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Three lessons on diversity from marketing leaders walking the walk

By Tara Robertson / October 8, 2019

On paper, my role leading our customer marketing team is fairly self-explanatory.

My main responsibilities focus on leading a team of equally passionate marketers to better understand our customers and what drives results throughout the customer lifecycle. But in addition to marketing strategy, I serve on our diversity, equity, and inclusion leadership team, a subject I’m incredibly passionate about here at Sprout and in my life outside of Sprout.

The last few decades have made clear how significant DEI is to business and also the marketer’s role. As target audiences become more diverse, marketers need to reevaluate if the content they produce reflects this change. Consider how women today make 85% of all consumer purchasing decisions and account for $7 trillion in spending. Or how African American consumers are responsible for $1.2 trillion in purchases annually. In other words, ignoring any demographic outside of the white man means ignoring your customers and their unique perspective.

As marketers, I believe that we must use our privilege to ensure we are building and supporting the world we live in and all of the people around us: regardless of background. We have a chance to shape the ethos of the company at a time when nine out of 10 consumers make purchasing decisions based on shared beliefs. Seventy percent of millennials, for example, are more likely to choose brands that practice diverse and inclusive marketing over those that don’t. Which means our impact can go wide and far as we build our brand messaging and campaigns with DEI at the center.

Where most companies struggle, however, is in executing the “how” of diverse and inclusive marketing. Marketers know inclusive campaigns will resonate better with diverse audiences, but they’re less certain on the steps they need to take to get there. Here, seven marketing leaders share how they champion DEI in their day-to-day practices and the strategies they use elevate its effectiveness.

DEI is more than an HR function

Forward-thinking organizations are increasingly creating space for a dedicated DEI role within their People or Human Resources Teams. But even with the addition of a DEI lead, the expectations are often too much for one person to bear on his or her own.

Zviko Masiiwa, Founder of online marketing company ambitious tribe, feels strongly about sharing the responsibilities among the entire organization, regardless of which department leaders belong to. “To keep it simple: DEI is the responsibility of everyone for the same reasons we’re all responsible for making sure our drunk friend doesn’t drive after a night out. A drunk driver is a danger to everyone they are sharing the road with. DEI is similar.”

Rather than wait for a DEI lead to transform the entire organization, marketing leaders can jumpstart the process by starting with their own teams. The next time a decision about a campaign is made, for example, consider who will be in the room and whose perspectives might be missed. Challenge your team to think about how brand messaging might be received by a diverse audience and evaluate whether or not certain groups are disproportionately represented. And in broader executive team meetings, make it a point to speak up and push back when decisions are made that are exclusionary or biased.

Amy Wood, Co-Creator of Shine Bootcamp, a public speaking training course for women in tech, also emphasizes this belief that DEI is everyone’s responsibility. However, Wood cautions that DEI “must start at the top—not just by diverting budget to certain initiatives, but also by [leaders’] individual actions.”

Your team looks to you to set the tone for how they should navigate and respond to certain situations, and DEI is no exception. If you want the rest of your marketers to embrace diverse and inclusive marketing, you need to lead with actions and not just words.

Leading by example starts with education

It’s easy to talk about DEI initiatives; it’s another thing to put that talk into practice. Many leaders agree that it starts with education—particularly taking the initiative to educate oneself on why diversity matters and how it relates to a marketer’s job.

For all marketing leaders, but particularly those whose organizations don’t have a formal DEI function, education requires a degree of auto-didactism. Diversifying information sources and independently reading up on bias and intersectionality can empower marketing leaders to be more conscientious of what they say and do.

“It means constantly educating yourself on best practice, and being mindful about [your] sources,” adds Wood. “In other words, making sure you’re not only getting your information from folx who are just like you, but rather from folx whose stories are often not prioritized in white media.”

