As protests continue across towns and cities in the U.S., brands are being called upon to lend their voices to support equality and justice.
But savvy shoppers are sick of meaningless platitudes and self-serving marketing maneuvers. The events of the past two weeks have underscored the need for concrete, industry-wide change that starts within the ivory towers of corporate headquarters.
In a webinar hosted by retail consultancy PSFK entitled Retail’s Response to Injustice, industry insiders discussed ways that brands can create meaningful and much-needed change within their organizations.
Most brands haven’t truly bought into educating themselves about their consumers, said Melissa Gonzalez, founder and CEO of experiential retail strategy firm The Lionesque Group. A lack of intelligence about consumers of color leads brands down a dangerous path where campaigns often lean on pandering stereotypes or tropes. Flawed messaging prompts apologies and promises to do better, and the cycle continues.
“There needs to be an investment in understanding,” Gonzalez said, whether it’s bringing in more effective leadership or investing in third-party consultants to educate decision-makers. But, she warned, quarterly meetings on diversity initiatives aren’t enough, and conversations often stay behind closed doors. “Learnings need to be passed throughout a firm,” she added.
A shift “starts at the C-suite but it’s also operational,” said G. Kofi Annan, vice president of customer experience and strategy at Juice. Those who are tasked with curating products must have the proper tools and insights to create experiences that audiences are receptive to, he agreed.
Learnings must be shared with all stakeholders across a company and at the store level. That means training employees for engagement with different communities while reinforcing positive behaviors and correcting negative ones, he said.
Experiencing discrimination while shopping is a major concern for people of color, Annan said. “It’s a reflection of a larger systemic issue that’s inherent in a lot of different situations and environments,” he said.
These types of negative and discriminatory interactions “have become such a part of our everyday lives that they have been normalized,” said visual artist Shantell.
In her consulting work with brands, Martin has often been asked to provide feedback and education on reaching black and minority audiences. But few organizations, she added, were willing to actually commit to structural changes that would benefit them in the long term.
“How do you design for the present when the foundation of a building is rotten?” she asked. Being the lone voice of diversity is a tough and vulnerable position, she said, and it can be exhausting for those who are brought in to provide perspective.
Devon Powers, an associate professor in the department of advertising and public relations at Temple University, said executives who bring in help from the outside must learn to ask the right questions and be willing to entertain opinions that are difficult to hear.
“Even if the faces and the bodies are there, the structures are not in place… to make them effective for change,” she said of brands’ attempts to solve problems with occasional intervention from consultants.
“Many companies bring in a diversity consultant every few years,” she said, explaining that those efforts are often in response to a “crisis.” Instead, the work must be ongoing, and should become “something that people expect, and are used to, and want in their workplace.”
Companies need to take on diversity the same way they’ve taken up the mantle of sustainability, she added.
Michael Robinson, an independent board member at human insights consultancy Ynvisible and director of open innovation and business development for packaging innovation at L’Oréal Americas, agreed that companies have made massive strides by tying sustainability into their overall brand strategies. “Those checkpoints are built in,” he said. “I don’t understand why we can’t do the same with diversity.”
Robinson said he is encouraged by the younger generation of consumers, who he believes will hold brands accountable for their actions around social justice and diversity. Gen Z is connecting with each other over their deeply held beliefs, and they’re making commercial choices based on those values.
Brands would do well to look for ways to stand out from the pack, especially in such a challenging retail environment, said Adaora Udoji, director of corporate innovation at AR, VR and spatial computing firm RLab. Genuine efforts to reach consumers of color would present a competitive advantage, she added.
Many companies could bolster their bottom lines if they took action to integrate some new ways of thinking. Allowing diverse perspectives to inform brand strategy could provide quantifiable benefits.
Still, the onus should not be on black employees to provide the insights to form company-wide best practices or marketing strategies, said Kelle Jacob, founder and CEO of Balanced Beauty. Instead, brands must interact with their communities and engage in ongoing dialogue about race and values so they can identify blind spots.
Social media has made that process possible. People are constantly watching and commenting, she said, and brands should seize this moment as an opportunity to learn.
“The black consumer matters, and you want to take the time to understand who they are,” she said.
After investing in gleaning those insights, teams can craft the right messaging and create the right store experiences that make those valuable shoppers want to return.