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NRF 2021: Retail Diversity Leaders Reveal Strong Strategies for Supporting Equality

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Diversity has become an increasingly hot topic in retail recently, with the industry moving to increase representation across the board of non-dominant racial and gender groups. There’s still a lot of work that still needs to be done, of course, and Chapter 1 of the NRF 2021 Big Show highlighted the importance of this mission with its Equality Lounge sessions — daily panels that covered diversity from a variety of angles.

Each session featured multiple leaders from a range of retailers, small and large, united by their commitment to diversity. Some of the most important lessons discussed during the panels included:

  • Look for inspiration beyond retail: Retailers aren’t the only companies championing diversity, and even non-advertising campaigns can be tapped for ideas;
  • Drive conversations as well as conversions: Diversity may not immediately improve the bottom line, but that doesn’t mean the practice isn’t worthwhile from a business standpoint;
  • Be open to partnerships big and small: Larger retailers in particular can help build diversity by investing with, or simply giving space to, their smaller peers; and
  • Don’t be afraid to take your time: The push for diversity isn’t a race or a contest — don’t rush a half-baked, inauthentic initiative just to look like you’re doing something.

Inspiration can Come From Anywhere

Retail isn’t the only industry working to improve diversity. Strategies from outside the retail community can provide fresh insight into interesting, effective ways to build equality.

For instance, retailers may want to look at efforts that aren’t necessarily ad campaigns. While diversity initiatives can have a material impact on sales by showing that a retailer’s values align with those of its shoppers, some of the best conversation starters come from places like art and think pieces.

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“I get inspiration from so many brands these days,” said Shelley Haus, Chief Marketing Officer at ULTA Beauty. “One that isn’t an advertising campaign, but near and dear to my heart, is the fearless girl from State Street Global Advisors and McCann. Fearless girl is a statue that was put facing the bull on Wall Street, to raise the conversation about equality in such a male-driven industry. It was a statement that created conversation and buzz to the point that I know so many people that have taken pictures, including me, with fearless girl and posted it as our own statement of equality. I think it was an amazing out-of-the-box campaign that sets the bar for all of us to think about how we spark conversations in this space.”

Don’t Let the Bottom Line Become the Only Measure of Success

It’s also important to remember that, while diversity may improve the bottom line, that shouldn’t necessarily be the primary driver behind a retailer’s efforts. Shoppers can tell whether an initiative is a genuine expression of corporate responsibility or a cynical attempt at pandering, and the latter risks backlash against a retailer’s reputation.

Additionally, the business benefits of a diversity program aren’t always visible from the start. “What brands don’t always see immediately is that it may or may not impact your bottom line,” said Crystal Harrell, Senior Director of Communication at Procter & Gamble. “However, when it’s driven or intended to drive conversation and understanding, you get to hear the testimonials. Then we can rest assured that it’s achieving at least one of the intended objectives. We look to be both a force for good and of course for growth, so that’s so important.”

Outside Partnerships Demonstrate Their Value

Even retailers without the right background or experience to really push the envelope on diversity can work with smaller but better-positioned companies to assist their efforts. This can be accomplished in two primary ways:

  • Sharing an audience: A large but less nimble retailer can let a smaller startup take the lead on an initiative, then provide a signal boost to the campaign, benefiting both parties; or
  • Donating to the cause: Investing a significant sum of money into a worthy cause, even one that’s part of an outside organization, can have a large impact on its success and reach.

“I think there’s two opportunities,” said Chana Ginelle Ewing, Founder and CEO of GEENIE. “On the smallest level think about ‘How can we use our eyeballs to bring attention to the issues that are driving the conversation?’ On a larger level, ‘How do we use our money to really invest in our consumers and the challenges they have, and also other brands that are supporting the healthy ecosystem?’”

The Push for Equality Will Take Time — Don’t Rush if You’re Not Comfortable

While there are many options for retailers to make a difference in terms of diversity, they shouldn’t feel the pressure to make efforts they aren’t completely sure will fit their abilities and audience. Equality (and the lack thereof) is an issue that has existed for decades and will still be around for years to come, so take the time to understand the stakes and how resources can best be applied to the issues that directly impact your company.

As with any corporate responsibility initiative, the key element is authenticity. Don’t rush to take a stand or make a statement if you don’t have a good plan — one that will provide measurable results — in place. Take your time and wait for the right opportunity to present itself.

“The three things that I keep coming back to, to get to that place of authenticity are honesty, humility and time,” said Rebecca Allen, Founder and CEO of Rebecca Allen. “I think that, as a small brand in conversation with bigger brands, there is a sense of urgency. People have recognized that this is something that they are behind on and they want to get going. That’s very dangerous because it leads to people kind of feeling like ‘Okay, we’ve fixed this, we’ve checked the box.’ I think it is okay for folks to still be listening and learning. I think it’s okay if you are still figuring out your strategy.”

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