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Lack of diversity will hurt your bottom line, marketers warned

There are plenty of sociological, feel-good reasons for increasing diversity in the workforce. But Twin Cities marketing pros recently got a blunt warning from some prominent local executives: Failure to diversify will cost you dollars and cents.

The straight talk came last week in a panel discussion of race and age in marketing sponsored by The BrandLab, an industry-supported nonprofit that guides students of diverse backgrounds into marketing careers.

“You’re going to see more and more agencies pushed by their clients” to show diversity in agency ranks, said Mike Fernandez, vice president of corporate affairs for Cargill. Agencies that aren’t diverse may lose business opportunities.

Carla Berril Vernón, director of Family Favorites Cereals at General Mills, was even more direct.

“It’s not about business inclusion because it’s beautiful,” Vernón said. “Studies show that the best business results come from diverse agencies. You better scramble to get to the table.”

Vernón told a story about a teleconference with one of her agencies. The agency was casting an ad that would feature a scientist and an assistant. Both needed to be Caucasian, the creative director explained, because in a 30-second spot, the audience needs familiar archetypes for immediate understanding.

Never having met her in person, the creative director didn’t know Vernón was of African-American and Latin descent. “And he certainly didn’t know that my mother has a Ph.D. in microbiology!” she added. The casting was changed.

Alfredo Martel, senior vice president of marketing for Caribou Coffee, said companies need agencies that can provide insights into the many diverse consumer groups that need to be reached today.

“The days of one product, one audience – that’s over,” Martel said. “Today, it’s product and then:  audience one, audience two, audience 1,000. I’m not going to go to seven agencies and tell my story seven times. I want one agency that can give me all the key insights.”

Mike Lescarbeau, CEO of Carmichael Lynch, kicked off the event by showing a Volkswagen TV spot that raised some eyebrows when it ran during this year’s Super Bowl.

In it, an office worker from Minnesota puzzles his co-workers by speaking in a Jamaican accent. At the end, the oddity is explained: his new VW Beetle made him happy.

The ad was criticized as racist by some when it ran, although many others enjoyed it, including Jamaica’s minister of tourism and entertainment. Lescarbeau tried to spark a discussion of the ad, but few in the crowd were willing to speak up. There are some hot potatoes that people still aren’t willing to pick up.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 04/29/2013 - 01:14 pm.


    Look at the boardrooms of the majority of MN companies and you will find few women and even fewer minorities. Want change, it has to come from the top.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/29/2013 - 06:55 pm.

      Very true

      Of course, it’s not just about wanting diversity or even ordering it from the top. Diversity requires effective recruitment (which is made more difficult, believe it or not, by MN’s reputation for being next to Antarctica) and effective retention. Retention is a bit of a chicken and egg situation because it’s difficult to be the token [fill in the ethnic, racial, etc. group] in a group full of people who haven’t ever had to learn how to behave in a diverse group. No matter how well intentioned, sometimes people end up making others feel uncomfortable because they are awkward around people who are different than they are. Another issue is culture–and I don’t mean a specific ethnic culture. I mean that providing a culture in which people are rewarded on merit and providing a culture in which those with families can thrive is almost essential. The type of changes required to make the work environment attractive and friendly to diversity can be difficult for larger companies, especially those with low turnover.

  2. Submitted by Timothy Santiago on 04/30/2013 - 11:45 am.

    As bit of an aside (Re: VW Ad)

    I really enjoyed the VW Super Bowl ad, but knew immediately that some woudl consider it racist. No matter what, “some” will always consider racial humor racist (there’s a difference). I see little difference between this and an ad where everyone who eats Grey Poupon taking up a sophisticated British accent. VW makes people happy… who best typifies happy people? Jamaicans. This is a compliment, not an insult! I don’t see the ‘hot potato’ in this.

    If this type of over-the-top caution is what permeates workplace cultures seeking diversification, then they’re trying too hard (or not trying hard enough?). I’m picturing Michael Scott in “The Office”. I value a workplace that has diversity of experiences, be they work, cultural, ethnic, or personal experiences. If an organization hires based solely on academic or impersonal professional achievements, then they are not being comprehensive enough in their vetting process. IMO, innovation and creativity are sparked by bringing diverse people togerther to exchange their unique experiences.

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