The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Corporations are working with social media influencers to cancel-proof their racial justice initiatives

Companies like Procter & Gamble, Sephora and Snap are seeking help to stay ahead of cultural moments and avoid embarrassing gaffes

(Yifan Wu for The Washington Post)

Days after George Floyd died under the knee of a White police officer, Procter & Gamble began work on an ad campaign aimed at White people simply titled “The Choice.”

Over close-up shots of a pale, freckled back, then a single blue eye, these words appeared: “Being White in America is not needing to state your life matters. And when your life matters, you have power. Now is the time to use it.”

The call to action on prime-time television from one of the world’s largest advertisers was risky.

Advocating for racial allyship is not something corporate America has traditionally embraced. But the multiracial protests against police brutality last year prompted many companies to examine their role in combating systemic racism and pushing White Americans to reflect on their understanding of race and privilege — all while trying to increase market share. With every new well-meaning — or opportunistic, depending on the details — effort comes the potential for public and painful missteps.

“We sell Tide,” said Damon Jones, a Procter & Gamble spokesman who leads the company’s racial justice initiatives. “We don’t ever want anyone to be upset at Tide.”

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So Procter & Gamble sought outside help to navigate this era of racial justice protests. It joined a growing number of companies consulting diverse panels of “real people” with cultural expertise — community leaders, activists and academics — on everything from ad campaigns to whether to celebrate Black History Month, according to Joshua DuBois, chief executive of Gauge, a technology company connecting corporations with a vast network of social media influencers.

“Traditional market research is not built for this cultural moment,” DuBois said. He and co-founders Brandon Andrews and Alfred Dunn recently launched a “cultural navigator” platform called NXTLAB of more than 10,000 opinion-makers whom companies can tap confidentially for candid feedback to spare themselves possible embarrassment.

Their expertise covers multigenerational, multiracial perspectives on racial equality as well as LGBTQ, gender and women’s rights. Among the platform’s thought leaders: April Reign, who launched the #OscarsSoWhite campaign for more diverse representation in Hollywood; Jamilah Lemieux, a millennial writer focused on race and gender; and David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization focused on Black LGBTQ people.

The influencers are paid between $500 and more than $1,500 for one-on-one consultations and $10 to $100 for survey responses, DuBois said. Gauge charges companies a subscription fee (starting at $5,000 a month for nonprofit groups) that includes daily emails encapsulating key news developments, access to a website featuring experts weighing in on those moments, and a set number of custom research projects.

The goal, DuBois said, is an “equitable economy for cultural understanding” where leaders of color are paid for helping brands avoid major mistakes in their ad campaigns, corporate policies, diversity and inclusion plans, philanthropy and product launches.

Some firms have been warned against making pronouncements that could be dismissed by consumers as exploitative, DuBois said.

“A couple of companies wanted to launch big Black History Month marketing campaigns and our community said, ‘Do not do that because you haven’t fulfilled what you promised to do after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,’” DuBois said. “You need to put your money where your mouth is in terms of actual work first.”

No company wants to be canceled, even temporarily. Take Pepsi, whose tone-deaf 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner strutting through a protest to deliver a can of soda to a police officer drew consumer backlash and was pulled. Or Starbucks, whose short-lived 2015 campaign for baristas to scrawl “Race Together” on millions of coffee cups in hopes of sparking conversations about racial tensions was criticized as insincere corporatism.

Each marketing misfire provokes a cycle of consumer outrage and calls to boycott, followed by corporate apologies and promises to do better. Instead of being dragged on social media by influencers with large numbers of followers, DuBois said companies can engage them well ahead of any campaign launch.

“These are the people who make good or bad ideas trend, shaping the culture every day,” DuBois said. “It would be a market failure to not tap into this wisdom.”

International makeup chain Sephora convened the NXTLAB network to guide a study on racial bias in retail, and implemented sweeping changes in January to reduce discriminatory practices in its stores and diversify its product lines. Tech company Snap tapped the network to think more deeply about how to develop inclusive augmented reality tools.

They’ve helped corporations featuring Black models and actors in ad campaigns to also consider diversity in size and skin tone. They’ve advised companies on how to show up — even virtually — at events such as last summer’s March on Washington honoring the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” address at the Lincoln Memorial. And they’ve recommended against using the word “Confederate” in television show titles.

“When you can ease someone into a conversation about representation and discrimination, it’s easier than banging someone over the head with it,” said Reign, a trained lawyer turned equity advocate. “Easing someone in can lead to faster results because there is less pushback.”

In 2017, Procter & Gamble received more than 10,000 letters and phone calls, the most “hate mail” the company says it’s ever received, accusing the company of “race baiting” after it released a spot featuring Black mothers directly addressing the racism their children face in American life.

“‘The Talk’ was the first controversial campaign that we did, designed to get people talking about racial bias — bias that exists within the walls of P&G, within the advertising industry, within a lot of different places,” Jones said. “Frankly, when we saw the reaction, we knew we needed to continue that discussion.”

So executives forged ahead with another racially provocative campaign titled “The Look” in 2019.

This time, though, it sought feedback from influencers that Gauge had tapped early on in a beta version of the platform before launching this spring. The racially diverse group helped P&G adjust the intensity of the actors’ facial expressions and emotions. The result: a more subtle film depicting the daily microaggressions experienced by Black men — no matter how accomplished. No words. Just telling glances.

