The Champion Brands of Diversity & Inclusion

Professor Gabriela Salinas explains that the way a company takes a stand is as important as taking a stand.

By Gabriela Salinas, IE Business School Professor.


There are a number of global brands that have recently committed to the fight against systemic racism. The urgency for implementing a brand strategy that includes strengthened Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) efforts comes in the wake of the social movements and protests brought about by the killings of Black Americans at the hands of the police in the United States.

Needless to say, even when sharing the same objective of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, these corporate brands have responded in very different ways. So the question is: do D&I initiatives actually have a significant impact on brand value and, if so, which specific measures resonate most with key stakeholders?

A recent study of more than 5000 brands conducted by Brand Finance, where I am Global Managing Director of the education division, Brand Finance Institute, found that, globally, diversity and inclusion was a key driver of brand strength and value. In fact, in the United States, diversity and inclusion relevant to brand value than compensation and training efforts. This is likely due to the fact that brands in the United States have been increasingly focused on equality and social justice issues over the past ten years, while the issue is now also beginning to gain strength in Europe as the region increases in cultural diversity and foreign born populations.

Different ways to build brand value with Diversity & Inclusion in response to Black Lives Matter

As mentioned earlier, brands are tackling the issue in a myriad of ways, but most efforts by global companies fall into four types of initiatives:

  1. Communications driven initiatives: Many companies have published statements in solidarity with the Black community, including Twitter, Netflix, Nike, Adidas, Amazon, Spotify, and Accenture. Communications efforts are frequently seen as the bare minimum a brand can do in regards to D&I; and if these statements are not paired with other, more tactical initiatives, the brand faces criticism for not doing enough to change the realities of systemic racism. In fact, a survey by Morning Consult found that the majority of people are simply neutral when it comes to institutional Black Lives Matter statements.
  2. Society driven initiatives: Airbnb, Adidas, Apple, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Facebook, Nike, and YouTube have announced that they will donate significant amounts of money and resources to organizations and initiatives that focus on fighting inequality and systemic racism, or are committed to award grants for Black-owned businesses. Some brands are focusing specifically on education, like Adidas, which announced 50 annual university scholarships for outstanding Black students over the next five years.
  3. Brand management driven initiatives: Some companies are reviewing their portfolios to either evolve or eliminate ‘brands with racist origins’ (for example, PepsiCo with Aunt Jemima.) Others are reconsidering their association with social media platforms (for example, as part of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, Patagonia and Unilever, have pulled ads from Facebook and Instagram because they consider the find the platforms to be ‘complicit in spreading disinformation and fomenting fear and hatred’).
  4. Talent management driven initiatives: Internal branding – the philosophy at the core of a company’s culture – is just as important as the external facing corporate and product brand.  In fact, these days, internal branding is where many companies introduce D&I in order to have long term impact on the brand. Adidas is an example of a brand that has taken this approach with a series of talent-related measures, by pledging to hire Black and Latino professionals for 30% of all new positions in the US.

Examples from the “Champions of D&I”

There are some companies that are implementing Diversity & Inclusion initiatives particularly well: Nike, Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s, and Accenture. These three firms scored high in the Brand Finance survey for their reputation of consistent commitment towards diversity and their approach in communicating it.

The survey also asked participants to compare Nike’s “For Once, Don’t Do It”, Ben & Jerry’s “Dismantle White Supremacy,” and Accenture’s “We Stand Together Against Racism,” campaigns in terms of authenticity and consistency. Nike fared best in terms of perceived authenticity, consistency, and efficacy in promoting actual change. This may come as a surprise for those who know the history and values of Ben & Jerry’s, a company that was founded on social and community values. The possible reason for Nike’s success is that the tone and narrative of Nike has been, in the last month, more positive and more focused on what unites us rather than on the events that are contributing to the growing divide. Ben & Jerry’s, on the other hand, has chosen a riskier narrative with politically charged words like “dismantling” and “white supremacy”. This implies that the activist role for brands means taking a stand while staying away from the tone and tactics employed in political circles. The brands, like Nike, that focus on uniting rather than dividing or fuelling conflict, resonate with the public by showing their diversity and inclusion tactics through action (or symbolic micro-actions) rather than words and clearly put the needs of people above their own institutional interest and agenda.

The survey also found that the gap between brands´ investments and actions related to D&I and the awareness of these initiatives externally are correlated with familiarity, and this, in turn, is related with the type of communications: global and consistent investment in advertising is more effective at creating familiarity with the D&I stand of a company rather than “grassroots” communications or thought leadership.

While Accenture is doing excellent, important work in regards to Diversity & Inclusion in response to Black Lives Matter, the company trails the other two brands (not always far behind Ben & Jerry’s but significantly behind Nike) in mass audience awareness.  This is likely due to the fact that Accenture is a B2B and thus the brand’s D&I efforts are limited to thought leadership, targeted campaigns or specific statements in June, and therefore only noticeable by those customers who are very familiar with the brand and the professional services industry.

The future of D&I

D&I are increasingly important as a driver of brand strength and the recent social conflicts sparked by police brutality in the US have renewed their relevance. This context, in parallel with the increasing demand for transparency and reporting, imposes a new mandate for global brands: design clear D&I policies, implement them consistently, track their adoption, communicate them internally and externally in compelling, culturally sensitive, and engaging ways, and report the impact of all these initiatives.

This situation and the varying reactions of stakeholders towards brand responses, are showing us that when it comes to D&I, facts are more important than words, the way a company takes a stand is as important as taking a stand – exemplifying union and not agitation, and showing that you really care about people investing in what is important to them (Black businesses, Black education) rather than engaging in what is a purely cosmetic action. Customers are paying close attention and brands that focus on authentic and unifying action will see disproportionate improvement in Brand Strength.