Diversity, equity, and inclusion, or the ‘DEI’ initiatives, have received increased attention for a wide variety of reasons. How and why should marketing leaders and teams implement effective DEI programs and strategies? The consequences for not understanding what DEI means does matter.
Today’s guest is Jimi Vaughn, a DEI consultant and expert. He talks about making a case for DEI by aiming for both the head and the heart of organizations’ decision makers and internal stakeholders.
Hey, Jimi. How's it going this afternoon?
Jimi: Going well. How are you?
Ben: I'm not doing too bad. It's sunny here in North Dakota. We'll take whatever warm weather we can get.
Jimi: I can totally appreciate that. I feel like I'm never in a position to be able to complain about anything since I live in Los Angeles. It's pretty nice almost all the time. I'm like, I got nothing to complain about here.
Ben: Definitely feeling a little bit of jealousy on my end. What we're going to talk about, something I think is really important and something that you are an expert on, is diversity, equality, and inclusion, or DEI.
Jimi: Yeah. There are so many variations of it. The most common and what I typically go with is diversity, equity, and inclusion. I can explain a little bit of why I use the term equity versus equality typically. If you'd like, I'll just do a quick explanation about DEI in general.
Ben: Go for it.
Jimi: With diversity, a lot of times, it can be a little bit of, not necessarily a misnomer but something that people might have their own perceptions or understanding of. It can feel really broad, nebulous, or any of those types of things. I like to break it down a little bit to level set, at least with what I am referencing when I use the terms.
When I talk about diversity, I'm really referencing the trait and characteristics that make us all unique in the simplest way, shape, or form. That is what diversity is. Diversity is a state of things. It is not an action. It's not like anything of that sort. It is not relegated to just ethnicity, gender identity, LGBTQ+ sexual orientation, or any of those types of things. They are included in it, but it's not necessarily just those types of things only.
Diversity can also include diversity of thought or background as far as where you even grew up, region, what generation, and religious background. All of that is included in that term diversity. Some we put a little bit more attention on because there might be impacts in society that are a bit more egregious or a little bit disproportionate to particular groups, so they tend to be on the forefront of a lot of these conversations. But in and of itself, diversity just refers to the traits and characteristics that make us unique, and whatever combination we have of those within a particular space.
Then, we talk about the term equity. Equity is really about fair treatment where equality is about the same treatment. Sometimes, equality isn't necessarily fair. One of the common things we talk about is standardized testing. If it's in English and English isn't your first language, then some of the terms that might be very specific or even regional that are utilized might not actually be a true representation of an assessment of that individual or that individual's comprehension. They just may be very much so familiar with another term that is used.
Sometimes, these things don't necessarily match. I often say you don't judge how good a squirrel is by giving him a swimming test. How good is a squirrel at squirreling? But as a fish, that's a perfect test to give. Conversely, you wouldn't expect a fish to climb a tree. That, though, would be equal treatment if we gave everybody the swimming test. But equity is about giving the appropriate scenario for each individual based off of that individual's strength, experiences, or its identity in general.
Then, the last one is inclusion. Basically, these are a lot of the times the things that make people feel like they belong for one. I often say this about agency and influence. I will say in the marketing space, we might utilize that as are you getting feedback from particular groups? Are you utilizing it? From your specific position, are you speaking on behalf of the other groups? How involved is that group? How included is this group in the direction, the strategy, and all of that sort of things? It's a longer explanation but I feel like it helps people grasp fully what the role of DEI or the subject of DEI talks about.
Ben: That's a very thorough explanation and I really appreciate that. It's very valuable to really lay it out in very specific terms what we are discussing here. I think that's fantastic.
For a marketing team and for marketing leaders, why is it important to have a DEI strategy in place, and to understand and to care about what DEI really means?
Jimi: One, especially for marketers, because it's communication. Your audience is the business and connecting with people is the business of marketing, eliciting responses, and driving people toward your products or your organization and things like that. It's crucial there. I do believe that there's an ethical responsibility for organizations, marketers, and basically any business to be thinking about these types of things.
