Why Brands Have “Diversity,” but Still Don’t Know How to Use It

Diversity can be shallow. It can help your company satisfy employment law or help you fit into an industry. This article is not about that kind of diversity. This is about how diversity in thoughts, opinions, and experiences can make us into strong, interesting brands.

True diversity can expose opportunities for depth in a brand that knows how to use it, adding sophistication to culture. Let’s talk about how that works.

Listen Well and Hold Your Ground

So how does it work? Do you just hire people from diverse backgrounds and hope the interactions create deeper human understanding through osmosis, radiation, convection, and/or conduction? Do you hope that their experience opens minds, even as your point of view opens their minds? The second one is more likely. But even that doesn’t happen by accident.

With a diverse internal “marketplace of ideas,” you will get the most value through both shared and unshared beliefs and experiences. Let me tell you how I did it as a grad student:

Listen and argue. Sounds like a contradiction, right? But I went through a grad program in a department with deep Marxist roots. If you know me, you know I disagreed with just about everything they held dear. I argued. A lot. This helped me test and solidify my views. I’m now more of a Libertarian than I’ve ever been. Don’t be afraid of diversity. Be afraid of your own lack of curiosity.

Refuse to be a peacemaker. Again, I realize this sounds bad. But some people want to get along a little too much. They came in as some kind of conservative, and then completely changed their views. And if their conversations were any indication, it wasn’t because they grew into better thinkers; it was because they just didn’t want to fight. If you want to make people happy, diversity will be of limited benefit to you, because it will just “happen to you.” But you want the opposite: a deeper understanding of your changed/refined views. In other words, don’t sacrifice truth for peace. If you change, earn it. Go through the fire of disagreement and mental and emotional growth and become better.

Make friends. I also played a lot of soccer with international students, for most of whom English was their second language. They came from diverse backgrounds and cultures, from Oxford to developing countries in Africa. My closest friends shared my Christian faith, giving us a solid foundation. This gave us a common experience on which to build understanding for other things. But even when I didn’t share my fellow grad students’ beliefs, I made sure to treat everyone well. I can’t tell you how many times I heard them call conservatives “evil,” but then tell me that I’m “one of the good ones.” Make friends with those you disagree with.

The Diversity Job Description

Diversity is not as simple as skin color, sexual orientation, or gender, no matter what they’ve seen or been through. Hiring this way is a coward’s pursuit. I’ve known several people who’ve been through a lot, but came out a victim. They had things happen to them, but those trials never made them the powerful person that embodies deep and abiding “experience.”

So what sits at the core of a great candidate?

They’re good at philosophy…they want to argue toward truth. At some level, they’re equipped to grapple with contradictions in their own thinking and in the thinking of others. This allows them to apply their backgrounds to business problems.

They bring an important way of thinking based on personality. For instance, some people just want to get things done. But you don’t want those people to be involved in serious creative work (no matter how creative they say they are) because they don’t have the right mindset.

They can talk about their diverse experiences intelligently. If they can’t articulate how their experiences apply to the business problem, you’re left either overruling them or accepting their ideas without really understanding those ideas. This can introduce unnecessary indecisiveness into your culture.

Candor

One more thing: You can’t use any of this diversity if you don’t have a culture of candor, where there are forums through which these ideas can flow.

At Resound, one of our values is “candor.” The idea of candor sits on a foundation of truth. After all, in some cultures, you’re allowed to be candid, only as long as everyone likes it. But if that’s the case, then what’s the use of being candid?

I don’t know about your industry, but the advertising industry has a horrible problem being candid. My industry wastes effort by spending so much time talking about things that most people already know: don’t be racist or sexist, be nice to people, don’t abuse the environment. Individual creatives can’t be candid about problems they see, no matter what point of view they take. I can’t help but wonder about the fresh, inspiring points of view we could offer if we weren’t quite so worried about external badges of diversity and focused more on the intellectual variety.

Diversity for Depth

It’s easy to be diverse if it just means hiring people of a certain skin color or sexual orientation. It’s not so easy when you’re bringing people on who stand for something and who will challenge your culture.

So why do it the hard way? Because it gives you more focus, people who can execute within the culture, and more points of view.

Like John Cleese points out, there’s a time to be in the “open mode,” and there’s a time to charge the machine-gun nest.

Apply It To Your Culture

Decide what you consider points of view that are “useful.” Are you looking for ways to train teachers to work in inner cities? Then hire someone who is articulate in the problems of inner-city schools, and can talk intelligently about possible solutions.

And then, let them contribute. So much of this depends on your internal culture.

Decide what everyone must have in common. What values (not beliefs; values) do you want everyone to share? Things like “honest” might be a value. You don’t want diversity in that. Also, if the culture values trust, you don’t want diversity there either. Similarly, if you treat everyone with dignity and respect, you might not want to hire a manager from a culture that worships the boss and treats others like slaves. Would that be diversity? Sure. Will it be effective and prevent HR nightmares in your company? Nope.

Decide on your required level of objectivity for a given position. For instance, Nike sells a lot of equipment to diverse groups of people. But when they’re going after a particular market segment, let’s say suburban kids who play soccer and like Cristiano Ronaldo, does that mean you only want parents of suburban kids who play soccer working on the account? The best combination are people who know the audience (have an articulate understanding), along with an account planner whose whole job is to question and verify assumptions (a really powerful BS detector). This creates tension along two, very valuable lines: experience and theory checked against a healthy skepticism.

Establishing Trust: How Do You Treat the Weird Kid?

This is really about trust, which Patrick Lencioni considers the bedrock of any well-functioning culture. I have personal experience with this. After grad school, I taught Advertising at the University of Oregon. In a class called Writing Design Concepts, I had a kid who asked seemingly random questions in class. He always had something to say, but I could tell the other kids were a little annoyed.

They needed me to show them how to react to this kid. Because if I tolerated him, treating him with respect and developing good chemistry, they all knew it was a safe place for curiosity and new ways of looking at things. It was proof that they didn’t have to conform (except to conform to my standards of work, of course). They felt safe to flourish.

When I shared a laugh with this kid, I could almost feel the rest of the class relax. And we had the best chemistry I’ve ever had in a class that size. Everyone knew that they could say anything and I’d still like them and respect them.

And you know what? That kid is now in New York writing ads you’ve probably seen on national television.

So how do you treat the weird kid?

It’s Easy to Check a Box

Hiring for external signs of diversity is easy, but it doesn’t really elevate your brand. It doesn’t make you sophisticated.

Sophisticated brands are stronger. They say more in fewer words. They make you feel like they don’t need anything from you, but they’re available if you want to talk. And because they’re who they are, of course you want to talk! They show a deeper understanding and appreciation for what they do. And for that reason, customers become more likely to engage in a meaningful, non-commoditized relationship. Those brands just carry themselves well, and they evoke trust.

And when your customers consider you the only one to buy from, just because they like you and don’t trust anyone else, you’ve created for yourself a kind of monopoly.

“Diversity” gets treated like a panacea. It can be used to satisfy other people or it can enrich everything about your business. It’s really up to you whether it’s a buzzword or actually elevates your brand both in your culture and in the minds of your audience.

That’s how diversity can help you create products and services that are genuinely interesting and brand relationships that offer value beyond what you can engineer or buy with money.