There was a wise saying that my late southern grandmother would invoke when she wanted me to authentically take accountability for any situation. “Go, or get off the pot,” she would say. I can hear those words echoing as we begin to analyze the impact of organizations’ diversity, equity, inclusion and justice initiatives in the wake of an intense 2021.
The past year saw a worsening pandemic, continued racial distress, protests, an attack on democracy, inflation, an ever-expanding wealth gap, an abortion rights struggle and fraying civil discourse. All of it forced Americans to reflect on who we are in this society, where we fit, and with whom we want to associate.
These trends have made the culture a minefield, especially for brands. Anyone with a social media account can play the role of an influencer, weighing in on sensitive cultural topics and ready to “cancel” transgressors who either say the wrong thing or don’t say anything at all. In 2022, we will look closely at how brands have fared in their DEI efforts. This is the “Year of Accountability.”
2021 wasn’t easy. The general consensus has been that things, to put it lightly, have been incredibly taxing. Forty percent (40%) of adults we surveyed in [mid-2021?] said civil discourse has become “more difficult in the last year,” with most calling the internet the “main driver” of uncivility. Furthermore, online disputes have impacted real-life relationships: 59 percent of millennials and 54 percent of Gen Xers citied that their relationships have suffered.
As the world has faced a reckoning over diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, I’ve had the chance to witness the evolution of brands and companies that are committed to creating an inclusive community for their diverse customer base in this new world. Firsthand, I’ve seen how some companies choose to stand firm and vulnerable in their efforts to evolve. But I’ve also watched brands release a statement or social media post that seemingly says the “right thing,” but then revert back to their normal standards of practice, the words in their carefully crafted statement forgotten. No matter which strategy brands choose, there are challenges (and opportunities) that lie ahead.
Talking about DEI openly, specifically as a strategy for business growth and sustainability, is incredibly uncomfortable. It’s hard to talk about privilege, where we have been, and where we aspire to be. But brands that refuse to have these necessary conversations will eventually render themselves irrelevant and outdated in this modern society.
As brands evaluate their strategy for 2022, they should keep in mind the following considerations:
Be intentional about inclusion
As the country continues its course to be a majority “minority” nation in 2045, multiethnic and multigenerational marketing will be critical. This work does not start or stop with including a few Black, brown, and/or LGBTQIA+ individuals in your ads. Brands should place a substantial effort in being authentic and engaging other potentially marginalized groups, including those of different abilities, body types, incomes, educations, genders and political leanings. Your audience needs to be able to see themselves in you; otherwise, they may seem themselves in your competitors. And, equally important, your financial investment should reflect your stated intentions.
Be mindful of how your customers use and experience language
Language is a tricky thing. According to our research terms like “Black lives matter,” and “diversity, equity and inclusion”, are viewed in a positive light by the majority of adults; however, they can be polarizing terms as opposed to words like “belonging.” The term “critical race theory” has been making its rounds in the media as well, with the term being positively viewed by a majority of Gen Z and millennials, but seen as a net negative among Gen X and Boomers. In an increasingly divided world, your brand needs to understand how the language you use, and the terms you choose, can carry unintended weight and meaning.
Create a culture of belonging
Inclusivity is woven into our civil fabric, particularly for younger generations who want to feel included, respected, and treated with equity. In 2022, brands will be held more accountable in how they have been able to create a culture of belonging for both their internal and external audiences. Organizations should be proactive and prepared to disclose their DEI progress with measurable results and strategies. Be sure to include specific performance data, relationship goals, and marketing best practices. Having a transparent plan for 2022 and beyond will help set your brand apart from competitors.
After all of this, it may seem easier to sit on the sidelines with respect to DE&I and social justice. If you don’t say anything at all, you can’t mess up, right? Wrong. In this age of accountability, if your brand is selling to an audience of under 40, ignoring civil engagement can have disastrous consequences. Forty-nine percent (49%) of Gen Z thinks brands should get involved in political and social issues, as do 44% of millennials. You can’t discount the older generations either: 41% of Gen X and 29% of Boomers also agree.
It is time for brands to retire the mindset and narrative that diversity, equity, inclusion and justice is “hard” or that it is not possible. It absolutely is possible. And it is no more difficult than any other strategic initiative your company with undertake. And, most importantly, it matters. Fortune 500 companies are beginning to reckon with the idea that achieving results starts at the top. Companies like Nike, Starbucks, and IBM include DEI goals as part of executive accountability and compensation packages—just like any other business driver that is important to the organization. Nonetheless, these brands, while committed and vocal, are still subject to missteps.
Take Nike for example, a company that has for years been on the forefront of the social justice movement. Despite their decades-long commitment to DEI, Nike found itself on the uncomfortable end of the DEI conversation when former Nike Athlete Allyson Felix, a celebrated sprinter, went public about her difficulties in securing maternity protections as part of her contract renewal process. She was very vocal about her perception of feeling unvalued by the brand, and expressing concern about how the brand managed maternity issues. As a result, she eventually left Nike—and did not go quietly. She exited for a contract with women’s athletic apparel brand Athena, then went on to win her 10th Olympic medal in a shoe that she created.
Whatever your brand may sell, be it makeup, lingerie, apparel, technology, or even food, the inclusion challenge will be front and center in 2022. Many brands are still learning to navigate this space authentically. That’s OK. Even in the midst of vulnerability, the new year paves way for accountability. It’s time to be the brand that your customers can see themselves in; otherwise, they will simply look elsewhere.