When I think about DEI strategy, I also don't think of it as a thing that exists on its own. I feel like it's a part of absolutely everything that we do as an organization. It is a lens that we look at any scenario, any situation, and any product. We look at it through a DEI lens so what should always be a step in the decision-making process, when you're establishing something, or planning to communicate is thinking about the impacts that it might have on a particular group and whether or not that impact differs from region to region, person to person, group to group, experience to experience, identity to identity.
I definitely believe that there's that, but I also believe, if we're talking marketing, it would be foolish to not understand the buying power of minority groups. When we're talking about something like that, at the end of 2019, there was a study that came out that in the US, minority buying power is over $3.9 trillion.
From a purely bottom line standpoint, that would be a significant amount of revenue to be missing out on if we don't think that it's important enough to be considering how certain things are being communicated to different groups, how they're going to perceive it, or what's going to resonate with those individuals because they got to be convinced in order to come up with the money, in order to do something. I think it's a very practical bottom line component outside of even the ethical responsibility.
Ben: Yeah, certainly. If a listener was wanting to open up a conversation internally in their organization to make the case for this $3.9 trillion, it's a pretty powerful number.
Jimi: That's a pretty powerful number. That's just in the US alone. That is more than the GDP of many countries. It's a lot.
Ben: It's almost difficult to really wrap your head around what exactly that means. I think that's great to break it down ethically, obviously, as a matter of treating people well and also being aware of the raw dollars and cents. It doesn't make sense not to.
Jimi: It doesn't make sense not to on any front. It just doesn't make sense not to. It is bad business practice. It is unethical business practice. It doesn't make sense to not consider diversity, equity, and inclusion in your business practices. It just doesn't.
Ben: I think you've made quite a [...] here for that. What are some of the potential pitfalls or negative effects that an organization or a team might experience as a result of ignoring or dismissing DEI initiatives? I could definitely see a situation where someone's like, well, I don't have a problem with bias of any sort. We don't have that problem here. That's somebody else's concern. How does that thinking become a trap? What kinds of problems could you walk into if you have that attitude?
Jimi: So many. I'm just like, where do I start with it? A lot of times when I have these conversations, this is rooted in something else I believe, when people say that I don't have an issue. This incorrect belief of discrimination, exclusion, or lack of inclusion is something that is tied directly to either hatred or intention. Yes, there are the manifestations of that. Those are the more extreme manifestations of that that we see, that we all know, that we're all able to identify as particularly egregious, kind of like they use this pejorative or you cast this person in this light, and all this kind of stuff.
Those are really just the tip of the iceberg. Those are the things that are the extreme manifestations of it. The vast majority of things happen subconsciously. They happen in that implicit bias. They happen in the things that you're not aware of. That has nothing to do with intention.
We'll use baseball for example. If you're in the park and you get hit in the head by a flying baseball, does it matter if the person that hit it or threw it your way meant to do it?
Ben: You're probably going to the hospital one way or the other.
Jimi: You're going to the hospital. You got a concussion and you need to heal. It has nothing to do with the intention. It was just something that happened. I likened it to that because a lot of times, people are like, well, that's not my intention. When we first get people to understand that this isn't about intention, hatred, or [...]—because I'm not going to deny that there are elements that are definitely related to that—we start to get into another conversation where I feel like more people exist in.
It is the assumption that everyone's norm is the same as yours or that it's close enough to yours that your default is going to impact everybody in the same way. The reality is that that's not always the case and a lot of times, it's not the case. I love it when people are like, we're more alike than we are different. I'm like, yes, that is very much still true, but we got a lot of significant differences.
That's not a thing to be afraid of. That's not a thing to see as a problem. That is the thing to embrace, to celebrate, to recognize, understand, and realize that it does have an impact. When people are not conscientious of the impact of their decisions, actions, especially in an industry that is one-to-many—which I don't think that there's anything larger than marketing and media to what that one-to-many model—where I'm making the statement and it's reaching a large number of recipients that you can't necessarily control the narrative once it's out there. You have to do all that thinking upfront.
