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August 11, 2021

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10 min read

Measuring Up: Why Brands Have Failed to Deliver on Their DEI Promises

I saw a provocative headline the other day: “Turns Out All Those ‘Woke’ White Allies Were Lying.”

The article took aim at brands and corporations that had jumped into the fray of social justice a year ago. When protests erupted late last May, many businesses and everyday people, hopped on board, posting black squares and making promises about doing better.

After a few weeks, even as protests continued, the chatter on the corporate front began to die away. Now, a year later, companies that promised funds haven’t ponied up. DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) efforts seem to be stalled out. Everywhere, it looks like brands are walking back their promises.

What’s going on here? I don’t believe that the people who made big promises believe it’s NOT important, so why aren’t they delivering? There are many, many layers to this, but I think the biggest thing is that we have to remember our brands.

The long and short of it is that, for many brands, this stuff isn’t in their DNA. And that makes it very difficult to incorporate it.

The Genetic Experiment: Adding Social Justice to Brands That Don’t Have It in Mind

This gets at what Yum! Brands CMO was talking about when he slammed “purpose-driven” brands a little while ago. Not every brand is geared to do this stuff. Trying to paste it on over your brand is difficult.

What does that mean? Most brands weren’t founded on principles and values that address social justice. That’s not part of their brand DNA. So when they start adopting these stances, it’s inorganic. It might not be a big problem, but it doesn’t necessarily jive with the brand! At worst, there’s a big clash between the brand and the stances they’re adopting.

In the best cases, we discover our brand DNA already had a thread of social justice. Or maybe we find that it’s not so difficult to “add an attribute” the DNA to include that. An example might be a feminist clothing company that wants to make periods better for women. Is it difficult to change from supporting “women” to supporting anyone who has a period? Lots of people think that’s only women. As more people come out about being trans or nonbinary (like Elliot Page or Demi Lovato), the picture changes.

We can look at cosmetics brand LUSH for another example. LUSH was founded with some conscientious values, such as environmentalism. It’s grown to be a brand that tries to be inclusive, although critics point out that it has often let people down.

When LUSH decided to launch a product line aimed at taking care of Black hair, this was not an unexpected move. They teamed up with Black haircare experts to craft a line of products that reflect LUSH’s other values—environmentalism, veganism, and so on.

Even Giants Make Mistakes

Yet even an “inclusive” giant like LUSH makes missteps. The company took heat for slamming police in the past. Former employees spoke out about discrimination on many fronts, including race and disability.

LUSH responded with a promise to look at their internal culture, to speak with Black employees, and to chart a course forward. They offered reports at 30, 60, and 90 days. Yet they still didn’t respond to some of the criticisms launched their way. Some even pointed out that LUSH had partnered with “problematic” charities in the past.

While LUSH did the right thing by outlining a plan and following through on it, providing transparency in their reports, there’s still a big issue here:

What actually changed?

LUSH said they would listen to their employees. They reported on their efforts when they said they would, and they outlined a plan for the future. And then, once the 90 days were up, they went back to being silent.

So, as consumers, we don’t actually know if anything changed. Was this all some big PR stunt? Did LUSH gather up feedback, say they’d change, and then proceed to ignore it all?

And, from here, we can see the big, big problem. If even a brand like LUSH runs into a refusal to change, what hope for other brands that don’t have this stuff in their DNA?

If LUSH can screw up, what hope is there for a brand like Dove? Yeah, sure, they’ve been doing “body positivity” for ages now. They’ve taken their efforts to TikTok, to fight back against the idea that we need to be “perfect.”

Yet Dove’s also sparked controversy about what their “inclusivity” looks like. There’s accusations that they’re part of the "hijacking" of the body positivity movement. At the end of the day, there’s a question about how much Dove cares about “inclusivity." After all, aren’t they just trying to sell us products?

The Confusion between Goals and Purpose

That’s where Yum! Brands CMO isn’t wrong: a lot of brands think their purpose is to make money. Does Dove actually care about people loving the skin they’re in, feeling good in their body? Or are they just trying to sell more? What about LUSH? Are they committed to inclusivity? Or is their line of haircare products by and for Black people another way to cash in on their reputation?

