Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Just a few years ago, companies were content to place a statement on their website, often buried deep within the recruitment section, about their commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). No longer. Today, companies want to express more than a commitment to these goals; they want to demonstrate a genuine passion for achieving them. This often means embedding diversity and inclusion in their brand and brand experiences. This requires more than showing diverse people in marketing pieces, however. It’s requires infusing a sense of openness into all key verbal and visual expressions, and nurturing a culture that embraces diverse ideas and perspectives as well as diverse backgrounds.

The business case for DEI.

The drive for DEI among American companies accelerated exponentially following the horrific murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Companies in all industries pledged to support DEI, particularly by hiring and supporting underrepresented segments of the population. While the motivations for this strengthened commitment to DEI may be purely altruistic, recent research reveals that diversity benefits the bottom line.

A recent study from Porter Novelli found that 73% of executives believe DEI is a moral and business imperative that drives profit. A 2019 McKinsey study found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile—up from 21% in 2017 and 15% in 2014. In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, McKinsey found that top-quartile companies outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36% in profitability, slightly up from 33% in 2017 and 35% in 2014.

Real … or performative

Despite the renewed commitment to DEI, and the growing understanding that DEI makes good business sense, progress has been slow. As a recent article in Forbes pointed out, “… there is evidence that the wave of [DEI] activity seen in 2020 has been largely performative in nature, and that little actual progress has been made. Emblematic of this problem are recent stories about Wells Fargo and about the National Football League, both of whom have been accused of conducting sham interviews of candidates from diverse backgrounds after positions had already been filled (or promised), simply as a way of meeting stated diversity objectives.”

Clearly, achieving meaningful, sustained DEI progress requires more than high-minded statements and well-intentioned but toothless policies. One powerful lever for changing behaviors and reassuring customers and employees is infusing DEI into your brand.

Your brand is a distillation of what you stand for in the minds of the people you care most about: customers, prospects, employees, recruits, and communities, among others. Branding is the art and science of influencing these perceptions. So it makes sense that if you want these audiences to regard your company as committed to DEI, you need to do more than issue statements; you need to make DEI a part of what you stand for. DEI must be part of your brand.

How do you infuse DEI into your brand? It’s not just a matter of adding the words “diversity, equity, and inclusion” to your positioning statement. It’s about changing how you represent your company and your products or services, from the language you use to the images you choose to the communications channels you deploy. There’s no simple formula for doing this, but these three imperatives represent a good framework.

Find the connections between DEI and your brand.

Few companies have a brand built exclusively on the concept of diversity. But DEI concepts can be core to any brand, although the connection isn’t always obvious.

A client of ours has a long-standing brand built on the idea of independence; in a field of publicly traded competitors, all of which answer to shareholder demands for quarter-over-quarter profit increases, our client is privately-held, and answers only to the needs of its customers. The company recently expanded the notion of “independence” to encompass diversity of backgrounds and perspectives; the company is “independent” of herd mentality and tired gender and ethnic stereotypes. To support this brand shift, the company launched a major initiative promoting the advancement of women in its industry.

Another client, a trade association with a brand focused on the concept of connection, brought DEI into its brand by showing how the organization not only connected its members, it also connected diverse constituents globally.

As these two examples reveal, if you brand is well established, infusing it with DEI shouldn’t involve scrapping it altogether. But it will require taking a hard look at what you stand for, and finding ways to link this to DEI.

Show, don’t tell.

Brand positioning and messaging are the essential building blocks on which to activate your brand through advertising, events, social media, and other channels.  But simply repeating your DEI policy – or even your DEI-infused positioning statement – in a given communication won’t be effective; you need to bring it alive through creative concepts that carefully deploy words and images that together tell a compelling story. For DEI, this means doing the obvious – using images of diverse people, for example, and language that’s inclusive. More importantly, your brand should communicate a spirit of openness and inclusivity that transcends any specific type of image or earnest statement. For a fintech client that offers a tech-enabled platform for small companies to acquire working capital – the lifeblood of every business – we developed a brand based on a simple but powerful idea: “Working Capital. Working for Everyone.” The brand succinctly communicates a spirit of inclusiveness that subtly calls attention to the fact that many of the businesses it supports are in fact minority- and women-owned. The company doesn’t need to say “We’re inclusive.” It demonstrates this through its brand and in the way the brand is activated.

Build DEI from the inside out.

In many businesses, particularly B2B companies, employees are the most important brand channel. What they do, say, and think will likely have a greater impact on the success of your brand than any advertising campaign or client event. This is particularly true with DEI. If your own people don’t “buy” your commitment to DEI, neither will your customers.

Obviously, building a diverse workforce, including the marketing team, is key to showing that you’re walking the DEI walk. But there are other ways to build internal commitment to DEI. A global financial services client did just that when it set out to strengthen DEI in its brand. We partnered with the firm to create an employee engagement initiative in which all employees were asked to describe, on a specially designed microsite, what diversity meant to them. The responses were published on the company’s intranet and displayed on posters at company facilities on four continents. Not only did employees reveal a wide … well, diversity of perspectives on DEI; the initiative engaged them in thinking about how DEI supports the company’s brand and its long-term success.

For employees as well as external audiences, preaching about DEI is rarely if ever effective. Successfully integrating DEI into your brand means getting employees considering about what DEI means to them, to your brand, and to your collective future.

With DEI moving from a compliance issue to an urgent corporate imperative, leveraging the power of your brand to strengthen and showcase your DEI commitment is key to advancing success in this area. Take a hard look at your brand and discover how it can embrace a strong DEI message. Then deploy this revitalized brand in a way that projects dedication and authenticity, from the inside, out.

About the author

Seth Margolis

Seth Margolis is a Senior Strategy Director who has spearheaded branding efforts for financial services, professional services and technology companies, as well as for not-for-profit organizations.

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