Then, you have to keep that top of mind because there are a lot of different things that are cultural values that differ between groups that you might not necessarily be aware of. There are pop culture references that you might be alienating people from particular demographics that in others, they're like, I don't even know what that means. What is this reference? That's not resonating in the same way. That feeling of nostalgia isn't there.
When we talk about color theory, in certain cultures, certain colors mean certain things. In one culture, white might mean purity, in another, it might mean death. You don't want that message mixed up in your materials, in your marketing when you're trying to reach someone or even representation of a family unit.
There's a little story that a lot of DEI practitioners use as an exercise in sessions. It's one where we're talking about a plane crash and you have a variety of different people. You're basically trying to figure out who you're going to save essentially because they're out into the water. In the conversations that come up in those, you start to see some of these cultural values of how we value different people in different stages of their lives.
This person was already diagnosed with a terminal illness. Do we actually save that person when we can only save a couple of people? Do we save the elderly? Do we save the kids? Do we save the mom and the kid or the dad and the kid? All of those things start to show some of those places where we have unique values. That definitely ties into when we're trying to create a narrative which I feel like the marketing world is always trying to do, creating a narrative around a product, a business, or something.
The portrayals that we have there, if you're not familiar with those faces, you very well could be representing certain things in a way that is definitely not your intention or what you intended to create as part of that narrative. It's the same for when you're trying to [...] not just necessarily the negative but for a positive. Things might not resonate with others in the same way just because of small nuances. I feel that it's super important.
All of this information isn't to say that a single individual needs to be aware of all of those things, but this is why diversity is so important, because the more people that you have, that can speak on two differing experiences, that are part of your decision-making group, that are part of your creative team, that are bringing that diverse background, experience, and knowledge to the table, the more opportunities that you have to make sure that you're hitting those marks in a really significant and authentic kind of way to whatever group or experience that you're really talking about or talking to.
Ben: Just because you're sold on the idea of making DEI a priority doesn't necessarily mean that everyone in your organization might be. If you find that making the case for it is a challenge, then I think it's worth taking the time to understand where those objections might be coming from and just start from there.
Anytime you ask people to change literally anything, it's not uncommon to run into some resistance or some amount of hesitancy. That's true even with small things sometimes. When you introduce a conversation that some might consider sensitive, controversial, uncomfortable, or something that someone might perceive as being unneeded for any reason or whatever the case might be from that other person's point of view, then the likelihood of being met with a less than positive reaction only increases.
But by meeting people where they're at, honestly hearing their thoughts, and presenting a fact-based argument for your side of the conversation, you can increase your odds of winning them over and creating the diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment that you know that your company needs to be fostering in order to be as successful as it can be.
Now, back to Jimi.
For a marketing manager, say that they're bought into the idea that having a defined DEI strategy, this is something that they need to work on or put in place, but maybe they don't know where to begin, what would be the first step? What was the first thing that you would recommend they do to start moving forward in this area?
Jimi: Probably the first step is to look internally. Look at your team and see if there are any perspectives that are missing, any ideas, or experiences, especially as it relates to your target demographic of who you're trying to actually reach through your marketing initiatives. Are you missing particular perspectives? Is there a reason why you're missing those perspectives?
I'm not a person that promotes just hiring people for the sake of it or anything like that. We always want it to be performance-based. However, with that being said, a lot of times, there are certain things like how you're posting your jobs for hiring in your team. Where are you posting? Is it only in one group? Are you overly dependent on universities or schools that people came from when you're building your team? When you're interviewing, are you favoring people who think like you or communicate in the same way that you are? Are you afraid when people have completely different concepts, ideas, or things like that, or see them as, oh, they don't necessarily have a culture fit within this group?
That might be the thing that you actually need in order to increase the creativity or the innovation within the team because a little bit of that pressure or the dissenting voices a lot of the times drive more innovation and more creativity, and you are able to reach certain things.