“The challenge was to show the action and the emotion in a true and pure way such that Black men said yes, that’s my experience,” Jones said, “and in a way that White people didn’t get turned off because we were waving the finger and accusing them of being racist.”

“These conversations are so nuanced and our goal is to bring people together,” Jones said. “It is much more layered than just telling the truth.”

The spot listed a company website with online educational resources about racial bias, including a discussion guide, which Jones said P&G created with the help of the Gauge influencers. With the company better prepared for the public reaction than when it released “The Talk,” Jones said P&G was able to launch dozens of community conversations in schools across the nation. “We want to be more effective in drawing people into the discussion rather than just driving people back into their corners,” he said.

Jones said that P&G recognizes that its messaging projected into consumer homes shapes how communities see themselves and each other. That’s why it felt compelled to issue a directive to White people to step up in the fight against racial injustice after Floyd’s killing, when it released “The Choice” online and across major network and cable TV channels.

The emphasis this time was less on blame, he said, but on the fact that everyone has a role to play in fixing societal structures that are biased against Black people. And public reception was much more balanced as more corporations began speaking out about social justice issues, he said.

“The intent was to get the silent majority actively involved,” Jones said. “We didn’t want to just create another ad or film. We needed people to act differently.”

Promoting community discussions and encouraging White Americans to fight for racial justice seems far afield for a company that sells toilet paper, toothpaste and tampons. But for many companies, pressure came from consumers as well as their own employees — and ultimately, they say, standing up for racial justice can help increase their bottom line.

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Sonya Grier, an American University professor whose research focuses on race in the marketplace, said corporations have not traditionally advocated for marginalized groups and instead focused on targeting groups most profitable to them.

“They are now trying to support a community so they have sustainability within the marketing systems that they have,” Grier said. “It’s like smoothing the ground in ways to still accomplish the goals they want to accomplish — which is to sell products and make money.”

Black and Hispanic consumers are more likely now to expect brands to take a stance on social justice issues, according to a 2020 Nielsen report. The market research firm has also reported that Black shoppers typically spend more on cosmetics, hair products and skin care than White consumers, amounting to more than $1 billion each year. And Black consumers are more likely than other demographic groups to speak up through social media.

Sephora, which Black shoppers have accused of discrimination, first worked with Gauge experts in 2019 to better understand how Black women leaders view the beauty company and experience racial profiling in retail. They wanted Sephora to sell more representative products, including those reflecting the full array of Black skin tones, and forge relationships with more Black influencers.

Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Yeh said Sephora has since commissioned a panel of equity advisers for quarterly conversations to complement its traditional market research.

When Sephora pledged to devote at least 15 percent of its shelf space to Black-owned beauty brands last summer, Yeh said the equity advisers urged the company to also create a path for Black entrepreneurs by expanding recruiting and ensuring they knew the “secret sauce” to making it onto Sephora shelves.

“The biggest trade show in beauty is in Milan. Are they going to be in Milan? Probably not,” Yeh said. “We are digging much deeper into scouting, beyond just letting them come to us.”

Sephora has re-engineered its six-year-old brand development program — initially created to help women access funding, create prototypes and position their products — to focus exclusively on entrepreneurs of color, with the intent to distribute at Sephora at the end of the six-month boot camp. And it’s tapping some of the equity advisers to act as mentors and to connect with a more diverse group of business owners.

The company has also increased signage in its stores of up-and-coming brands, with mini-profiles of the founders, Yeh said, because “consumers want to know.”

“The speed at which cultural conversations are taking place is breathtaking and the breadth of those conversations are really expanding,” Yeh said. “It’s helpful for us to have a pulse on something that’s broader than what we had in the past.”

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Lauryl Schraedly, global head of consumer insights on Snap’s marketing team, said the Gauge network is “unlike anything else in the industry,” something especially valuable at this time because “a lot of people in the market research industry look like me, a White woman.”

Snap began working with the influencers last summer and has sought help understanding which events and issues that brands should be a part of, getting feedback on how people are using its augmented reality filters and staying informed on what various communities care about.

In 2016, the company was pilloried for a Snapchat filter meant to honor Bob Marley that allowed users to put Marley’s face and dreadlocks on themselves and another that turned users into a racist Asian caricature with slanted eyes, buck teeth and a conical hat. Critics said the filters amounted to digital blackface and yellowface.

Last June, it released a controversial filter commemorating Juneteenth, a holiday marking emancipation, that prompted users to smile to break digital chains symbolizing slavery. The company apologized, removed the filter and attributed its error to internal miscommunication.

Two months later, during the March on Washington, Snap unveiled filters and other creative tools designed by Black artists that support Black Lives Matter, including augmented-reality face masks advocating for racial justice that could be also purchased in real life.

After commissioning a study in December on how companies have celebrated Black History Month, Snap in February released a docuseries about 23-year-old Ezekiel Mitchell, a Black cowboy on his journey to becoming the best bull rider in the world. It also rolled out bitmoji celebrating “Black excellence,” including one promoting Black history “24/7/365.”

“We can’t just show up in February and then go silent for the rest of the year,” Schraedly said.

Producing effective campaigns promoting racial justice also helps companies better sell their products, said Jones, of Procter & Gamble. The company is working with Gauge to address systemic bias in the marketing and advertising industry and just launched a campaign to tell more inclusive stories about Black America.

“There is an economic benefit as well as a societal benefit,” Jones said. “When you get this stuff right, it’s good for business.”