In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, many companies have gone to work ramping up their diversity and inclusion efforts. I’ve talked with a number of brands during this time, and one area many of them have been struggling with is how to authentically build an inclusive brand.
Many of these companies had made statements back in June taking a stand against racism and declaring their support for the Black community. Some had even made donations to causes and started down the path of cleaning up their internal policies and practices around diversity, inclusion and belonging. But figuring out what more to do, particularly around building a brand that consistently wins diverse and niche customers, is an area they found themselves getting stuck, which limited their forward progress.
They wanted to engage but weren’t sure what to say. They were nervous about making mistakes. They didn’t want to come off as performative, opportunistic, disingenuous, offensive or hypocritical in the way many brands had been called out for in their attempts to engage diverse customers.
My counsel to them in solving this problem was the same across the board: focus on making diverse customers feel like they belong with you. When your customers feel that they belong with you, they will reward you with their attention, adoration and loyalty. When they don’t feel like they belong, they will go off in search of another brand that does make them feel that way. And when they find them, they will reward them with their loyalty.
Treat them like friends
Grammy Award–winning singer and entrepreneur Rihanna launched a makeup line in 2017. Fenty Beauty made headlines when it launched with 40 shades of foundation meant to be inclusive of women with different complexions all around the world. In an interview shortly after the launch, Rihanna shared the mindset behind how she built such an inclusive brand: “I have this perception that my friends are the consumer, and if it doesn’t work on them, then I’m not doing it.”
You should think of your customers, including the diverse ones you want serve, like your friends. That degree of intimacy that you have with them will make it easier for you to deliver authentic experiences that make them feel like they belong.
But this approach only works if you have a diverse group of friends. The challenge is that many people, including entrepreneurs and marketers, have homogeneous networks that look like them, think like them, and have similar backgrounds and life experiences as them. There’s even a scientific principle that describes the phenomenon: homophily. The result of this type of network is that we end up surrounding ourselves with people who reinforce our way of thinking, which creates an echo chamber. That makes it more difficult for you to know how to authentically engage with others who aren’t quite like you.
Diversify your circle
When you surround yourself with people who are different from you, it opens your eyes to new perspectives, issues and understandings of how others engage with the world. It gives you a greater degree of empathy, which paves the way for you to be more inclusive of them and their needs.
Rihanna’s network is diverse, so it was easy for her to evaluate whether or not her offering would work for the people in her circle. She told reporters at the launch of her makeup line, at her annual Diamond Ball gala:
I’ll try makeup on me, I’ll turn to the girl next to me, the Latin girl next to me, the darker girl next to me, the White girl in front of me. I will go around the table, and if it doesn’t work on one of us, we need to adjust it a little bit. Because I feel horrible excluding people from things I created for them.
Before you can start winning diverse and niche customers, you first have to start treating them like friends. And you can’t treat them like friends if you don’t have relationships with them.
Start diversifying your circle of influence by getting involved in issues that are important to the communities you want to serve. Spend time talking to customers and consumers who are a part of these diverse groups. Build relationships with key influencers and organizations that also serve these communities.
That time invested will help you develop a degree of intimacy that will give you the insights you need to know what the unique challenges are of those in these communities. From there you’ll be better equipped to create solutions that work for them, and to develop messaging that resonates.
Building an inclusive brand that wins diverse customers isn’t about implementing hacks or even a targeted marketing campaign. Those may help you gain some traction in the short term, but they won’t help you sustain long-term results. Instead, focus on the long game by making diverse customers feel like they belong with you, by seeing them and treating them with as much care as you would a beloved friend.