We are facing three crises at once: a health one, an economic one, and a long-standing race one. Now more than ever, brands and marketers are under a magnifying glass. If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing. But if you say the wrong thing, you risk getting cancelled.
How are creatives and marketers handling that tension? And what role does storytelling have in driving change? That was what I tackled at Knotch’s Pros & Content event with Baron Davis, former N.B.A. All-Star and now founder and CEO of Business Inside the Game; Amanda Brinkman, chief brand officer at Deluxe; and Jamila Hunter, senior vice president of current and alternative programming at Freeform, Disney’s young adult network. Three very different people with three very different backgrounds, but a shared belief in the power of authentic, inclusive storytelling to drive change. But how?
For marketers, it starts with making sure your company is not only talking the talk, but walking the walk. “Optical allyship” — when brands make a statement but don’t go beyond surface level or truly try to break down racially oppressive systems — is a surefire mistake.
“None of us really want to see optical allyship,” Hunter said. “A lot of people are putting up posts and memes and saying things, but we really want to open up the [hood] of the car and say, ‘What’s in your engine? What are you doing every day? Are you walking the walk? Are the people in your C-Suite supporting what you’re saying about diversity? Are the advertisers you’re in business with philosophically aligned with your mandate?’”
“Be open to telling the truth. And also be open and be willing to say, ‘How can I help?’” Davis added. “[To] big brands out there: Don’t just talk about it. Figure out a way to be about it. And don’t talk about it before you actually take action.”
Then it’s about realizing and leveraging the power of your platform.
“From a corporate role I have the ability to affect goodness,” said Brinkman, who is the creator, executive producer, and co-host of Deluxe’s show, “Small Business Revolution,” that airs on Hulu and Amazon Prime. “As brands, we are standing behind giant megaphones. We have access to resources and capital… In our role, how can we positively make people’s lives better, in whatever version better means to that person.”
“You really move the needle, you really do something if you tap into a conversation that can be meaningful and impactful and advance our society,” Hunter said. “For me, that’s the bigger picture, not just the box office or the ratings. But can you look back at society and say, ‘Wow, there was an impact because of the stories we told.’”
Then it’s about telling authentic, inclusive stories. To do that, you need to demand a diverse set of voices in the room when decisions are being made.
“I do think it’s important to have enough voices in the room,” Hunter told me. “If everyone is coming from the same experience, it’s a problem. I think the creative suffers 100% if you don’t have an environment where people are willing to disagree and make people feel a little uncomfortable. I don’t think you get the authenticity out of it. I think people need to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
For Brinkman, authentic content has always been fundamental to “Small Business Revolution.”
“We wholeheartedly believed in authentic content and felt that it would stretch our spend by investing in real people,” she said. “It certainly has provided those results, but I just think it’s the right thing to do. If you say you stand for something, show that.”
Now that means filming the show’s next season on Lake Street in Deluxe’s hometown of Minneapolis, near the site of George Floyd’s murder last month by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
“We’re going to be focusing on lifting up black and brown entrepreneurs along Lake Street,” she said. “This entire season is going to be about telling the truth about the systemic barriers that are in place right now in our society around entrepreneurship for people of color.”
As creatives, as marketers, as humans, it’s time that we all recognize the value of our own voices to drive change. With authentic, inclusive storytelling from brands that are walking the talk, we can help bring about the change that we want to see. That has never mattered more than right now.
We talk a lot about thought leadership. But this is not the moment for that. We’re in an action leadership moment now and the sooner we stop talking and start doing, the better.