In the wake of the brutal killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, among countless other Black Americans, and the subsequent protests across the country, we have conducted an Edelman Trust Barometer flash poll over the June 5-7 weekend, surveying 2,000, diverse respondents across America. The results are unequivocal: Americans want brands to step up and play a central role in addressing systemic racism. This is a mandate for brands to act, because consumers will exercise brand democracy with their wallets. In the past, CEOs have spoken out on societal issues on behalf of corporate America; today, the CMO and CCO must join them as stewards of brand action. Here are the important findings of this special report:

  1. Brands Have to Act or Consumers Will Flee—Sixty percent of respondents said that brands must take a stand to publicly speak out against racial injustice. That same 60 percent of Americans said that they will buy or boycott a brand based on if and how it responds to the current protests. Young adults—ages 18-34—are the most proactive in their response, with 78 percent of respondents saying that a brand must speak out, versus 48 percent of those 55 plus.
  2. Brands Have a Moral Obligation—The primary motivation for demanding brand action is moral obligation (56 percent), followed by “owe it to employees” (52 percent). Brands are now assumed to have more power than their corporate parents, as they are more flexible and responsive to consumer input. And there are severe consequences for brands that fail to act, with 52 percent of respondents of color saying that they will not work for a company that fails to speak out.
  3. Educate and Influence—Sixty percent say that brands need to use their marketing dollars to advocate for racial equality and to educate the public on the issue. This is especially true of respondents of color (70 percent). But these promises must be backed with action or brands risk being seen as exploitative (63 percent).
  4. Act to Create Change—Brands are expected to use their creative power to inspire customers to get involved in promoting racial justice, a sentiment especially strong among diverse communities (66 percent of respondents). Brands are also expected to invest in addressing the root causes of racial inequality, such as education.
  5. Get Your House in Order—Nearly two-thirds of respondents say that brands have to reflect the full diversity of the country within their own organizations and in their products and communications. Sixty percent of respondents want products that are accessible and suitable for all communities. Sixty-nine percent of women said companies have to set an example of diversity and inclusion in their own organizations.
  6. Politics Play a Role in Expectations—Only 40 percent of Republicans expect brands to take a stand on racism, versus 80 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents. And twice as many Democrats will buy or boycott brands depending on their actions around correcting racial injustice (78 percent) versus Republicans (43 percent).
  7. You Gain Trust by Taking a Stand—Four times as many respondents say that taking a stand gains brand trust versus loses it. This is true across the political spectrum (Republicans 2 to 1 on gaining versus losing trust, Democrats 7 to 1, Independents 4.5 to 1). It is true by gender (women 5 to 1, men 3 to 1) and age groups (35-54 by 4 to 1, 55+ by 4.8 to 1, young adults by 3 to 1).
  8. Peer-to-Peer Communication Matters Most—Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they have attempted to convince others to start or stop using a brand based on its stand on racial inequality. Friends and family are the most influential sources of information in shaping views on racism, especially for women (45 percent) and Black and Latinx respondents while older respondents 55+ look to mainstream media (47 percent) and young adults to social media (52 percent).

This is a deeply important study. We have proven that brands can no longer dodge America’s original sin and third rail: systemic racism and inequality. Edelman is no exception: We know we need to do more to promote diversity and inclusion within our own ranks, and to work with others to build a just society, and we have committed to concrete actions to achieve those goals. The voice of the brand connects in a different way than corporations and CEOs; it inspires, motivates, and offers hope. It is powerful in making change because it stirs emotions and provokes response. The relationship of trust between brand and consumer now depends on tangible actions destined to change the course of history. Nelson Mandela was right in saying, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Brands, this is indeed your time to lead.

Richard Edelman is CEO.