Many companies and organisations have responded to the Black Lives Matter protests, some simply with a black square on their social media channels, and quite a few with statements about their stances. The crucial factor to keep in mind is for communication to reflect genuine action, not simply a policy or what can be seen as doing the right thing. Even for companies not actively campaigning for social justice, diversity will often be a key issue, starting with a more balanced reflection of broader society on boards, leadership and among employees.

Also in the news in June is Pride Month, so many of the black squares on social media have been replaced rainbow backgrounds. Again, it’s important for communications to reflect authentic, long-term action. Strategic communication wins out over knee-jerk reactions, ideally with internal engagement preceding any external communications. Particular issues may call for more immediate reputation management and sometimes crisis and issues management.

Last week, in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, two petitions propelled Unilever in India to declare it will rename, but keep selling, its whitening cream, Fair & Lovely. Unilever is an inspirational case study when it comes to brands with purpose, in particular on the sustainability front. Johnson & Johnson has made an even more definitive move by stopping the sale of their skin-lightening products.

What’s the most attractive skin tone? Is it light, to show that you aren’t a farmer or labourer, working under the sun? Or is it the tan you have after a week at the beach or in the mountains?

In Asia, including South Asia, fair skin has been the ideal for centuries. For example, though caste-based discrimination in India is outlawed, the ingrained culture that differentiates people partly based on skin tones runs deep. The aspiration to have fairer skin is embodied in a multitude of whitening or brightening products in drugstores, supermarkets and beauty counters.

The Guardian states, “Skin-lightening is a multimillion-dollar industry in China, south Asia and parts of Africa. A 2011 World Health Organization survey found that about 40% of women in Africa bleached their skin, including nearly eight in 10 Nigerian women.”

Is it time to accept our own skin tones without trying to alter them? What about simply trying to find a foundation to match your skin? Fifty shades of beige are not enough. Until recently, most makeup brands offered about 10-15 shades of foundation. Cover FX has had 40 shades since 2015, and in 2017, Fenty Beauty by Rihanna launched 50 shades, the same year L’Oréal introduced its True Match foundation range with 33 shades (now 40). Covergirl and Dior caught up the next year.

Our perceptions of beauty include not only skin tone and race, but also age, sexual orientation and expression. There are many types of diversity which are under-represented in the media. It’s high time for this to change.

Cultural expectations of beauty run deep, and if there’s any chance of celebrating people in all their glorious diversity, it needs to start with the media, including advertising, and a consequent rethink of beauty products available.

BBC World invited me to speak with Christian Fraser about these issues following the Fair & Lovely rebranding announcement on Thursday, June 25th.

If you would like to have a chat about branding and communications, please get in touch with me at Madelyn.Postman@leidar.com.

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