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May, 2024

“Reverse Inclusion”: Seven ways the lack of expertise can lead to DEI retreat in marketing

Dr. Abas Mirzaei
Senior Lecturer in Marketing, at Macquarie Business School

In recent years, the corporate world has witnessed a significant shift in the approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Four years ago, these programs were at the forefront of corporate strategies, fuelled by social movements and a global call for greater inclusivity and equality within the workplace. Companies eagerly embraced DEI, often publicly committing to ambitious goals aimed at transforming their organizational cultures. However, as we navigate deeper into the decade, there’s a noticeable retreat from these initial commitments. This shift, known as “reverse inclusion and diversity” is characterized by a quiet reassessment of DEI strategies.

Many brands don’t want to become a target for lawsuits claiming ‘reverse discrimination’. Similarly, they don’t want to experience consumer backlash, and employee resistance. On surface, reverse diversity and inclusion is influenced by factors such as ineffective implementation, perceived consumer alienation, internal resistance, and high-profile campaigns against DEI. However, besides all such explanations there seems to be deeper level drivers. One key underlying cause, the lack of DEI expertise, is the likely source of this reverse inclusion and diversity phenomenon.

For example, Zoom and some other tech companies, after significantly investing in DEI post-2020, have begun to scale back these initiatives. This includes layoffs of DEI teams and a shift towards using consultants rather than in-house staff for DEI efforts. As reported by Bloomberg, Bank of New York, as another example, is reconsidering its

decision to tie executive compensation to progress on diversity, according to people familiar with the matter. Lawyers at Goldman Sachs have recommended to remove references to race and gender in graduate programs. They’ve also warned against hosting exclusive events for specific groups, such as women and people of colour. This retreat raises critical questions about the sustainability of DEI efforts and the practical challenges organizations face in implementing these initiatives effectively. Here are seven ways the lack of expertise in DEI can lead to reverse diversity and inclusion in Marketing:

  1. Poor Strategy Development: Without experts in DEI, companies might struggle to develop effective strategies that are sensitive and inclusive. This can result in initiatives that miss their mark or fail to resonate with diverse audiences.
  2. Implementation Challenges: Expertise is crucial for the practical implementation of DEI initiatives. In its absence, companies may face operational challenges, from poor communication of DEI goals to inadequate training programs, leading to ineffective or counterproductive outcomes.
  3. Dilution of Impact: Overemphasizing DEI can sometimes lead to dilution of the initiatives’ original goals, making them less impactful as they may be perceived as routine or checkbox activities rather than substantive change.
  4. Overemphasis the DEI Initiatives: refers to situations where companies might focus too intensely or exclusively on these efforts at the expense of other important business areas. This can lead to consumer confusion due to a considerable departure from brand promise communications.
  5. DEI and Marketing Disconnect: A marketing manager without DEI expertise, or a DEI director without marketing knowledge might struggle to align diversity initiatives with the broader brand message, and positioning, potentially causing confusion or mixed messages among consumers and stakeholders.
  6. Marketing Ploy vs Hard Core Activism: In the context of DEI and marketing misalignment, we often see DEI campaigns that are merely ad campaigns due to the marketing team’s lack of DEI expertise, which may be perceived as a marketing ploy. Conversely, there are campaigns that lean heavily into hardcore activism, turning the brand into a Social Justice Warrior (SJW), often stemming from a DEI team’s lack of marketing knowledge.
  7. Inadequate Measurement and Reporting: Without DEI expertise, companies may struggle to set up proper metrics to measure the effectiveness of their initiatives. This can result in a lack of tangible results, making it difficult to justify continued investment in these programs.

There are two simple solutions towards a more sustainable DEI initiatives in marketing:

Comprehensive Training: equipping both marketing and DEI teams with training that encompasses both fields. This fosters mutual understanding and better integration of DEI principles into marketing strategies. Brands like Microsoft are also heavily investing in partnerships with universities and other educational institutions to build a pipeline of DEI expertise.

Sustainable DEI Vision: A clear DEI vision should be based on a deep understanding of perceived brand image among consumers and other stakeholders, a long-term commitment to DEI, message consistency, and ongoing DEI innovation in DEI practices. Without a sustainable vision, brands risk repeating previous mistakes and may find themselves retreating from DEI initiatives.