The brutal killing of George Floyd last month sparked worldwide protests against racism and police brutality, calls to action for defunding the police, and a wider reckoning with systemic injustices. People are encouraged to reflect on their inherent privilege or lack thereof, and companies are attempting to follow suit.
Authenticity is a hard note to strike online, especially if you’re a non-sentient corporation or a social media manager just trying to do her job. As the June protests took over streets and social media feeds, brands were quick to put out emails and posts in solidarity with the movement. My inbox was flooded with subject lines reading, “#BLM,” from Spotify, Netflix, Sephora, the millennial jewelry company I ordered earrings from that one time, my local coffee shop, and even my dentist. For weeks, Instagram was inundated with flowery #BlackLivesMatter graphics from otherwise politically-silent brands.
But a hashtag isn’t enough to offset historically toxic company cultures. After posting in support of #BlackLivesMatter, companies like Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and L’Oreal were called out for instances of internal racism. And many of their followers didn’t give the benefit of the doubt or stick around to see what would happen next.
On June 1, L’Oreal posted a graphic on Facebook: “SPEAKING OUT IS WORTH IT,” written in bold white letters against a black square with the company logo. The quasi-activism did not go as planned. One commenter replied, “Your words mean nothing. And your actions are speaking. Shame on you L’Oreal. Do more.” Another person added, “We need a public apology and future dedication to the black community. #MunroeBergdorf.”
The commenters were referring to a 2017 incident, when L’Oreal fired the Black and trans model and activist Munroe Bergdorf after she spoke out on social media about “the racial violence of white people” in the aftermath of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counter-protester was killed. Bergdorf posted about the company’s hypocrisy last month and has since agreed to serve on the L’Oreal UK Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board.
Still, L’Oreal lost some loyalists. According to Thinknum Alternative Data, the brand’s Twitter follower count has dropped by 4,000 since last month. Its Facebook mentions surged with the controversy, up 124% within the first few weeks of June, but have since dropped back down by 74%.
Last month, Urban Outfitters shared a post asserting that “Racism, injustice, oppression, and complacency have never been welcome in our community,” The trendy apparel brand was immediately hit with a flurry of commenters calling bullshit. “I worked for UO for 7 years. During that time I witnessed many sexist and racist practices,” one user said.
Employees of Urban Outfitters and UO subsidiary Anthropologie took to social media to expose the company’s use of code names like “Nick” and “Nicole” to racially profile Black customers that were considered potential shoplifters. (This writer, who spent one hellish summer greeting customers and folding shirts at Anthropologie, can confirm.) The retailer, of course, deflected and denied the allegations.
Anthropologie has since lost 10,000 Instagram followers. Urban Outfitters saw followers actively unliking its Facebook page.
It’s hard to see any of this as more than slight collateral damage for these brands. A month has passed and most companies are back to posting their usual stream of product images and influencer endorsements. Some have backed up their #BLM support with donations and diversity pledges. Sephora says it will dedicate 15% of shelf space to Black-owned beauty brands. Glossier posted about the protests and committed to donating $500,000 to social justice organizations. But how genuine are these efforts, coming from brands trying to simultaneously survive the pandemic and maintain a woke public image? As the rapid news cycle churns on, will their words make way for long-term, sustainable change?