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Can Chief Diversity Officers Reduce The Risk Of Cultural Insensitivity & Which Brands Are Using Them?

Can Chief Diversity Officers Reduce The Risk Of Cultural Insensitivity & Which Brands Are Using Them?

The job title Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) is not new, but over the last five years, the number of jobs posted online for that role has risen by 68%, leading LinkedIn to call it ‘The Job Of The Moment.’ But does this position genuinely help brands to create more culturally sensitive campaigns, or does it only fix a part of the problem?

How Can a CDO Be Helpful For Brands?

A CDO can be used in a variety of ways, but they generally focus on making a workplace more inclusive for employees and will seek to increase diversity within a company. Some brands also use Chief Diversity Officers to advise on cultural sensitivity in campaigns and marketing.

The role of a CDO was a much-talked topic after the luxury fashion brand Gucci received a serious backlash after releasing a half-face balaclava that critics said looked similar to racist ‘blackface’ symbolism. Brands like H&M and Prada have also been accused of promoting culturally insensitive products. All three brands hired CDOs in the aftermath of their respective scandals.

After Gucci appointed the previous CDO of Major League Baseball, Renée Tirado, the brand’s CEO and president Marco Bizzari said: “This appointment is a fundamental building block to further our commitment and support the initiatives already in place… I am confident that Renée will help us create the meaningful change we want to see not only in our company, but in the fashion industry.”

Brands who have appointed CDOs in the wake of cultural insensitivity scandals reveal the perception that the role can help to create better understanding within companies. This can help to produce campaigns that don’t inadvertently offend BAME consumers.

One common aspect of a CDO’s role is to ensure that brands have increasing levels of diversity in the company as a whole. Kerel Cooper is the Senior VP of Global Marketing at LiveIntent Inc. and host of The Minority Report, a podcast where he interviews diverse guests who work in advertising and marketing. He spoke to Forbes about how a lack of diversity within creative teams could have been a factor in the Gucci incident:

“When I see these types of ads, lack of diversity within those organisations is really the first thing that comes top of mind for me,” he said, “I think there are… two main avenues. One is education internally about different cultures… people from different backgrounds. The other is hiring practices. It’s time for companies to, quite frankly, to stop talking and start taking real tangible steps.”

Open Access to Company Data

Although brands have been hiring CDOs to address issues around diversity, critics have raised concerns that brands may not be directing their officers in the right way. A report by Russel Reynolds found that out of 234 S&P 500 Chief Diversity Officers, only 35% of them had access to company demographic metrics, and more than half said that they did not have the resources or support to do their work.

Cindy Owyoung, the VP of Inclusion, Culture and Change at Charles Schwab, pointed out that in order to enact real change within a brand’s marketing culture, brands need to support CDOs as much as possible: “All of these conversations can be so uncomfortable for people. It makes the role incredibly difficult because it’s not just about the rationale, it’s about changing hearts and changing minds” she said.

Diversity Needs to be Taken Seriously to Effect Change

During the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Diversity and Inclusion job openings fell 60% between March and June, at twice the rate of overall job postings. This could indicate that brands might not be committed to long-term diversity goals in times of economic hardship.

Senior Glassdoor economist Daneil Zhao spoke to the Washington Post about the decrease: “The fact that D&I job openings fell very quickly is concerning if it indicates companies are more willing to cut back on that function when times get tough,” he said.

Yvonne Smyth, Group Head of Diversity and Inclusion at recruitment specialist Hays, spoke about how hiring CDOs might not fix things straight away. This could make it hard to fully understand how impactful CDOs are in creating greater cultural sensitivity within brands:

“Changes can be slow, if there’s a crisis-like the Gucci situation – where the brand is damaged, there will be a desire to take action,” Smyth said, adding “…but it has to be about more than knee-jerk responses and then going back to business as normal. Diversity and inclusion can also fall down the agenda… they think ‘we’ll sort this out later’ and the time never comes.”


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