On The Road to Recovery Where do Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Fit?

As cities reopen, do brands have a responsibility to place minorities, the country’s most vulnerable population, at the heart of their COVID recovery plans or will their needs been forgotten in the flurry?

For many consumers of color in the corporate space, COVID hit the US just as the multicultural initiatives of many US companies were beginning to hit their stride. From ensuring diverse hiring practices and marketing strategies to providing updated resources for unconscious bias trainings, US brands were finally on the road to comprehending the many facets of the multicultural population and becoming more intentionally inclusive.

Then came COVID. As a result, much of that progress is in jeopardy.

For many companies, diversity and inclusion initiatives are like liberal arts electives- nice to have, and even ideal, but often the first thing to go or be cut the budget. That is especially true today as organizations are scrambling to keep their doors open in the face of a global pandemic. As a result, massive layoffs and furloughs have been disseminated and entire departments have begun to be restructured or even fully dismantled. Internal groups and initiatives like diversity and inclusion task forces will likely be considered for the chopping block.

Companies may think eliminating these efforts is an easy way to solve for business needs and salvage lost revenue, however, this could not be further from the truth. In actuality, the multicultural population is a vital piece of the COVID recovery effort. Strategies put in place that do not consider the needs of this group will likely result in failure.

The future: A minority-led population

It is a well-known fact that the US will be majority-minority by the year 2050. How this population forecast may be impacted by COVID is unknown. However the trend of a minority-led US population will likely stay on course considering that the median age for ethnic consumers in the US is much younger (11 years for Hispanics, 27 years for Blacks, 29 years for Asians) than the median age of White consumers (58 years). (Pew Center for Research).

This is, and will continue to be, the new mainstream that brands will be marketing to today and in the future. It is imperative that brands always have their needs at the heart of any strategy that will be developed, considered or deployed.

Ethnic consumers are shape the culture

As is noted in Part IV: Cultural Insights vs. Multicultural Insights, dynamics have shifted and ethnic consumers have become the new architects of US culture as they steadily have a greater impact on trends & cultural shifts. While Millennials have shaped the world we are in today, GenZ is slowly gaining traction and will be the most multicultural generation to date.

Not only is the minority population growing faster, but mainstream consumers see & engage with them more often thanks to the popularity of digital platforms which consumers of color are known to be heavy users of. Through these platforms, multicultural consumers can share parts of their worlds with others, and usually do so with the goal of providing entertainment, or with a desire to be discovered for their talents and interests- and they are at an astounding rate.

So much so that many of today’s mainstream trends were birthed from micro-trends that started in communities of color. From what we eat, to how we dress to how we use social media- multicultural consumers evolved into the creatives that the world collectively follows and borrows (appropriates) from.

Ethnic consumers are highly responsible for how brands gain cultural traction and relevancy today. Beyond that, their ability to innovate and create the world they want to see uncovers new opportunities for marketers desiring unique product and category ideas. This audience is the key to distinctive innovation.

A population at the center of it all

Economic disparities in communities of color have put a new target on the backs of ethnic consumers in America during the age of COVID as they are being disproportionately impacted by the virus and social distancing measures. Minorities are not only dying at higher rates when exposed, but they are also more likely to be on the front lines in unsafe conditions due to the fact that many are essential workers. In states where consumers were able to file for unemployment, many consumers of color found themselves choosing between their own personal safety and being fired from their jobs as states began to reopen.

Add to this racial targeting of Asian Americans in the US because of COVID, the increased racial profiling of Black consumers by civilians and police officers, the harmfully neglectful unchecked ICE practices, and the discriminatory surveillance efforts in communities of color regarding social distancing, and minorities have become the most targeted and most vulnerable group of consumers in the US.

Humanizing the need

In this time of uncertainty all consumers are paying attention to what brands do and say. However, the need for ethnic consumers is more dire as they seek brands as allies to stand up for them and stand up with them. They are looking for more than just surface level messages of support as they quite literally weigh life and death on a daily basis.

With America reopening, ethnic consumers are desperately seeking ways to ensure their physical safety, as patrons AND employees. As brands modify their in-store & on-premise layouts to ensure safer conditions for their guests, doing so from an ethnic perspective will likely guarantee the best ROI.

When considering workplace prevention measures, it is integral that brands think first about their most vulnerable employees who may be more disproportionately impacted by the virus and healthcare costs than others. We’ve already seen evidence of this as Amazon warehouses have been the subject of much criticism regarding the safety of workers like Harry Sentoso — an Amazon worker who was called back to work in March as part of Amazon’s hiring spree and died two weeks later.

In New York more than 100 MTA workers have died since the start of the pandemic and in Detroit, Jason Hargrove, a bus driver who was purposely coughed on by a woman infected with COVID, died 11 days after filming the incident. Grocery workers, restaurant workers, trash collectors, delivery workers and other essential workers are all attempting to balance the need to survive and pay bills with the need to stay healthy and remain alive.

As more white-collar, corporate offices begin to re-open across the country, employees of color will also begin to weigh and measure many of the same variables and will likely hope to remain working from home longer than some of their coworkers.

The heads of corporations will need to keep these factors in mind.

While regaining lost revenue will be, understandably, the focus for many brands during the first wave, in order to ensure long term success marketers will need to intentionally pivot from fast, money making approaches to efforts that place the ethnic consumer and employee at the heart of their business initiatives.

Today, there is a rich opportunity for brands to reach the country’s hardest hit consumers, be an ally, and truly innovate with their needs in mind. Ironically, the only way to way to develop the right strategies and activations will be to ensure that the planning teams look like the members of society that are most negatively impacted.

This means that those “optional” diversity & inclusion initiatives and marketing plans will absolutely need to remain an integral piece of your brand’s pandemic comeback strategy. Consumers will not tolerate brands who lean into diversity and inclusion when it’s most convenient for them. Marketers must ensure that their efforts in this space are consistent and un-waivering and that they continue to evolve as the marketplace evolves.

Brands choosing to turn away from the needs of ethnic consumers and employees in the age of COVID for the sake of ease, simplicity and short-term monetary gains, are pushing themselves out of the marketplace by focusing on an outdated mainstream audience. Additionally, marketers would be willfully abandoning an opportunity to authentically generate life-long relationships & positive brand affinity with an audience that will forever remember the efforts & contributions made on their behalf when they were needed the most.

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler is a Cultural Strategist specializing in semiotics, culture & brand strategy. www.touchofwhit.com www.insightsincolor.com

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