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      Being Cut Off in a Conference: Thoughts on DEI

      • Posted On: December 20, 2023
      • Category: Branding
      • Posted By: iffelinternational

      Personal branding statement that says you are your own brand.

      Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is about inclusivity and treating people fairly, realizing that different groups have different needs. That means putting ourselves in other people’s shoes to understand how current ways of doing things and communicating may not be meeting those needs. Many misperceptions of DEI have to do with antiquated stereotypes such as affirmative action or special treatment for some to the disadvantage of others. I invite you NOT to conflate those concepts, as a recent experience shows this has the potential to harm your business.

      The Scenario

      I attended a conference given for group leaders of a national professional networking group with which I am involved as co-chair for their DEI initiative. The conference gave group leaders the opportunity to meet, confer on best practices, and attend various panels on topics of interest such as improving membership. While I was attending a panel on executive committees—members of the group who help group leaders run their individual groups—I spoke up to ask a question regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion.

      I started to preface my query with a brief explanation and introduce myself, but as soon as I got to the term “DEI,” the moderator brusquely cut me off with, “Do you have a question?” Although I was taken aback by his abrupt response, I asked my question. It was simply this: “Should the organization’s DEI Ambassadors be a part of the executive committees in each group?” The panel members overwhelmingly responded yes.

      The discussion moved on from there and the moment passed, but it stuck in my mind. After getting feedback from other conference members, I have some thoughts to share about what it illuminated about the topic of DEI, how it is perceived, and how DEI impacts branding.

      The Reactions

      So how did other conference attendees who witnessed the interaction react? Half of them thought that the moderator’s response was inappropriate. In general, they felt angry, disgusted, and that a hostile approach was not necessary in that situation. Considering that the purpose of the organization is to allow professionals to connect and refer one another business, this is far from ideal. The likelihood of any of them referring a friend or client to him is certainly reduced, if not all but eliminated as a result of him deciding to shut someone else down instead of reacting more calmly.

      Their feeling wasn’t a universal response. About a quarter of the audience didn’t really resonate with the situation, either not taking note of it or not seeing DEI as a hot-button topic that might have made the incident stand out. And the remainder actually agreed with the moderator!

      So why might DEI have provoked a reaction that a large fraction of the audience perceived as uncalled for, while at the same time garnering approval from a much smaller group? The culprit is likely the misperceptions regarding the term.

      It may be challenging to see how the aim of DEI—inclusivity—differs from older stereotypes. But consider this example: Say a company has an award-winning website that most of their user base considers easy to navigate and that generates consistently high sales on their products. But it doesn’t have any accessibility features, so sight-impaired visitors are simply unable to use it, and those with dyslexia struggle. Does adding accessibility features that users can individually customize take away from the experience that most users are already enjoying? Of course not. But it does welcome in those who were previously shut out not by any purposeful action on the company’s part, but simply by lack of awareness and the resulting lack of action.

      When you consider DEI in this light, it’s easy to see how the concept opens opportunities for branding. However, before you charge ahead, it’s important to see the possibilities for error so you can avoid making mistakes.

      Speaking Their Language Authentically

      Commerce grows through an inclusive and diverse approach. The more people you welcome in, the larger your potential audience and customer base. But it is not as simple as slapping some easily googled buzzwords on existing marketing efforts and expecting it to connect with someone whose lived experience is widely different from that of your previously targeted audience. In fact, poorly thought through attempts can make things worse.

      Why? Because marginalized groups that have been actively shut out or just ignored tend to be wary—they won’t just accept messaging at face value. If they perceive that there is no substance or understanding behind the words, or if you make an egregious mistake, they’ll be even less inclined to trust that you know what their needs or concerns are and are prepared to help meet them. (Think the Manhattan grocery store that famously advertised ham as “Delicious for Chanukah” and you’ll get my drift.)

      Taking this approach requires listening to your potential audience, learning new perspectives, and being prepared to change course as needed. Most critically, reacting with hostility or defensiveness is an alienation strategy that will shut down possibilities you might not even realize that you’re missing out on.

      Learning More

      Although DEI has been a widely discussed topic in recent years, the incident at the conference brought home to me how much misunderstanding and fear there still is around the concept. To help fight back against some of the confusion, I’ll be giving a talk on LinkedIn Live in January to share my thoughts on branding through an inclusive lens—far from being something you should view with anxiety, DEI can be a powerful tool for growing your business and your customer base.

      Whether you’ve been afraid to examine your branding with regard to DEI for fear of making a misstep or you sense that your existing efforts aren’t landing the way you’d hoped, Iffel International can help. To schedule a consultation, contact us here.

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