What Brands Can Learn From The College Protests
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What Brands Can Learn From The College Protests

November 24, 2015

Hannah Lee

Representations of diversity can only go so far in creating authentic inclusion. As distant as the college campus protests may seem from the corporate world, they are a reminder to brands that your base will always hold you accountable to your messaging.

Over the past few weeks, protests have erupted on college campuses nationwide. From the University of Missouri to Yale to Claremont McKenna College, students are speaking out about racially motivated incidents, and have largely been met with skepticism and inaction from campus leadership. While student reactions to these incidents should come as no surprise, the delayed responses of the institutions in the spotlight are certainly shocking– and are at odds with the messaging showcased on their websites and marketing materials.

It is in these institutions’ best interest to have a diverse student body; it contributes to higher rankings, and it looks good for them as a brand. However, the realities of fostering a thriving diverse student body (i.e. creating a sense of belonging and allocating resources to support this goal) are seldom a priority of University budgets, and are much easier said than done. Regardless of the challenge, boasting an inclusive campus environment without taking the necessary steps to maintain it is a recipe for a public relations disaster, and a surefire way to betray your core supporter base.

Consequently, these institutions are not only paying the price for overlooking the crucial building blocks of a tolerant, diverse campus, but they are also losing credibility as a result of propping up their brand messaging with empty rhetoric about diversity and inclusion. The fallout from these incidents highlights that representations of diversity are not enough: representation is not synonymous with inclusion. While representation may in fact be a substantial first step to foster diversity, it should be the first of many.

“As distant as the college campus protests may seem from the corporate world, they are a reminder to brands that your base will always hold you accountable to your messaging.”

This issue is not specific to college campuses. Most, if not all, Fortune 500 Companies have shown a vested interest in fostering diversity. From corporate offices to promotional marketing material, savvy brands understand that diversity is not simply a required aspect of modern hiring policy– it is an essential part of broadening a company’s knowledge base and customer reach. The issue remains, as played out on these college campuses, that representations of diversity can only go so far in creating authentic inclusion. Boasting about one without having the other is disingenuous, and no one likes a dishonest brand.

More and more well-known brands are taking real steps to bridge the gap between stated and reality. For example, Silicon Valley All-Star Airbnb is addressing the lack of diversity in its industry by searching for a “Head of Diversity and Belonging,” in order to help new hires feel a sense of belonging in the workplace. The job position serves as a reminder that hiring diverse employees, in itself, is not sufficient in creating a more diverse workplace. An equal amount of focus must be paid to employee environment and work culture.

In short, the quest for “diversity” cannot come without an honest, critical look at how existing cultures continue to perpetuate exclusion. The marginalization of minorities is, after all, systemically embedded within our institutions – schools, political institutions, tech companies, and media organizations alike. As distant as the college campus protests may seem from the corporate world, they are a reminder to brands that your base will always hold you accountable to your messaging – and you need to be ready for it. If you want to toot your horn about being “diverse” or “inclusive,” you should be prepared to deliver on your promise in the workplace– not just on your website.

Hannah Lee

Associate Director, Insights & Strategy

As Associate Director, Insights & Strategy, Hannah draws from her perceptive, curious nature to translate complex research findings into clear, tangible client solutions. Trained as a sociologist...

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