What Does DE&I Really Mean?


Time for change.

The spring of 2020 marked a turning point in the discourse on social justice. Provoked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black American by a Minneapolis police officer, the social justice movement in the United States reinvigorated to a level not seen since the 1960s. The movement quickly spread worldwide, significantly impacting established institutions and social norms. The BLM movement came to represent the importance of every life, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or ability level. Americans and citizens of nations around the world again raised their voices in demanding not just freedom from state-sponsored violence, but respect and equal treatment of all institutions they engage with, including brands. As the social discourse continues, consumers are pursuing brands that are authentic in their efforts to be more inclusive, diverse, and equitable.

What a brand represents in the hearts and minds of consumers is a key factor in purchase decisions. In a recent CARAVAN survey, Big Village asked a representative sample of consumers in the U.S. how important it is that a company or brand demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Three-quarters of consumers want the companies they purchase from to demonstrate such commitment. More than 8 of 10 Gen Z and Millennial consumers report that this commitment is very important to their brand choices. And with a majority of Gen Z and Millennial consumers reporting that brands don’t understand them and the ads they see aren’t relevant to them, brands have a lot of work ahead of them. Brands that can effectively demonstrate diversity, equity, and inclusion, and communicate effectively their commitment will get, and likely stay ahead of competitors. The implications of such a commitment to a more diverse and inclusive society isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes good business sense.

However, navigating the spectrum of attitudes around diversity in the United States can be tricky. With the rise in conversations about the meaning of Black Lives Matter, brands that work hard and spend tremendously to convey a particular persona find themselves in a position of having to demonstrate where they stand on a difficult topic, one that could alienate current and future customers. The landscape is complex, and in some cases unknown. Key questions have emerged, such as: How can brands navigate the growing consumer demand for change? And how can brands deliver a more inclusive and equitable experience for a diverse audience? There aren’t any playbooks brands can pull off the shelf to drive their DE&I efforts. Brands, and the agencies that support them, need to write and execute the plays in real time.

To help our clients navigate consumers’ reinvigorated demand for equity, inclusion, and diversity, our team at Big Village, an advertising, technology, and insights company, is embarking on a focused effort to better understand:

  • Where we are as a society 
  • Where consumers want brands to go in the future 
  • Brands’ ability to deliver against consumer needs 
  • What steps brands can take to fill the unmet needs

As a first step, we will be taking a step back to level-set by defining the terms EQUITY, DIVERSITY, and INCLUSION. We will answer questions, such as: How do institutions define these words today? What actions do these words embody? What are consumers’ expectations of authentic DE&I efforts? We believe that language matters, and by defining these terms we can begin to have a meaningful conversation about change.

How Organizations Define DE&I

First, Big Village set out to identify ways diversity, equity, and inclusion have been defined by reputable sources and leaders in their respective industries.  How these terms are defined sets the foundation for how institutions, organizations, and brands implement DE&I initiatives and, to some extent, defines the possible outcomes of these efforts.

Generally, ‘diversity’ is commonly understood as differences among individuals that can relate to age, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation among other traits and characteristics. Appreciating and respecting these differences allows for diverse perspectives.  ‘Equity’ focuses on fair treatment and access for all individuals and working to eliminate barriers.  ‘Inclusion’ can be summarized as creating an environment where people feel respected and valued and all opinions are heard.

However, looking deeper we find that definitions vary, which can be an indicator of how an organization will address the topic and the possible outcomes one can expect to see.  For example, Gallup, a consulting and research firm, defines DE&I in the following way:  “Diversity: The traits and characteristics that make people unique. Equity: Fair treatment, access, and advancement for each person. Inclusion: An environment that makes people feel welcome, respected, and valued.” A succinct, clear definition such as this helps set the stage for further action, though it doesn’t get into specifics on how an individual or group can achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work.

Harvard Human Resources defines diversity similarly though goes further, providing specific characteristics, “The condition of being different or having differences. Differences among people with respect to age, class, ethnicity, gender, health, physical and mental ability, race, sexual orientation, religion, physical size, education level, job and function, personality traits, and other human differences. Some describe organizational diversity as social heterogeneity.”

Harvard HR goes on to further define ‘inclusion’, as “everyone is included, visible, heard and considered” while ‘equity’ is defined as “fair treatment for all while striving to identify and eliminate inequities and barriers.” This more nuanced definition acknowledges that existing inequities should be considered when attempting to create a more equitable environment.

Government agencies such as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development expand upon the traditional definitions of diversity and inclusion:    “In broad terms, diversity is any dimension that can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another. It means respect for and appreciation of differences. But it’s more than this. We all bring with us diverse perspectives, work experiences, lifestyles and cultures.”

“Inclusion is a state of being valued, respected and supported. It’s about focusing on the needs of every individual and ensuring the right conditions are in place for each person to achieve his or her full potential.”

Here the concept of ‘respect’ is introduced and the notion that individuals’ circumstances should be taken into consideration to ensure inclusivity helps to provide some direction on how the agency will approach these topics.

