Cultural biases are costing you customers

How inclusivity unlocks innovation and opens new markets

Christmas is nearly here– which means it’s that time of year we criticize toy makers for perpetuating gender stereotypes. The latest fodder is research reported by the Guardian showing toys with a technology focus were three times more likely to be targeted at boys. It’s just more fuel for the fire amidst today’s politically charged dialogue on equality.

Gendered toys are among the most obvious examples of cultural stereotypes in consumer culture. But the issue is far more complex and widespread. Product marketing and employment practices are two sides of the same coin. Marketing stereotypes are a symptom of biased corporate processes and cultural norms. The good news is a business case is emerging for organizations to take on these biases. The financial risks of ignoring bias span legal liability, skill shortages, consumer backlash and competitive blindspots. On the flip side, proactively addressing bias can strengthen teams, create competitive differentiation and help to identify hidden innovation opportunities.

Serving Under-Represented Markets

Earlier this year YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki penned a piece for AdWeek arguing the effectiveness of stereotype-busting ads. The success of campaigns like Always’s “Like a Girl” and Mini’s “Defy Labels” drive home her point. But as powerful as these ads are, the larger commercial opportunities exist beyond communications.

Across age, ability, gender, ethnicity and sexuality are countless social groups with diverse needs and interests starving for someone to offer them something better.

Seth Godin, master marketer, has long argued that the center is shrinking, mass media is dying and the result is an emergence of endless tribes or micro-cultures. A world with no mainstream presents a vast array of opportunities to serve misrepresented and underrepresented markets. Across age, ability, gender, ethnicity and sexuality are countless social groups with diverse needs and interests starving for someone to offer them something better.

Take Walker & Co, a business designed to make ‘health and beauty simpler for people of color.’ Founder Tristan Walker identified a gap in the men’s grooming market: solving the razor bumps experienced by African-Americans due to coarse hair. Today the shaving system has earned significant funding, a distribution deal with Target and a plan to expand to solve new “acute health and beauty problems” for people of color. Then there’s Asda, the British grocer, which piloted Quiet Hours for Autistic families to shop free of stimulation such as in-store music and TV display screens. The experiment was so successful that the hours have now become regular and eight other neighbouring retailers are participating.

A wave of brave brands have launched offerings in recent years to serve under-represented markets. The Players’ Tribune presents a platform for thoughtful jocks. Uniqlo launched a line of fashionable hijabs for Muslim women looking to combine modesty with personal expression. Generator Hostels is marketing its upscale, intergenerational hostels for adventurous Baby Boomers. Papa & Yo, a video game based on a character’s relationship with his alcoholic father, proved gamers can empathize. These brands perhaps didn’t set out to debunk stereotypes, but in delivering something different they are inadvertently challenging existing perceptions.

Tapping Unrecognized Talent

The most obvious way to identify underserved markets is to build teams that are more proportionately representative of the population. And a chorus of diversity advocates has been growing in the Valley making just this argument. Jeff Dean, the head of the Google Brain team, caused a stir this year when he stated that he has greater anxiety about the AI industry’s lack of diversity than he does about a looming robot apocalypse. A similar argument is being made with respect to representing the 1 in 5 Americans with disabilities. The case here is employees can derive better insights — and design better solutions — if the employee makeup more closely resembles the composition of the customer base. Further, workers with a disability are often cited as more loyal, engaged and productive employees.

Amidst skill shortages and a stalling economy, stigmatized social groups offer a new pool of unrealized potential. Danish consultancy Specialisterne staffs people on the Autism spectrum to perform software testing due to their diligence and detail-orientation. Ideo employs a 91-year-old designer for the unique perspective she brings. Etkie is breaking out in a highly competitive jewelry market by tapping the talents of Native American Women in underemployed communities. Moreover, designing more inclusive workplaces often has benefits that stretch far beyond the intended group. Walgreens, for example, has seen significant productivity gains after retrofitting warehouses to make them more accessible.

From enhanced empathy, engagement and retention to improved productivity and innovation, the financial case for inclusive employment may finally be getting heard. “Lack of experience” and “poor culture fit” sound like losing lines when the alternative is competitive disadvantage and customer blindspots.

Breaking the Cycle

Today the idea that diversity spawns innovation is widely agreed upon among employment managers. Yet true, large-scale diversity practices are still few and far between. Companies at the forefront are recognizing the invisible threads between how we all live, work and buy. In studying the effects of inclusive design, we are learning innovation processes and employment practices are inextricably linked. How we act, what we make and who we employ are fundamentally intertwined. Inclusivity in the workplace is not only needed for the greater good. It’s also a path to sustainable competitive advantage.

*Huge thanks to Valdis Silins for his research on this topic