First it was Adidas and Nike, the two biggest names in global sportswear, that sought to draw attention to their backing of the Black Lives Matter movement through a collaborative tweet.
Now Britain’s homegrown brand behemoths are jumping on the bandwagon – with PG Tips and Yorkshire Tea uniting under the hashtag #solidaritea.
The two rivals, the second- and third-biggest tea sellers in the UK, became the latest businesses to declare their support for the BLM protests that have broken out around the world since the death of George Floyd.
Yorkshire Tea was responding to a tweet from a far-right activist, Laura Towler, expressing satisfaction that the brand had not come out in support of the movement.
“I’m dead chuffed that Yorkshire Tea has not supported BLM,” Towler tweeted on Monday, along with a smiley face emoji.
But Yorkshire Tea, which is owned by the Harrogate-based Bettys and Taylors Group, replied: “Please don’t buy our tea again. We’re taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post. We stand against racism.”
It was soon joined by PG Tips, which tweeted: “If you are boycotting teas that stand against racism, you’re going to have to find two new tea brands now.” PG Tips is owned by the consumer goods conglomerate Unilever, which also makes Marmite and Pot Noodle among many other products.
The two brands won delighted approval from some social media users, with one tweeting: “Tea unity makes me emotional. Love it and its pure Britishness”.
But others were sceptical of the weight of the companies’ commitment, with many pointing out that neither had set out any details of their position or plans for action. One social media user said: “Can we have your full political declaration then please. Just so everyone is clear where you stand on all the issues rather than appearing to be opportunistic is order to sell more tea.”
The two tea firms are the latest to grapple with a corporate dilemma during the Black Lives Matter movement – whether declaring their support is a clear communication of brand values, or risks backfiring and appearing opportunistic.
Adidas won praise and expressions of scepticism in equal measure when it retweeted a Nike video supporting the movement and wrote: “Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make change.”
In Marketing Week magazine, the brand consultant Mark Ritson wrote: “They are literally storming the White House and choking to death black men on the street in the middle of the day, and marketers are getting emotional about retweeting a video.”
Hundreds of brands in the UK and US have expressed their support for the protests, with varying degrees of symbolic and practical weight.
In a blogpost for the Marketing Society, the brand semiotician and cultural analyst Becks Collins noted positive examples including Ben and Jerry’s, which she said had stood out “in a sea of washed out statements about … ‘standing with our Black community’ (without saying how)” by posting: “We must dismantle white supremacy.”
She also pointed to brands which have made substantial donations to relevant causes or already work to ensure diversity in the workplace.
Vivienne Dovi, a media executive who wrote on the subject for Campaign magazine, said: “It’s tricky, because we do want brands to show their solidarity – that’s what we’re calling them out for. It’s great to do that. But you need to think about what you’re doing yourselves and how you need to improve when you never said a single thing about it before.”
Bettys and Taylors Group has no minority ethnic executives on its eight-strong board and senior executive group. It finished 34th out of 47 brands on a 2018 Ethical Consumer guide to the sector. Unilever’s PG Tips finished 46th, scoring two out of a possible 20 points.
The two companies use tea grown in Assam. Both have pointed to steps they have taken to improve the conditions of the workers there, and have published a list of their suppliers. However, a Traidcraft report, published in January, accused them and a number of other UK tea brands of “knowing about the conditions for women working on tea estates but not doing enough about them”. The report urged greater transparency about the production process.