Industries Differ in Defining DE&I

Additionally, we sought to understand differences and similarities in the definition of terms among different industries. DE&I may mean something different in healthcare than it does in tech. Exploring these differences helps consumers and brands better understand the objectives of industries and how they may seek to influence society broadly. For example, in healthcare, The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science defines DE&I in healthcare as:  “Diversity is understanding the background of the workforce and patients being served, including culture, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic status. Also, hiring and retaining a workforce that is representative of the patient population served.  Equity is ensuring healthcare workers have what they need to do their jobs and patients have what they need in and out of treatment settings to effectively benefit from best practices in treatment.   Last, inclusion is giving both workers and patients a voice to help provide/receive high-quality care and encouraging the presence of diverse healthcare staff in the treatment experience of patients.”  This definition focuses on awareness and representativeness, suggesting that the presence of different backgrounds, and aligning the profile of providers to patients are key ingredients to delivering a diverse, inclusive and equitable experience.

This is similar to the tech industry in which, “diversity revolves around bringing unique people and perspectives to an industry that has traditionally been homogenous, binary, and non-inclusive.”  The recognition that an institution has historically not been diverse or inclusive is an important first step to driving change.

In financial services, these terms take on a slightly different meaning as they relate more to fair access to financial resources and support for underrepresented populations. PNC provides the following definitions for diversity, “Diversity: Intentional representation of different minorities or underrepresented populations with considerations of race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status.   By including “intentional” in their definition, PNC takes the step to include more specific actions they can take to help service a diverse population and address institutional inequities.

Reflecting the diverse customer audience through a brands’ employees is a concept that cuts across industries. Companies such as Nike and Target work to build diverse teams while also championing diversity within their communities, customers, and suppliers. Nike specifically says they work to grow a more “inclusive team that reflects the athletes and communities where we live, work and play.”

Across industries and institutions, definitions of the foundational terms ‘diversity’, ‘equity’, and ‘inclusion’ show many similarities, with differences seen more in the level of specificity and direction on how to achieve a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable experience. Looking into consumers’ attitudes on this topic, we see that the specifics matter a great deal among historically marginalized groups.

Consumers Are Looking for More

Big Village asked 1,000 consumers (representative of the U.S. population) what it looks like when a company or brand authentically demonstrates the following terms: equity, inclusivity, and diversity. Questions were open-ended, and respondents were encouraged to be specific. To analyze the data, we leveraged Relative Insight, a text analysis tool that uses Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to identify how different demographic groups define these key terms.

An authentic representation of ‘equity’ among historically marginalized groups is defined as having the same opportunities as majority groups. For example, consumers with disabilities are twice as likely to use the word “same” when describing “equity.” There is also a sense that being authentically equitable includes a strong sense of fairness. LGBTQ+ consumers, for example, are 4 times more likely to use “fair” to describe “equity.” One consumer described equity as, “fair equity for a company would be providing jobs in higher ranking positions explicitly for individuals that come from oppressed groups, such as indigenous people, black and Latinos as well….” The notion that organizations, including brands, have representation within their senior ranks was stronger among traditionally marginalized groups.

Among consumers, “inclusivity” is about how the brand is organized and presented to the world. Majority groups’ focus is more on the outward expression of the brand in advertising. For example, heterosexual consumers are 2 times more likely to mention advertising when describing inclusiveness. Able-bodied consumers are 1.5 times more likely to mention ads, with one consumer sharing, “when a company or a brand is authentically inclusive, it means everyone is welcome to enjoy their resources. It is also a marketing strategy that is so diversified to create a positive brand image to all, young, old, including ethnic groups, from all backgrounds, etc.” This focus on marketing, and marketing strategy, is more prevalent among the majority, and not as big a factor among minority groups.

Minority groups focus more on motivations and outcomes. For example, consumers of color are 3 times more likely to describe authentic inclusivity as “real,” with one consumer going on to say, “a brand is inclusive when they include people from a variety of groups without being asked to. They’re being inclusive because they want to, not because they’re expected to.” Employment opportunities were often mentioned by marginalized groups, with Hispanics 2 times more likely to call out specific ethnicities, with one consumer describing authentic inclusivity as, “(when a company) hires different sectors of ethnic backgrounds and promote products that have ethnic features for all the different cultures in the country.” Minority groups want proof points such as minorities in leadership positions and products geared to different groups.

The Road Ahead

As consumers look for more action and outcomes from brands, brands and the agencies that support them will need to focus on tangible outcomes of DE&I efforts, within both their organizations and their brand expressions. Over the course of the year, Big Village will be examining DE&I from multiple angles, with a focus on brand building, optimizing the customer experience, and audience segmentation and targeting. Big Village’s unique collection of qual, quant, primary and secondary research capabilities will be brought to bear throughout our work, to provide a holistic, contextualized view of the issues facing consumers and the brands that serve them.


Written by David Albert, General Manager, Insights at Big Village



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