rights movement in world history. It has been an emotional rollercoaster and also, a huge mess for marketers.

Covid-19 threw all spring campaigns out of the window, along with events and entertainment production schedules. Marketing got really messy, brands just weren't sure how to approach their promotional messages during a time of high anxiety and an economic depression on the horizon. That's pretty intense, but now the #BlackLivesMatter movement is at the forefront of public conversation, as we all band together to fight for basic human rights for the black community. We're starting to see just how clueless brands are as they have no idea how to continue marketing, many brands just want to continue "business as usual" and it really isn't landing well. Brands are so used to sharing empty gestures and then just continuing with toxic behaviours behind the scenes, and that is not going to work this time.

This movement (similar to the responses to Covid19) requires action, internal structural change. It isn't enough just to put out a statement in support of the movement, the people want to see action. So, as marketers, what can we do to make our position clear about internal changes, while also aiming to avoid catastrophic financial loss? And how do we ensure that we don't have a Kendall Jenner Pepsi mess.

First of all, let's just accept that where commerce is concerned, we will not be grossing any where near last year's profits. Covid-19 made this very clear. So, if we can swallow that pill, then we can let go of the desperation to turn things around in a post-covid world.

Secondly, it's worth accepting that if you're not a black owned businesses, then the black community will either be calling for boycotts of your brand or expecting major effort to be made on your part to ensure that the black community are represented significantly within your organisation. And this simply cannot be ignored. It's about putting our money where our mouth is, just like we all did with Covid-19 by closing our stores and offices and affording our employees with the right to stay home and stay safe. Because that is what #BlackLivesMatter is about, it's about human rights. The right to feel safe, seen, protected, treated equally. So strap in, this won't be an easy ride, it's going to be an upheaval and it's going to hurt a little.

Intense and necessary work needs to be done in order to dismantle systemic racism. So, now that we've addressed the most important thing, let's talk about some small changes you can make on a digital marketing front in order for you to continue advertising your brand in an integral way.


This goes first and it goes in capital letters because it is important to understand that human rights issues are deeply personal and sensitive for people. The last thing you need, is someone who is completely ignorant about a situation, leading the communications for your brand. You need someone with an ear to the ground. Someone who knows what to say, what to do and knows how the people are feeling. If you do not have a black person running your marketing department right now, you need to appoint one immediately. A non-black person can not lead this conversation for your brand. You will find yourself repeating the great Pepsi Ad FAIL of 2017. Stand back and let someone else speak, someone who truly undrstands.

2. Say less on social media.

Where social media may be your main communication channel between your brand and your customers, right now, it would be tone deaf to market your brand without acknowledging #BlackLivesMatter. It almost comes across as insensitive. When speaking online during this time, be compassionate, be empathetic and read the room. Don't post quite as often as usual.

3. Revise all scheduled social media posts.

Do you still have pre-scheduled posts going out with tone deaf captions? Take the time to go through all scheduled campaigns, delete everything that doesn't fit into the conversation, change the captions and make sure the messaging is sensitive to the subjects.

4. Utilize your mailing list.

Remember, where social media may be your main channel of communication, the time has certainly come for you to push your email marketing campaigns to the forefront. That will be your place to speak compassionately to your customer base while promoting your products and services without a lack of sensitivity. For further support with email marketing, have a look at this resource available in our Small Business School.

5. Remember there are plenty other marketing channels

SEO, PPC, Email, Text, Content Marketing, Influencer Marketing and a plethora of other options are available to you. Make use of these channels. This is to keep things afloat while you do the work behind the scenes to ensure that your employees are safe and healthy amidst the Covid-19 health risk. And also ensuring that you make room within your organisation for black people to be treated fairly and given opportunities that they are qualified for.

6. Have public conversations and LISTEN

As mentioned, now is the time to have difficult conversations publicly. People need to know where you stand, so say it loud and say it proud. Engage in conversations on Instagram/Facebook Live, have sit down conversations on camera discussing things that are important to your audience and really listen. If your brand insists on having visibility right now, be mindful that it is not about you.

We are of the school of thought that when there are more important things to think about, then we should think about the more important things. Infuse that into your marketing messaging and be prepared to have some very uncomfortable dialogue. Your brand needs to build character and this is an opportunity to do that.

For further support in this area, contact our team via

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