It was once unimaginable for many brands to even consider weighing in on societal issues or take a definitive stance on anything as racial justice. Like the separation of church and state, businesses and brands were expected to steer clear of taking a stand on any issues perceived to be controversial or politically divisive.

But here’s the thing: brands are inherently political, as any analysis of the many now tone-deaf campaigns from the 20th century will tell you. And, as Edelman’s Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust in 2020 shows, brands can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. But their stands must be authentic, they must back their words with actions, and they must first get their own houses in order. Specifically:

  • In the U.S., trust is the third biggest factor influencing consumers as they decide which brands to buy and support, and the level of trust a consumer has in a brand is significantly impacted by how that brand responds to societal issues.
  • The potential for brands to earn trust by addressing racial injustice is four times greater than the risk of losing it by doing so—82 percent of Americans said brands would earn their trust by taking a stand on racism, while only 20 percent said brands would lose it. (2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brands and Racial Justice)
  • In the U.S., six in ten people want brands to invest in addressing the root causes of racial justice issues, or to engage in public policy discussions to effect change.

In other words, a few vague social media posts declaring broad support and other forms of “woke-washing” aren’t going to cut it with today’s consumers. And for brands that don’t publicly declare their values, and back them up with actions, the consequences are significant. Case in point—the recent slew of overtures and gestures made by the NFL.

  • A $250 million donation to "support the battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African-Americans" and a blanket statement condemning racism rung hollow coming from the organization that, not so long ago, shamed and shunned Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice.
  • A major football team well-known for its racially charged name posted a black square on Instagram to participate in the #BlackoutTuesday social initiative aimed at calling attention to racism.

In the court of public opinion, all wrongs can move toward being righted, and it’s never too late for brands to join the conversation. But today’s consumers are demanding an authentic and committed journey to real and lasting transformation from brands, one that uses their full power to address systemic racism. Without other actions, a black square on Instagram or a lackluster pledge of support is the stock-photo version of “taking a stand.” And our data shows what many marketers know to be true: Consumers will clock these efforts from a mile away.

Trust is critical, but no brand can win trust until it gets its own house in order. Brands need to actively demonstrate that they are advancing social progress—both inside and outside the organization.

This means the role of the CMO is more important, and more influential, than ever before. Yes—the past few months have been a strange journey for marketers. But with brands increasingly measured by their public commitments, and increased scrutiny on public commitments and authentic action, the CMO can become an organization’s change-maker—translating the demands of consumers into a real, tangible roadmap for systemic change.

It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be lost.

Michele Anderson is U.S. Chair of Brand.