Global firms have altered their marketing, branding, and products to reflect the worldwide revulsion for the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by policeman Derek Chauvin last month. Adam McCulloch examines employers’ responses in the US and beyond.

Businesses’ reaction to the Black Lives Matters protests have been considered to be in marked contrast to the near-silence of firms in the wake of previous instances of police brutality against black people.

The death of Floyd was the latest killing of a black person in the US but there are plenty of other well known cases that have incited huge anger over the past decade including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin. 

But for many, Floyd’s killing, captured on video, is the final straw. Not only in the US but across the world.

With unemployment growing, the economy suffering and Donald Trump’s presidency under fire, business perhaps feels more able to speak its mind. The likes of Walmart, Disney, Facebook and Glossier are among hundreds of businesses that have pledged donations to black organisations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or launched new diversity efforts, associating their brand – and employer brand – with the struggle.

Cosmetic brand Glossier posted “We see you and are with you” on Twitter. The head of investment giant BlackRock wrote on LinkedIn “I am appalled.” General Motors chief Mary Barra said she was “impatient and disgusted”.

The CEOs of several banks including Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase have expressed outrage and their desire for change while Citigroup’s Mark Mason, one of the sector’s few black CFO’s wrote an impassioned blog urging change and condemning inequality and racism.

Mason’s observation that black people were under threat of losing their lives simply by going for a jog (as in the case of Ahmaud Arbery) was particularly powerful, as was the testimony of another black executive Robert Smith, head of Vista Equity Partners, who informed 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,” he wrote.

Last week Apple shut radio stations on its Music app on Tuesday, giving listeners a single stream that played an NWA track that threatens a “bloodbath of cops”. The co-founder of social media site Reddit resigned from its board, saying he should be replaced by a black candidate and Amazon placed a prominent Black Lives Matter banner at the top of its home page linking to a blog detailing action the online giant is taking to support black communities.

One Amazon customer took exception to this, complaining the slogan was disturbing and that “all lives mattered”. Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos replied: “‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter. Black lives matter speaks to racism and the disproportionate risk that black people face in our law enforcement and justice system.”

Meanwhile, Lego told online affiliates to remove links to 31 mainly police-themed products, as part of its own stand “against racism and inequality”.

Genuine personal alarm is of course one of the drivers of the outrage but according to Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, firms are also seeking to protect brands’ reputations among staff and potential recruits. He added that internal work groups often played critical roles in transforming corporate cultures.

This may be taking place at Facebook where founder Mark Zuckerberg has found that his policy on publishing racist and untrue statements has come under extreme pressure from some staff who have gone public in their disapproval of his stance. Last week Zuckerberg wrote in a public email: “To members of our black community: I stand with you. Your lives matter. Black lives matter.”

Prof King added that there was a momentum propelling business into taking more overt positions over racism, saying that as more companies came forward, it increased the danger of remaining silent.

He added: “There are a lot of corporate leaders who are genuinely sympathetic. There’s also a wariness of being on the wrong side of the issue and having their reputation damaged. At this point there’s more risk in not speaking out than in speaking out.”

Activists say the corporate outpouring is a welcome change from earlier eras when the business world tended to stay silent.

“It is quite momentous,” said Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, a deputy senior campaign director at Color of Change, a racial justice organisation founded in 2005. “There was a time five years ago when corporations… wouldn’t say ‘black lives matter’ for a billion dollars.”

There are a lot of corporate leaders who are genuinely sympathetic. There’s also a wariness of being on the wrong side of the issue and having their reputation damaged. At this point there’s more risk in not speaking out than in speaking out” – Brayden King, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management

Perhaps more modern, digital businesses with their younger customers were alive to the growing need to come down on the side of racial fairness and justice earlier than more traditional companies. In 2017, after the Charlottesville violence in which President Trump told the world there were “some fine people on both sides”, Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky said people who participated in white nationalist protests would be removed from Airbnb units.

Chesky said he had learned that white supremacists were using Airbnb to arrange lodging and coordinate events in Charlottesville.

But taking the moral high ground in this way is not without risk, the Financial Times warned, citing US opinion polls that rank police above religion and big business. It noted that when Nike launched an advertising campaign featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously “took the knee” during the national anthem to protest against police violence, the company’s shares initially fell 3% before recovering.

Speaking up has become a “business imperative”, Dwayna Hayley, senior vice president at Porter Novelli, a communications firm that has worked with McDonald’s and Pepsi, told the FT.

The UK’s reaction to the latest brutality has been muffled by distance and the view that it doesn’t have such an obvious police problem, with its policing-by-consent ethos as opposed to policing with a finger on the trigger. But the protests across Britain over the weekend have shown that despite our differences with the US, similar inequalities persist here.

Perhaps the most fitting action that could be taken by UK business, aside from speaking out, would be a redoubling of efforts to counter unconscious bias, to bolster the number of black people in boardrooms and to put as much effort into the ethnic minority pay gap as they are starting to do with the gender pay gap. Overt support for the Black Lives Matter campaign is not as an immediate priority for UK firms as it is for those in the US, but both Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips have signalled their backing.

Yorkshire Tea, part of Bettys & Taylors Group, went so far as to tell people not to buy its products if they were not anti-racist, adding, “Please don’t buy our tea again. We’re taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post. We stand against racism.”

It is unlikely the company is alone. British business has moved on considerably since the days of Edward Colston, the merchant and slave trader whose statue was hauled off its plinth and dumped in Bristol harbour by protesters, but action is required to safeguard employer branding and achieve wider progress in society.