I always tell people to look internally first to see what is going on, what's the current state to allow you to establish a bit of a baseline. Then, if you are fortunate enough to have a diverse team, it's listening and engaging. Create an environment where that's the norm, where people are able to contribute. They are able to speak to their own experiences. They're able to provide new ideas and things like that. If you're not cultivating that environment, you also might be stunting a little bit of that evolution or that progress within your own team.
I say that it's important there because when you start to do your bigger strategies, you're starting to look at your market, and things like that, when it comes down to analysis and understanding, if your team isn't diverse, they're probably going to misinterpret or they have a higher chance of misinterpreting that data that you get back. It's always about starting with your team and starting internally first.
Ben: Sure. I think that's a perfectly logical place to begin. Start with where you're at.
Jimi: Start with where you're at. Then, there are other things that you can do as you build that, but I do think that that starts to get into looking at who your target demographic are and what their experiences are. This goes back a little bit to what I said earlier with the inclusion conversation.
It's like, are you getting feedback or are you just assuming that you know based off of what you think that you understand? If you can leave room for what you don't know and seek knowledge and understanding, but also know that you've created an environment where that is able to occur, where people can give you information feedback, and then you also action on that, you’re going to be ahead of a lot of people in that space.
Ben: I love how that brings things down the earth a little bit. Make it simple. I like how that gives you a clear starting point.
Jimi: Because it's a tall order. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a tall order because there are so many nuances. It's so varied. People can very easily get overwhelmed by trying to stay on top of all of the nuances, but it isn't always about the specific nuances. More often, it's about the why. It's about understanding why we use this terminology as opposed to the other terminologies? It's about seeing the people first or something along those lines. It's about respecting a culture. It is about understanding what culture appropriation is, what that does, and how overwriting the narrative can overwrite that group's value in public consciousness, essentially.
It's those elements that when we're aware of that, it's much easier to keep track of the specific types of nuances, the specific language, or the case in points because you're able to think, does this do that thing, the why? Whatever it is, you're able to then apply that filter to it and you're going to be equipped to make better choices when it comes to what you're putting out there.
Ben: Sure, because you're tying your actions back to your purpose and the purpose drives what you do. I think it makes a lot of sense.
Once they've gotten that far, what's the next step? If you're looking to develop a more robust, more nuanced approach to your DEI strategy, typically, where does it go from there? Where do teams or people go from there once they've put together the rudiments of a strategy in this area?
Jimi: It definitely differs from business to business, the size of your organization, and who your target demographic really is. Obviously, in places where your target demographic is more diverse, it might be a little bit more nuanced or a bit more involved than in places where it's just not that diverse. We always wish that there is inclusion and diversity in every space, but those are the realities of it.
I think the next step is always engaging. It's giving yourself benchmarks and measuring because measuring allows you to actually establish key performance indicators for what success looks like for us. Outside of the theoretical, this takes it to the actionable. This allows you to know, are we missing something in this space? Are we not resonating with this group of people in particular? Listening to the feedback that you're getting and having established channels for feedback is going to be also really important.
I heard a great quote not too long ago. Somebody said what gets measured gets done. When you can establish your appropriate report and you've got your statistics, analytics, and things like that you established and that you've considered your diverse population or target demographic as part of that, then you're going to be far more prepared, ready, and able to respond to it or to formulate further strategies as a result to that, if that makes sense.
Ben: Absolutely. The last question I'll throw your way. If a marketing leader, a marketing manager, someone on the decision-making power on a team has decided that this is something that they want to take seriously and they want to pursue this more consciously and more intentionally than what they have in the past, what advice would you give to them to get buy-in from their team?
I imagine that with something like this, not with anything. Any time you're trying to drive any kind of change within a team, no matter what it is, you're going to get varying levels of support from different members of your team from different stakeholders. There are very likely going to be objections. If not objections, there are questions.
Jimi: Resistance a little bit sometimes.
