Having leapt from a grassroots movement to mainstream awareness last summer, #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) has become a change agent across industry sectors.

The murder of George Floyd last May put the movement, which has been active since 2014, on a new level. While the hashtag was shared around 400,000 times in the month prior to the killing, shares shot up to over 100 million the month after, according to new research from Kivvit.

The report notes BLM’s impact on less diverse parts of the US. The biggest increases in Twitter engagement happened in states such as Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Utah, Wyoming and New Hampshire; and Black Lives Matter’s Facebook posts generated especially high engagement at colleges with majority white student populations.

BLM also mobilized brands from the worlds of sports, nonprofits and consumer goods. Again, their involvement, and in some cases, a willingness to step outside the comfort zone, appears to have helped the movement reach new audiences.

Major league sports teams showed the most readiness to engage with people on social media, with more than 64% of them posting BLM-related content. Fans of the Utah Jazz are the least diverse in the NBA, Kivvit said, yet they interacted with the team’s Black Lives Matter-related content 20 times more than with an average post. The NHL, the least-followed sports league among Black Americans, also generated an unexpectedly high level of engagement on Facebook.

Universities and nonprofit organizations were the next two most active entities, while 10% of the 150 most popular brands in the US and 13% of Fortune 500 companies chose to engage. A recent PRovoke Media podcast explored the report in more depth.

Relatively conservative brands such as Nordstrom were quick to involve themselves. The retailer was the first company to make a #BlackLivesMatter post on Facebook, generating almost 90 times more engagement than usual, according to the report. Ben & Jerry’s, which has a history of being one of the most outspoken brands, saw its followings on Twitter and Facebook grow 35% and 27% respectively after making the statement: “We must dismantle white supremacy.”

Brands need to recognize that whatever their business is or whatever customer they traditionally serve, racial and social equality is relevant to them 

Nordstrom declined to grant an interview for this article but pointed to a summary of their activities around BLM posted on their corporate website. It suggests the movement has prompted introspection and pledges to “increase representation of Black and Latino populations in people manager roles by at least 50%” by the end of 2025. It also promises to raise its representation of “Black-owned or designed brands” with the goal of generating $500 million in sales from such brands within the same time frame.

Nordstrom is not alone in making commitments to the Black community beyond the initial support shown last June.

“A major takeaway is how pervasive Black Lives Matter was in 2020 for brands and institutions, regardless of sector or constituency,” observes Brad Weekes, principal at Kivvit. “Brands need to recognize that whatever their business is or whatever customer they traditionally serve, racial and social equality is relevant to them and there is an imperative to speak out against injustice, not just when it’s trending, but as an ongoing part of their identity.”

Weekes said the research should embolden brands, noting that those that “used powerful messaging, acted quickly and made tangible commitments all received the highest and most positive engagement on social media.” Nonetheless, Kivvit’s report shows that the response from major organizations to the police shooting of Jacob Blake three months after Floyd’s murder was more subdued. It says there is “more work to do to sustain the level of engagement and momentum in support of Black Lives Matter and to ensure leading organizations speak out against all acts of racial injustice as they continue to occur."

The fact that only around 10% of major brands aligned with the movement indicates that fear of repercussions from involvement in anything seen as too political is still an issue. But Weekes says supporting movements like this is also important from an employer branding perspective.

Recent events are a stark reminder of how much progress must still be made toward treating everyone with fairness, dignity and humanity

“If a brand tries to label movements like Black Lives Matter as ‘activist’ or attempts to remain apolitical, they are ultimately going to deter diverse talent from working for them,” he says. “The normalization of conversations around social and racial equality will ultimately make a healthier and more effective workplace. Brands have an opportunity to take a stand and lead this conversation rather than be reactive to it.”

As an ice cream brand, Ben & Jerry’s has long been clear about its values and is not afraid to act on them. The brand recently partnered with football quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick to launch a product called Change the Whirled. It’s a case of lightening the approach to a serious topic and in doing so, raising awareness of it without diminishing any of its seriousness.

“We believe in Kaepernick’s focus on fighting systemic oppression of Black and brown communities, and we look forward to more work together to dismantle systems that don’t provide an equal opportunity for all Americans,” says Sean Greenwood, director of PR for the company. “There is plenty of work that needs to happen in that area. Even though we’ve been working on these issues for the last five years, we know we have only raised awareness so far. There’s much more to do to bring about racial justice.”

Greenwood says that consumers increasingly expect companies to “take a stance on issues and have a positive impact on our global community,” which renders concerns about alienating potential customers irrelevant. For brands that have not taken a strong position on a social theme before, he advises starting slowly. “It’s important to crawl before you can run,” he says. “If you’re asking, what’s the return on investment of this values-led work, you’re asking the wrong question. If you’re coming at it from a truly authentic place to do some good in your community, that will be noticed and rewarded.” He adds that company guidance is a ratio of 10:1 “in terms of doing things and talking about them."

A less divisive approach to the leadership in Washington DC is something that gives us great hope for 2021 and beyond

Having worked on racial justice matters for the past five years, including supporting Black Lives Matters in 2016, made speaking out last year a natural action. Without that, the message about dismantling white supremacy “would have been very hollow”, says Greenwood.

“After the murder of George Floyd, many businesses tried posting something on their social media to say, ‘we stand with our Black and brown sisters and brothers at this difficult time’. The response, and rightfully so, was questioning those businesses in what they did to stand with Black and brown folks,” says Greenwood. “If there wasn’t legitimate action taken, they were called out. That makes businesses hesitant to get involved, and rightly so. You should not be talking about an issue if you’re not willing to back it up with meaningful action.”

Indeed, rather than simply talking on social platforms, to help sustain BLM, Greenwood advises businesses to use the power they have in their communities and with politicians to play a role in finding “progressive outcomes that work for all Americans”. He does not see the change in administration necessarily changing how brands engage with racial justice, but the climate is at least likely to be more encouraging.

“A less divisive approach to the leadership in Washington DC is something that gives us great hope for 2021 and beyond,” he says.

Another company, in a remarkably different sector, HP also tapped into its action-oriented record on diversity and equity to step up around Black Lives Matter. Last spring, as schools and offices closed the printing giant launched “HP Printables” that resulted in people printing millions of coloring pages and learning worksheets.

“Then, in the summer as our country struggled with the national conversation on racism, we saw a 100% increase in parents and caregivers searching for online resources to help them talk with children and we knew HP Printables could help,” says Vanessa Yanez, head of world wide print communications. HP partnered with Black artists to design racial justice themed printables. As part of its broader effort to sustain the movement, HP created a Racial Equality and Social Justice Task Force with a comprehensive set of commitments intended to address systemic racism.

"We're at an inflection point today. Recent events are a stark reminder of how much progress must still be made toward treating everyone with fairness, dignity and humanity. It's time to step up," said Lesley Slaton Brown, chief diversity officer at HP.