Nothing tests your patience like renovating an older house.
At least that’s what my husband and I are finding with our late 1800s Colonial. Like many Millennials, we took advantage of the record low interest rates and purchased our first home in 2020. We fell in love with a fixer-upper in a great neighborhood that needed some cosmetic help before it would become our family abode.
“This will be easy,” we thought. Update the bathrooms. Swap the dated linoleum in the kitchen for real tile. How bad could it be?
As we began removing old broken fixtures, we uncovered decades of neglect: Shoddy wiring, water-damaged subfloors, and many “quick fixes” that someone’s somewhat confident uncle clearly did. Sure, the house was structurally sound, but it was moments away from having a cast-iron tub fall from the ceiling.
We thought we could just make aesthetic changes, but because the former owners cut a lot of corners, now we had the responsibility of doing the heavy lifting to change its course.
This urgent need to play catch up is like diversity debt, a concept many companies are beginning to discuss around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.
“Cutting corners will come back to bite you,” says Manu Smadja, co-founder of edtech and financial inclusion startup MPOWER Financing in News and Views. “When you fall into debt, the interest rate keeps growing, and at some point your culture is potentially endangered. Put plainly, few women want to join a company that has an existing team of 15 bros.”
An innocuous decision or policy, if left unchecked, can lead to more significant challenges down the road.
The phenomenon is especially present in brands. When we create feel-good PR initiatives that only touch the surface of complex DEI issues, it’s the equivalent of me planting flowers in my front yard. It looks a little more cheery—and the neighbors are thrilled—but it doesn’t address any of the deeper problems that endanger the home.
The longer you put off addressing the root problem, the worse it becomes.
I’m not saying you shouldn't plant the flowers. That was one of the first projects I took on when I was overwhelmed by all we had to do. Just don’t stop there.
It’s easy for companies to fall into diversity debt when they’re in “get things done” mode. Sales might be doing well, so instead of focussing on innovating, they don’t rock the boat and keep on with business as usual.
The problem with that, especially in a less diverse workplace environment, is unexamined biases get amplified. Decisions on who to partner with, what audiences to serve, or the talent used in an upcoming campaign run on autopilot. Brands tend to use who they’re familiar with or serve the people they already know.
While unintentional, it worsens their liability as time goes on. Before you know it, someone on Twitter is calling you out for using inaccurate representations of specific communities or for not having any diversity in your marketing materials.
On the brand strategy team at Helen & Gertrude, I often use house metaphors to describe what level of a lift we need to give our brands. Some projects call for light interior design work. By giving them more modern colors or changing up the “furniture” with culturally relevant themes, a brand can be more appealing to certain target audiences.
Other times we need to put an addition on the house, which is how we approach a new subbrand or corporate initiative that needs to be infused in the brand. And sometimes, we need to think like architects and engineers by building a brand from the ground up or significantly altering its existing structure.
When it comes to DEI, brands come in at all different levels. I’m always delighted to see well-tended ones. Dove and Patagonia have spread out the structural work over many years. While these are older, well-established companies, they’ve aged remarkably well and have retained relevance in our cultural dialogue.
I’ve seen some others that, frankly, could benefit from a complete gut. They’re too much in debt to keep on with business as usual. To do so would be a disservice to the brand and would feel tone-deaf in our cultural climate. Going down to the studs and seeing what your structure is really made of is scary—trust me, I know—but it’s an investment in your future that’s well worth it.
First, take a deep breath. It’s a process that can happen gradually, but it does need to happen. Diversity and inclusion require constant self-improvement. If our brands are carefully looked after, there’s no reason they can’t stand the test of time.
Using the house metaphor, this is like sending in a structural engineer, rather than the housing inspector you already paid for, ahem, to take a look and give you the hard facts. During this brand audit, you’ll want a neutral third party to look at where you stand with your existing customer base, what people say about you online, and who might be left out in your marketing efforts. Are moms truly the best target audience for your cleaning products, or could dads or even childless young adults be interested in solutions for keeping their spaces germ-free? Does your audience have a neutral, minimal home in the suburbs, or are there opportunities to show a diverse range of households? Make sure to pair observations with actionable opportunities for improvement.
Take a page from the inclusive design movement and view your brand experience from the perspective of all ages, genders, body types, sexual orientations, able-bodiedness, and socioeconomic levels. Taking a careful look will help you see how you can create a better experience for everyone, not just more diverse audiences. Consider using a web accessibility checker to find opportunities to make you more Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) compliant. Check for language that might alienate women, minorities, parents, older people, or nonbinary individuals.
Based on your brand audit and examining your creative touchpoints, you may find that you’re in a good place—or there’s more work than you realized. It’s important to make sure these changes are fully incorporated into your brand. To ensure your changes are more than lip service, update your company values or dive deeper into your company purpose (what author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek calls your “why”). Explore what interests or affinities you share with your broader community, such as sustainability, convenience, or value, and make deliberate connections with your branding framework. While it’s true that cultural values are rapidly changing, you don’t have to have your head in the sand about it. This critical structural work can increase the longevity of your brand and safeguard it from future calamity.
Even the most impressive DIYers—or marketing teams—can’t do everything themselves. Assess where you should hire experts, like directors, photographers, and talent, so that representations in your next creative project are more authentic and inclusive to the broader group you’re trying to reach. Working with a minority or women-owned agency is a good starting point. Plus, a new study by UCLA’s Center for Scholars and Storytellers and the Full Story initiative at the Creative Artist Agency (CAA) found that authentic cultural depictions perform better and receive more praise from audiences. So that’s a win for everyone.
If I’ve learned anything from my home improvement experience, you need a project manager and clear deadlines. Trying to do everything at once is expensive and sometimes just impossible. Make SMART goals for specific tasks that need to happen and delegate responsibilities to trusted team members. Break big projects into bite-sized chunks with a steady cadence to ensure this positive shift actually happens. And keep an eye on morale! A few fun events or partnerships thrown into the mix can rejuvenate excitement for the project.
We’re over 18 months into our renovation process, and the house definitely keeps us on our toes. Every time we remove a panel of vinyl, I cringe thinking about what new trouble we’re going to encounter. But, we’re also methodically stripping all the bad away and fixing things the right way.
The same is possible with diversity debt. With intention and a clear plan, even the biggest fixer-uppers can transform into gems.