By Anne Kawalerski, Michelle Lynn
The pandemic's exposure of systemic inequalities and the social justice movement spurred by the killing of George Floyd are accelerating corporate action on issues of diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI). According to Bloomberg AiQ, news content on DEI topics in U.S. publications has grown 73 percent from 2018 to 2021, with no sign of slowing — meeting the need for information among consumers and influential leaders who want to make an impact. Advocates are calling on more companies to conduct racial equity audits, and shareholders are responding. Bloomberg Intelligence reported 11 new proposals among Russell 3000 companies in the first half of 2021 alone.
The imperative for brands to take a stand, embrace societal issues, and put accountability at the core presents a significant shift for B2B marketers. As demand for action rises, the trust and vision brands must have to survive and thrive are elevated by collaboration over competition, customer-centricity over dominance, and big-picture solutions over functional benefits.
At the macro level, that means orienting return expectations for media and marketing around mission-driven metrics that play out across the full stakeholder ecosystem, from customers and partners to shareholders and workers. Neil Nelson, CEO of Diamond Diaspora Media, has done just that, building a business model organically around a core set of values that empower the Black community. The company's digital magazine, Atlanta Black Star, reaches more than 12 million visitors per month and publishes narratives intentionally and specifically to transform the world.
"What we've found," Nelson says, "is that people are willing to invest more time, more money, more resources to do business — as consumers or B2B decision-makers — with other companies that reflect their core values. If those values are being adequately communicated, and are not being contradicted by other actions, that's very effective."
Filling a Gap for B2B Marketers
Marketers seeking to hardwire DEI into their organizations need to understand what factors into decisions their customers make, what is driving brand perceptions, and what role strategy and communications can play. To do that, they need relevant data as well as expert perspective.
Through the Bloomberg Brand Health System, a diagnostic tool for assessing a brand's past performance and future potential, Bloomberg Media analyzed data collected from May through June of 2021 that sheds light on how 15,000-plus leaders view DEI, both professionally and personally.
More than 80 percent said DEI initiatives were very or extremely important to their companies. Within that, well over 90 percent of a segment dubbed "purposeful leaders" — those activist decision-makers defined by a preference for purpose-driven companies and a willingness to boycott companies that don't share their values — view DEI as very or extremely important.
Bloomberg Media, along with insight from Diamond Diaspora Media's Nelson — a purposeful leader himself — mapped this data to three key, interconnected areas: motivation, activation, and accountability.
Motivations Reveal a Shared Sense of Purpose
The top reasons cited for leading companies to establish DEI initiatives include higher productivity, employee retention and attraction, and doing the right thing — all of which point to values-based structural shifts in the business ecosystem. Purposeful leaders are significantly more likely to embrace this view, while being less likely than the overall group to mention reactive public relations or legal concerns.
The implication for marketers is clear. Campaigns need to reflect the company's values as part of a shared-values space that includes all stakeholders. If the message, product, and medium are all in sync, brands can maximize their investment with long-term credibility and impact.
"Historically it's about reaching as many people as you possibly can, without putting as much thought into the environments you choose, and what those environments say about your brand," Nelson says. "It's not the message alone, it's also where you're putting it."
Activations Show a Multifactored Approach
A plurality of leaders plan to activate DEI initiatives across multiple areas in the coming year, Bloomberg Media found. More than half intend to increase diversity efforts in employee recruiting and training; significant numbers will also seek to increase board diversity. Importantly, close to half plan to increase DEI reporting to both internal and external stakeholders.
Purposeful leaders are more likely to say their companies will activate initiatives in the next year across all areas. Moreover, they are 57 percent more likely to say they need to know what other companies are doing about diversity in their workforce.
Bringing these commitments to life in media and marketing offers a potent opportunity to influence company cultures and partnerships that foster a mission-based ecosystem. Building or aligning with the right content is essential, Nelson says. "If you have a value set and there's not enough content to feed those values, they wither," he explains. "But if the content is there, and the experience is there, then those values thrive and they become purpose within your life and your organization."
Accountability Drives Leadership
The call for publicly traded companies to conduct an independent analysis into their business model to see if and how it causes or perpetuates racial discrimination has the support of more than eight in 10 leaders overall — and more than nine in 10 purposeful leaders, according to Bloomberg Media's research. Both groups agree, by the same margin, that publicly traded companies should be required to share detailed workforce data by race and gender.
What's more, purposeful leaders over-index on measures of personal accountability. They are 15 percent more likely to say leaders' progress toward meeting DEI goals is tracked in their companies, and they are 13 percent more likely to say that DEI goals influence performance evaluation and compensation outcomes for all employees.
The demand for accountability can feel like the riskiest part of the DEI space for marketers. Yet it is also the most powerful way to build trust in the promise behind what a brand can deliver and its ideas to guide the future. "When you begin walking the walk, you're going to stumble," Nelson says. "But we have to be courageous. Leaders are not the rear guard — they're out front.
Three Key Takeaways
At a time of continuing challenge and uncertainty, there are clear benefits for B2B marketers focusing on DEI. First, shifting to a purpose-driven mindset allows marketing spend to align with performance, which moves the full ecosystem forward. That, in turn, meets the increasing expectation from employees, customers, and investors to provide something to society that goes beyond profit. Finally, marketers should not be afraid to fail. Leaders and companies that are more transparent and more authentic are seeing trust in their products, services, and solutions increase.
About Author: Anne Kawalerski is the global chief marketing officer and Michelle Lynn is the global head of data science and insight, both at Bloomberg Media, a partner in the ANA B2B Business Partner Program.