Amrita Gurney, VP of Marketing at visual marketing software company CrowdRiff, is keenly aware of the need for education in order for DEI initiatives to be effective. To drive home the value of diverse perspectives, Gurney collaborates with her company’s People Team to host community service events with marginalized communities. By engaging with communities outside of one’s own, marketers gain a better understanding of the different perspectives they need to consider in their work.

Sometimes, education comes in the form of using one’s personal experience to start the conversation. Ramona Sukhraj, Head of Editorial Content at inbound marketing agency IMPACT, draws on her experience as a young woman of color to educate her colleagues on cultural differences. “I came into this industry knowing I would be in the minority, but I’ve always felt that was my competitive advantage. I’ve taken it upon myself to start and continue the conversation around DEI as much as possible through the content I create, and am especially proud of a personal reflection I shared about a racist encounter I endured.”

Because Sukhraj’s article about a customer’s hate-filled email was coming from her personal experience, she was able to cultivate empathy from her audience. It can be difficult for those who have never been on the receiving end of a racist encounter to know what it’s like, but Sukhraj’s vulnerability helps readers picture themselves in her shoes.

With great power comes great potential

Marketing leaders who champion DEI recognize their impact isn’t limited to just their organization. They also have an opportunity to impact their entire industry and share their knowledge with others.

Consider how Antonio Lucio, the former CMO at HP, used his position to challenge HP’s agencies to rethink the demographic makeup of their own organizations. In 2016, Lucio told AdAge he mandated that HP’s advertising and creative agencies improve the percentage of women and people of color in executive roles. When marketing executives like Lucio are able to leverage their privilege and resources, they can use their influence to affect other marketers who continue to treat DEI as a second thought.

Other leaders are following by fostering their own inter-industry movements. Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at P&G, was recently named co-chair of the Association of National Advertisers’ #SeeHer initiative. One of ANA’s goals for the #SeeHer initiative is to serve as a resource for other marketing companies committed to creating equitable workforces and tackling gender bias in advertising. For example, marketers who join the movement are given access to a gender equality measurement tool which measures gender representation in ads and creative content.

Equally important is recognizing those who are doing DEI work well and lifting up marginalized voices whenever possible. Omnicom’s Tiffany Warren created ADCOLOR to mentor and celebrate creative professionals who champion diversity and inclusion in their work. When marketing leaders can see their peers in action and the results they can achieve through prioritizing diversity initiatives, it can serve as a motivating factor and guiding light for marketers considering their own DEI agenda.

On a smaller scale, there are several ways marketers can influence those in their immediate surroundings. Wood uses her position as a leader to amplify marginalized voices through content; Gurney encourages her colleagues to think about who else in the organization should be asked to contribute to a decision and to serve as watchdogs for examples of discrimination. Change won’t happen overnight, but these small, daily actions can help push marketing closer to a diverse and equitable state.

Looking to the future

Marketing leaders have made significant progress over the last decade but there are still some ways to go before diverse and inclusive marketing is the norm. There is no silver bullet for DEI and it’s inevitable we’ll continue to make mistakes as evidenced by brands that continue to make headlines for insensitive campaigns and controversial statements.

But unlike diversity efforts of the past, which were often treated as one-offs or in response to a scandal, marketing leaders are making a concerted effort to implement DEI initiatives for the long-term. Some of those efforts require big-picture initiatives while some simply entail sharing perspectives in quiet, day-to-day ways.

Progress will inevitably follow as more marketing leaders embrace the notion that DEI is everyone’s responsibility and not just for someone in an HR or people function. Regardless of how big or small your actions are, the most powerful thing marketing leaders can do is to inspire and educate their teams today.

Tara Robertson

Tara Robertson

Tara Robertson is the Director, Marketing Strategy and Operations at Sprout Social. With over 15 years of experience, Robertson has consulted hundreds of companies on marketing strategy and execution. As a self proclaimed digital nerd, Robertson loves connecting the dots between psychographics and data to produce kick ass results.
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