by Lindsay Beltzer, Consultant, US

“The war for talent,” a phrase coined in 1997, continues to be as relevant as ever. Fast-forward twenty-one years later, where diversity and inclusion (D&I) is an increasingly hot topic to follow in its footsteps, with one notable difference: winning the war can be as simple as building a diverse and inclusive workplace where your employees can thrive.

Recent research has shown a link between a company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and financial performance. According to a January 2018 McKinsey study, “Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.” And a 2015 study from Bersin by Deloitte showed that diverse companies had 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than less diverse companies.

As diversity and inclusion practices become more common from corporate brands to start-ups, a key question to consider is: how can we create meaningful change in this area, through the lens of our distinctive brand?

Brand-led efforts cut through

A ‘brand-led’ approach to D&I uses the organization’s purpose and values to help inform every element of the D&I strategy. When implemented, these activities range from shifts in recruitment practices and onboarding new employees, identifying and building external partnerships, and even the introduction of new products and services in the market. Ultimately, the company’s overarching brand promise should serve as a North Star, guiding the decision-making and approach to developing a credible and sustainable diversity and inclusion strategy.

Microsoft’s corporate vision is to “reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.” Through this lens, Microsoft has activated a robust diversity and inclusion strategy focused on the notion of empowerment and the way it can empower its people to transform its culture and in turn, its customers.

In its first national Super Bowl ad, Microsoft featured former professional football player Steve Gleason, diagnosed with the neuro-muscular disease, ALS, to illustrate how he uses a Microsoft Surface to communicate. “What is technology? What can it do? How far can it go?” he asks in the one-minute spot. “It [technology] has given voice to the voiceless,” Gleason continues. Instead of focusing explicitly on Microsoft’s products, the ad demonstrated the power of its technology to empower individuals and change lives.

Internally, Microsoft boasts an extensive network of Employee Resource Groups and Employee Networks. These groups, such as Africans at MicrosoftBoomers at MicrosoftCross disAbility at Microsoft, Dads at MicrosoftLGBT at MicrosoftU.S. Military Veterans at Microsoft, and others. These have been curated to foster diversity and inclusion and promote cultural awareness, as well as play a pivotal role in career development, networking opportunities, mentoring, and guidance on product development and design. Microsoft has also developed and implemented unconscious bias training for all employees. In the spirit of empower us all, the training course is available online and is open-source, so anyone can access it outside the organization.

Amplify impact through partnerships

It’s no secret that strategic partnerships can extend the reach and influence of brands. From a D&I perspective, if partnerships are developed in a ‘brand-led’ way, they can fundamentally shift how consumers and employees perceive and engage with brands.

With the kickoff of its “Start Your Impossible” campaign last year, Toyota boldly announced its shift from a traditional automotive brand to a mobility company focused on expanding its offerings to include futuristic devices and notably, several tools designed to assist people with disabilities.

With a laser-like focus and commitment to bring this brand shift to life and to reach a specific population (people with disabilities), Toyota entered into an eight-year partnership with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). With Toyota on board as the presenting sponsor, NBC broadcasted the Paralympic Games nearly twice as much as previous years – a big step forward for Toyota’s brand exposure, and in elevating public awareness of the diverse abilities of  these athletes.

This shift in positioning – from vehicles to mobility also ushered in a partnership with United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, in which Toyota announced a $1 million grant to support local Dallas-Fort Worth non-profits, academic institutions and social entrepreneurs focused on transportation mobility issues. According to Mike Goss, general manager, Toyota Social Innovation, “The initiative is part of larger community programming aimed at creating public-private partnerships to solve societal issues.”

Foster collaboration and communication

Building a diverse and inclusive brand isn’t a one-off initiative – it entails breaking down the silos that exist between departments and functions. As diversity officers increasingly take seats among the C-Suite, it’s imperative that leadership crafts a shared vision of its diversity and inclusion – one that ladders up to the mission and values of the company.

As change is made internally – the development of Employee Resource Groups, trainings, partnerships, hiring and retaining diverse employees – the success of these efforts hinges on the company’s ability to communicate (and celebrate) this progress both internally and externally. Great work begets great work. A ‘brand-led’ approach to D&I will organize a company’s efforts under a common purpose and framework, and will provide an enduring vision that can flex and scale just as quickly as an organization.