There’s a tension here, for sure. I talk a lot about brand purpose—why we’re here, why we’re doing what we do. And every brand has a purpose that isn’t making money. It’s why we sell what we sell, why we serve the particular part of the market we do.

After all, if we didn’t have this purpose, why do we do what we do? If we’re Apple, we could sell less-than-innovative computer products. We didn’t have to think up the iPhone or the iPad. Heck, we might not even be in tech or computers at all! We might be doing something totally different.

So: brands definitely have a purpose outside of making money. But making money is still a goal of the business. And we often get tangled up between the two. We need to make money so we can keep delivering on our promises to our customers. If we don’t, the business is going to go under, and then we can’t fulfill the real purpose of our brand.

That’s where the confusion lies. And it’s what makes it so difficult to figure out if LUSH is fulfilling their purpose or their goal. It’s why we suspect Dove of trying to make a quick buck off us with their “feel-good” messaging.

Why This Hurts Even the Best of Intents

Even brands that have DEI in their DNA can run into this problem. They confuse the money-making goal with their purpose. And they put that before everything else. In turn, they become resistant to change—why fix something that isn’t broken, so to speak? So long as the brand was making money, what’s the problem?

If a brand tries to take action when sales aren’t threatened, then it’s a long, uphill battle to create change. And this is especially true for brands that don’t have diversity and inclusion interwoven in their DNA. They’re going to find that no one wants to put money toward these initiatives. You’ll do survey after survey, but you won’t do anything with the results—because why fix it?

This leads us to “rainbow capitalism,” when brands jump on the bandwagon to show how much they “support” some initiative. It’s so-called because of Pride in June, which features brands rolling out “supportive” products. Think of Skittles dropping their rainbow to showcase their support for LGBTQ+ people.

The product did include a donation to a charity. But beyond that, what is Skittles actually doing to further change? Does it support LGBTQ+ rights 365 days of the year? This is where consumers see a trail of broken promises. We get products designed to be “supportive,” but they’re more about getting people to spend money.

Even LUSH could be accused of this kind of thing with their Black haircare products. That one is more difficult to disentangle. We can see how this kind of product line is supportive 365 days a year, and we’ve seen how LUSH has built a brand around diversity and inclusion.

They’re leagues ahead of Skittles. So is Skittles really diverse or supportive of inclusion? It sure doesn’t look like it—this is pandering.

And that’s what we’re seeing with “allies” who “lied” in the wake of George Floyd. They were pandering. They weren’t committed to change—so when the going got tough, they abandoned the struggle. Protests and the social media flurry quieted down, and so did all these supportive voices.

Add in that most of these brands don’t have diversity and inclusion embedded in their DNA. So that makes it even harder to get out of pandering. Even the most well-intentioned promises run into a wall in the face of brand DNA. That’s just not important to the brand; it’s never mattered before. So all these promises end up being stapled on rather than embedded in the very make-up of the brand.

What Can We Do?

If diversity and inclusion isn’t already in the DNA of your brand, you might think you’re in serious trouble. If you try adopting it, will you end up “stapling” it on, pandering and making promises you can’t fulfill? What happens if you don’t try to change?

You’d be right to think that your brand might be in trouble if you don’t try to change. But brand DNA is unchangeable, right? Not at all! Remember that our brands are organic and living: they can evolve! Evolution means a change to DNA. It often happens in response to our changing environments.

What we have to remember though is that evolution is not an overnight process—in nature or for our brands. If we think we can introduce a new product or put a black square on our social media and we’ve now put social justice or inclusiveness at the center of our brands, we’re dreaming.

That’s why we’re seeing all these brands with broken promises—this kind of evolution is tough! We’re going to face challenges the entire way, stakeholders who don’t see why anything should change.

The good news is that just because inclusivity isn’t embedded in our brands’ DNA right now doesn’t mean it won’t ever be. If we look deep, we can find that there is a thread we can pull on to start making these values more important to our brands. A good example is community—what other kinds of community are you overlooking? If you’re already community-focused, then becoming more inclusive, expanding your “community” concept is one way to bring DEI into your brand DNA.

Of course, we have to be careful of pandering. And that means we always have to be looking at our motives for doing anything: we have to start with the why!

--Margo

A little more about me. My goal is and always will be to inspire and create conversation!

I am a businessperson who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles, I have written to inspire others.

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