With a shift in public attitudes, and calls for greater diversity becoming louder, consumers are now looking to brands to act and take responsibility. In the context of growing global movements catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, it is no longer enough for brands to simply have a generalized viewpoint on social issues regarding diversity and inclusion – consumers are looking to see changes that make a meaningful impact.
Currently, consumers expectations are not met by brands. Kantar’s Global Monitor found that 39% of global consumers agreed with the statement that “not enough brands do a good job of representing people similar to me or my community.” (Kantar Global Monitor 2021)
As consumer demands for diversity become increasingly prominent, businesses face a choice: to either embrace diversity and new growth opportunities, or encounter numerous challenges from their consumers. Gen Z – the generation set to shape our future zeitgeist – especially place emphasis on diversity and inclusion issues. Brands should recognize that diversity is integral to youth culture and failing to embrace this can alienate them and jeopardize future growth.
Businesses that have a 360-degree approach towards diversity are likely to succeed more than their counterparts. In 2020, McKinsey reported that the top quartile of companies with more ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36% (McKinsey 2020). In this context, it is imperative for brands to step up to address discrimination and promote inclusion. But how can brands navigate this landscape carefully to ensure that they embrace diversity and inclusion rather than alienate consumers through performative efforts?
Understand the role that your brand can play
As this new landscape emerges, brands need to identify the role that they want to play today and in the future. They can embrace this in two ways: as an activist, proactively and visibly fighting a diversity issue or problem in society, or as an active contributor, showing a more diverse and progressive picture of what society looks like. Brands may not always be positioned to showcase overt activism or champion an issue, but they may be more able to be overt and intentional about the society they want to help shape; pushing the conversation to create a new progressive reality.
An activist brand can be seen in the likes of Ben & Jerry’s, which puts social activism at the very heart of all that they do; speaking out on issues such as Black Lives Matter, immigration in the UK, and even ending sales of their ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Ben & Jerry’s are particularly well equipped to speak on social issues eloquently due to their legacy of activism and their own internal team of activists.
In an interview with Harvard Business Review, the company’s head of Global Activism Strategy, Christopher Miller, spoke about their “team of social mission folks with an NGO or policy background,” which allows them ‘“to have this privilege, power, and ability to communicate” when social issues emerge. Ben & Jerry’s thorough commitment to activism and a close understanding of emerging social issues enables them to have a clear point-of-view and to speak with integrity on matters of diversity and inclusion.
Conversely, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty – worth an estimated $2.4 billion – is a brilliant example for brands who don’t want to take such an active role in social issues but would rather lead through representation. Whilst the beauty brand does not visibly fight for social or political issues, it undoubtedly revolutionized the landscape of the beauty industry with a line of products that appeal to all. At the core of the brand is an unabashed celebration of inclusivity, that not only celebrates different skin tones but also different perceptions of beauty.
Although Ben & Jerry’s and Fenty Beauty take radically different approaches towards diversity and inclusion, the key takeaway from both brands is that authenticity is critical in developing a robust and meaningful diversity and inclusion strategy. Both brands show that there is a real need for corporate teams to have a deeper understanding and awareness of social issues to adequately tackle them – without this authenticity, consumers are less likely to buy into social messaging and more likely to accuse brands of ‘woke-washing’. Businesses need to approach social issues with thoughtful and considerate expertise to ensure that all voices are heard, and diversity and inclusion measures are genuine.
Identify the issues your brand can champion
To avoid accusations of ‘woke-washing’ or performative activism, brands should recognize that it is impossible to represent all issues with the same level of depth. Whilst silence is often complicity on key issues, brands should also be self-aware about topics where they do not have the right to play, or which are ‘too far’ for the brand, or a specific market.
In these instances, brands should prioritize issues that are important to them and their customers, whilst developing a clear point of view on issues that they won’t proactively champion. Think about the key issues your brand is well positioned to champion and which may be less important to the consumer.
Think global, act local
It is also critical for brands to understand local nuances and the differing attitudes towards diversity and inclusion topics across different markets. Inclusion topics will vary market by market and thus global companies will need to seek out local cultural intelligence to plan local strategies. According to Kantar Global Monitor, the top discrimination concern in the United States is racial and ethnic issues whereas Europe prioritizes mental and physical disabilities. Consumers in each market will also face more specific types of discrimination, often shaped by their distinct histories along with current cultural ideas and values.
Equally, some countries may not be open towards some inclusion topics. Whilst religious prejudice is a key concern for global consumers, it is important to recognize that some religious prejudices are enabled and enforced by government policies. In countries such as France and India, discussions around religion are often unwelcome and can create friction. Similarly, LGBT communities also find varying levels of acceptance across markets, with laws against homosexuality still in place in many countries. Brands must therefore be conscious of regional discrepancies before acting.
Given these unique contexts, it is important for global brands to have market-specific strategies towards diversity and inclusion measures. Investing in cultural expertise to understand what the priorities are in each market is critical – brands will need to show that they really understand the issues that matter to their consumer at a deeper level in order to connect with them.
Action beyond words
Beyond a clear point of view, brands should recognize that consumers want to see diversity in action and evidence of genuine backing for the communities they support. Consumers want to see companies doing good across every touchpoint – from their communications to their recruitment process.
In an age where authenticity and realness are critical, brands need to ensure that they are taking real action and producing meaningful results. This is especially true of Gen Z and Millennial consumers, who will seek out brands who share their values of authenticity and human connection.
Nike serves as an outstanding example of a brand that authentically represents communities, advocating for change through supporting grassroots organizations and giving a platform and voice to creatives from underrepresented backgrounds. Through partnerships with organizations such as UKActive, Football Beyond Borders and Women’s Sports Foundations, Nike highlights how brands can make a legitimate impact by using their platform to overcome barriers to accessibility and inclusion.
The sports brand has also effectively shown representation through their collaborative efforts with creatives and individuals from across different cultures, including partnerships with Muslim Sisterhood, Maroon World and Lillian Ahenkan. Giving opportunities to creatives from different backgrounds, representing different communities, again highlights Nike’s ability to engage with people from across the spectrum, embracing diversity of thought as well as backgrounds and histories.
Internal representation and diversity are equally as important as external initiatives. With consumers so attuned to authenticity, they will be able to see through brands who outwardly champion diversity and inclusion, but internally fail to meet those same standards. In 2020, a grassroots campaign called Pull Up for Change called out brands that issued public statements condemning racism without any evidence of true inclusion at a corporate level. Brands therefore need to make sure their drive for diversity and inclusion permeates across all parts of the business. This doesn’t only apply to internal teams – it’s also important to have a 360-degree view that considers who your business is hiring, promoting, and partnering with.
A true commitment to addressing discrimination and promoting inclusion requires a team that is representative of different backgrounds and can make valuable contributions towards the establishment of diversity and inclusion initiatives that feel authentic. Without it, brands will have a difficult time convincing consumers that they truly share their same values.
Key considerations for brands
- Make sure that you understand the role that your brand can play in the fight against discrimination and the promotion of inclusion
- Think about the causes that your brand is well positioned to champion, and which issues you do and don’t have a right to play in
- Think about how you can work with local teams to understand the cultural differences across regional markets
- Consider how you can make a meaningful impact through your brand’s platform, by aligning internal values and representation with external initiatives
Get in touch to speak with one of our experts to understand how Kantar can help with you on your I&D journey.