We are the sum of our actions, not our words

Author: 
Paul Nolan

Editor’s Note: Just as I resolved to live with the unending loop of coronavirus-themed commercials from the Walmarts and Amazons of the world praising their frontline employees (whom they had to be pressured into paying something close to a livable wage), the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests happened.

The flood of protesters in the streets was followed by a steady flow of corporate messages expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Every company from Etsy to L’Oreal felt it necessary to emphasize how much they abhor racism and always have. Cynical by nature, I didn’t see much difference between these platitudes and Kendall Jenner handing a policeman a Pepsi.

Pepsi was rightly, roundly and instantly ridiculed for that 2017 commercial. Someone wiser than I would have to explain what was different about these more recent corporate professions of wokeness. I reached out to Bonin Bough, a consumer marketing executive with celebrity-like status. Bough led marketing efforts for Mondelēz International (formerly Kraft Foods), PepsiCo and Weber Shandwick before pursuing his own entrepreneurial endeavors.

Early in our discussion, he talked about how he and his younger brother were raised in New York City by their divorced mom. “We were on public assistance for a number of years. Technically, I’m a statistic that shouldn’t be here.” Despite his elevated status as a millionaire entrepreneur, Bough says he still avoids putting himself in situations where he could be stopped by a policeman while alone. “I grew up knowing treatment that is different than my peer group.”

SMM: What has led to the outpouring of corporate solidarity with the protesters when most of them have steered clear of these in the past?

Bough: The timing just aligned for people to participate and show how they really feel. [With the pandemic outbreak], we went through a journey of compassion and empathy at a scale we’ve never seen. People were making the best decisions, not just for themselves, but making sure they didn’t spread this thing to anyone else. [When Floyd’s death occurred], a lot of people were left asking, “How did we go from where we were three months ago – connected and unified – to this?” If we went through what we just went through, then we should be able to change this if we’re just conscious and focused.

SMM: The cynic in me says that corporations saw thousands of people protesting around the world and only then decided to be part of it. Are they being reactive rather than proactive?

Bough: I’ve talked to so many leaders about the topic of being opportunistic. The reality is they all are genuine. These organizations are made up of truly good people, but they are large organizations to shift. You don’t make sweeping change in an instant, although I do think they have learned they are more agile than they thought. COVID took organizations and forced them to change at a pace that we’ve never seen before. In some respects, many of them feel if they are going to make a change, starting today is the time because they know the organization can do it.

SMM: What are the right steps for companies to take?

Bough: The adjustment of the boards can be done overnight because they are appointments. Other roles within an organization take time, but you have to start on that journey. It starts at home. If your house is not in order, then you can’t ask somebody else to fix theirs. If you’re not on that journey to figure out what that looks like, then it doesn’t seem to me that you really are trying for change. Then, you can look outside. Who are the people that you want to do business with? What do they look like? What efforts are they making?

Large organizations are trying to figure out what their lane is. The power exists within these companies to have an impact. If we want to see real change, this is about putting in real action plans. Let’s start with ourselves, make our way to our partners and then see how we operate as supportive organizations inside our communities.

SMM: Have you seen B2B companies get involved? Is there a benefit to that, or is that completely beside the point? As a company you should be willing to state, “We are who we are and we’re not looking for a return on this.”

Bough: That’s what I think. Softbank [which created a $100 million Opportunity Fund that will invest only in companies led by people of color] is a great example. I haven’t followed the conversation on digital or social channels that are coming out from those kinds of companies.

SMM: Does part of you say we’ve been here before?

Bough: Hey man, there is always a part of me that says that. The reality is I haven’t felt us here before with this type of collective compassion. That’s what makes me very, very optimistic. Now, it’s going to be on those who are truly leaders inside these organizations to continue the commitment and to move this forward. Once this all settles down, we will see who saw this as a means to participate for their own benefit and who is actually addressing the issue with actionable steps.