Dove, Diversity and Dollars: Why Workplace Diversity Matters

10/09/2017 02:06 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2017

“You’re pretty for a black girl.” For those who may not be aware, that statement is not a compliment. Never has and never will be. Yet in 2017, I heard it being directed at a young black girl, who appeared as amazed as I was upon hearing it. The individual speaking those cringe-causing words did so with a smile, apparently oblivious to her ignorant and insensitive statement. That is, until I readily educated her. Since that day, this t-shirt and its message has become one of my favorite.

LIFEBYTEESIGN.COM

The beauty industry has been notorious for “missing the mark” when it comes to the definition of beauty. Having been told repeatedly throughout my life that it is in the eyes of the beholder, I often wondered if one day those eyes would belong to anyone who understood that my black is indeed beautiful, too.

This past weekend Dove apologized for a social media post that the company says "missed the mark" representing black women.” "We apologize deeply and sincerely for the offense that it has caused and do not condone any activity or imagery that insults any audience," the company said in a statement Sunday.

The offending ad, a 3-second GIF promoting Dove body wash, was posted last Friday to the brand's Facebook page. After the tremendous social media backlash, within 24 hours it was taken down. The GIF leads off with the line, "Ready for a Dove Shower?" Following this introduction, is a looping image of a Black woman removing a cocoa-brown colored t-shirt to reveal a white woman. The Caucasian woman then removes her beige t-shirt to show what appears to be a Latina woman.

Myself and many others, upon seeing the ad were left wondering exactly what is the message that Dove is trying to convey? What are they telling little black girls who are seeing this? Coincidently, I served as a facilitator at a self-esteem workshop this year in Orlando, hosted by Dove for little black girls. Needless to say I was extremely baffled by this new messaging. Other Dove campaigns such as, "My Beauty My Say," "Real Beauty," and "#BeautyBias" have received accolades for their depictions of diversity and promotion of self-confidence.

Having selected Shonda Rhimes to be a voice for the Real Beauty campaign was seen as nothing short of brilliance. However, Dove’s messaging has and continues to be inconsistent and conflicting. In 2011, an ad for a line of Dove body washes was accused of racism, for lining up three women from lightest to darkest skin tone. They women appeared below the words "before" and "after," which were meant to indicate skin dryness. There is a long history of soap companies marketing to people of color, often portraying black people as being dirty and unattractive. Unilever, which owns the Dove brand, markets Fair and Lovely, Pond's White Beauty and the Vaseline and Dove whitening ranges, all globally promoted bleaching products. All while promoting the concept of real beauty here in the U.S. Shortly after posting their most recent ad, to no surprise, social media was bombarded with messages of criticism and disbelief:

@PreservedSoul What are the employees of #Dove smoking? 7 Oct 2017

Since the original posting, there have been calls to #BoycottDove.

From a business perspective, this is an unwanted distraction and indeed problematic for the brand on many levels - two in particular sound an alarm for me:

1. One would be hard-pressed to believe that there were any focus groups involved in the decision to run with this GIF and/or include POC (People of Color) involved in the creative process. A brand of this magnitude should include perceptions from all races, nationalities and where appropriate, genders as well. If there were any women of color involved, were their views heard? My gut tells me that if there was one, she is somewhere in solace, shaking her head saying, "I tried to tell them this wasn’t a good idea!" For the record, being the only black woman in the room when certain decisions have to be made is no easy feat. I know, from personal experience. Not everyone is ready or comfortable enough to make a stand and some are just tired of having to take the lead, risking the stereotypical “angry/ difficult black woman” label being applied.

2. While the GIF by itself was troubling, they should never have released it to the public without some form of message (written or spoken) to go along with the imagery. Without this critical component, the interpretation of the message is left up to the viewer. We all see how that’s working out for them. Branding 101: Never assume that your consumer will comprehend your intended message and never allow anyone else to tell your story.

In a world that is becoming increasingly more diverse each day, it behooves corporations to incorporate a solid and genuine commitment to diverse work forces into their strategic plans. As is the case in most large organizations, the pace is quick and decisions are being made rapidly. Things are going to slip through the cracks, no doubt. However, when you are marketing heavily to consumers, it is imperative that you have individuals who are on your team who are capable of making decisions from diverse perspectives. More importantly, don’t just welcome them in the room, give them a seat at the table and a voice as well.

These much-needed staffing decisions shouldn’t be made simply for the sole purpose of a particular campaign or project, either. Talented, diverse representation across the board on an ongoing base is not just good business, but it's the right thing to do.

I, like many others, will be watching to see how Dove handles this matter. Not only should Dove have women of color on hand to help them rectify this problem, (by the way the burden to ”fix it” should not rest on the shoulders of a team of Black women) Dove executives should be taking a stance to educate their entire employee population, men and women, on the topic of insensitivity in marketing.

It is no secret that there are many organizations that are void in diversity. Diversity in all areas, not just race and gender.

One would hope that this debacle would be a wake up call for other brands to work proactively to change the narrative. For change to occur in the boardroom, there needs to be more action taken in areas involving talent acquisition and career advancement initiatives. This is more than a matter of simply making an insertion of well-written verbiage in a corporate mission statement.

Without change, the repeat of incidents like this regrettably will be ongoing and after a while, apologies begin to fall on deaf ears.

Today, it’s Dove that got it wrong. I wonder who will be next on the hot seat.

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