Ben: Yeah. Like why this? Why now? Change opens up a lot of doors to a lot of different types of responses. In this context, how would you recommend that that person just open up the conversation with their team or with their stakeholder, whoever it is that they want to convince and to get bought in? How can they do that successfully to make sure that their efforts in this area don't end up imploding in on themselves or just never taking off because they can't build the case for it effectively?
Jimi: Sometimes, it can be difficult to build the case which is unfortunate because recently, with what's been going on in the media, has changed the conversation around DEI, which I think is for the better. It felt like overnight, the majority of my conversations shifted from building the case to what do we do? It was a terrible motivator, but a motivator nonetheless. Anyone who is passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion definitely should not feel poorly about leaning into it because it is the reality of what's going on.
There are so many situations now and people are far less tolerant and forgiving of missteps. I again think that that is for the better. I am not a person who is necessarily afraid of or angry with the "cancel culture." What we're dealing with right now is people being held accountable for things that they should have been held accountable for a very long time and just haven't had to until now but there's cause and effect.
This is still supply and demand like any industry. Your audience is demanding better, that's one. Your audience is demanding better, so it is up to anybody who has a product or anything that they're trying to sell to meet that requirement or else you don't get your bottom line. You don't get the buy-in.
Another thing is that $3.9 trillion. It's not a bad place to start either of buying power to get people to understand that this is a significant business strategy also on top of the other social and ethical reasons that we'd want to be able to do, that you would hope that the former would be enough but in certain situations, it's not. Feel free to throw that $3.9 trillion out there.
Then, on top of that is when you establish those KPIs, those key performance indicators, those analytics that also tells the story. Too often, people think that the conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion is an emotional one. It's not. It is one with very clear statistics. It's one with very clear numbers, key points, benchmarks, and all of those types of things. The information is there. It's just that sometimes, people don't look for it or don't want to.
For anybody in these spaces and in these leadership spaces, I love that you used earlier the term intentional. This is a thing that has to happen intentionally. This is not a thing that happens passively. When people are like, oh, we'll just keep going, it doesn't happen passively because we as humans have a biological attraction towards sameness and a biological desire to stay the course. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. We resist doing things new or doing things differently especially if it is unfamiliar.
If we don't think that we grasp it or feel bigger, people want to resist that. We have to be intentional and strategic about it. I'd say utilize the feedback because people will tell you, if you give them their appropriate channels for it, all of these things help build your case. All of these things help let people know that it's not just you that's saying this. This is not coming from you. The evidence is there as long as you look for it.
Ben: I think that's fantastic advice. I hope that that clarifies some things for our listeners because like you said, this is not a simple task.
Jimi: It's not.
Ben: You've broken it down very well and very clearly yet it is not a simple concept in a lot of ways either. This has been awesome. Thanks so much for taking the time to come on the show and to share your insight in this area.
Jimi: Thanks for having me.
Ben: Absolutely. If people want to find you on the web, maybe want to reach out in case they have more questions, or if this is something that they think you might be able to help them, where can they find you?
Jimi: I actually say the easiest thing is to just follow me on Instagram and then message me there. I thankfully have been very busy these days with engagements and things like that, but my Instagram handle's the easiest way to at least be able to connect and do, so @jimi_vaughn.
Ben: Very cool. Awesome stuff. Thanks, Jimi, once again for taking the time to come on the show. I think that this is very important stuff for people in all areas of the business world to be taken into consideration, and for us in marketing we're certainly no exception to that.
Jimi: Yeah, thank you. Obviously, I agree. I also say to people. I'm like, if you're able to, hire a person to be focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion because there are a ton of nuances. Being able to have someone that is able to give insight and feedback on a regular basis is really helpful for those organizations that are anesthetized, where they can have somebody that doesn't necessarily think of it as an add-on to another job because there are a lot of details. There are a lot of nuances and they're easy to miss. If you miss something, it can actually go really badly. But if you get it right, it can be fantastic. Those are my parting words.
Ben: I think that's a good place to leave this conversation. Thanks so much. I'm really looking forward to sharing this episode with our audience.
Jimi: Awesome. Thank you.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.