You can’t open your LinkedIn without seeing a company expressing its thoughts, regrets, suggestions, and commitments regarding racial equity. While this is encouraging and perhaps long overdue, I’m not convinced that the message has really penetrated, nor that the solutions will get at the heart of the matter.
In fact, many of the commitments sound like they are the same thing over and over again:
- better minority representation on our boards
- better minority representation in our executive ranks
- better training for our employees who MUST be harboring hidden biases and are the ones truly at the root of all our problems.
Of course, I editorialized a bit on that last point, but having been on both the delivery and the receiving end of such training in the corporate world, that is how a lot of the employees will be made to feel.
Meanwhile, the best companies continue to recruit from the best schools, and want their best students who are also “people of color.” Basically, regardless of color, people of means. People who have more in common culturally and philosophically than their skin color or appearance might suggest.
But what about the treasure box you already have in your own back yard? Your own employees that are on the front line of customer service! Several years ago I was the corporate CMO of a major Fortune 500 health benefits company. At the time we had extensive diversity training underway and very active recruitment programs for minority candidates. Many coming from the MBA factories of the Ivy Leagues.
Meanwhile, the toughest job in our company were the people that had to “man” the customer service lines for our health benefits. Not only was it among the toughest jobs it was also among the lowest paid. We had some customer service issues so I decided to conduct some focus groups that got to the motivations of the people that did these jobs.
“See That Man Up There?… We Don’t Listen To Him!”, she giggled.
It should come as no surprise that our US based service centers were staffed with a high degree of minority employees, mostly African-American, and Latino, and many being single mothers. I went into it thinking that they do this job because they have few other options. I was wrong. When asked what motivated them for such a tough (low paying) job the answers were as follows:
- I like helping people
- A lot of people calling us are old people, they’re lonely, they want someone to talk to
- I feel needed here and it is a break from some of the issues I have to deal with at home
That last issue mentioned above was related to life back in a tough urban environment for many of them. I especially got a kick out of them when they pointed to their frowning manager looking down from the balcony at us because he had to account for their time away from the phone. One of the respondents giggled and said, “Do you see that guy up there? That’s our manager. He wants us off the phone within 90 seconds. We just ignore him. Most of the people who call want to talk or they need more than 90 seconds.”
I flew home that evening being blown away by those young ladies. I realized that even though I headed marketing for this company, those young ladies knew more about our customers and our products than me. And for that matter virtually every member of the executive suite and every employee that doesn’t directly touch our customers. I thought, we shouldn’t be training them, they should be training all of us!
Why Do We Value Theory Backed By Case History Convulsions So Much?
Then I thought, why are we spending so much money on recruiting candidates from expensive schools that come to us with theory, backed by case history convulsions, with absolutely no real experience with our products or customers?
So our team recommended that if we were truly serious about dealing with racial equity within our company, we should mentor a percent of the folks that are working the customer service centers into an upward growth path. Oh, and pay them better. Now of course this goes beyond diversity, but given the make up of the people that were in those centers, it certainly would help address diversity.
I thought that recommendation was so obvious that it hurt. That it was something sitting right in front of us waiting to be grabbed. It not only would help address the racial divide but the economic divide as well. But for some strange reason, that recommendation fell on deaf ears. For some reason, it made people uncomfortable in ways that they wouldn’t or couldn’t express. And that reaction was also shared by the folks running the diversity programs. Oh and by the way, I didn’t push hard enough, I gave up way too quick!
Time To Reap What’s In Our Gardens?
So, perhaps as we struggle with the issue of racial equity, we consider programs like that. Perhaps we look within our own operations… in our own gardens. The folks in the service centers. The folks on the warehouse floor. The folks in delivery services. These are the folks that really know the product. They are the ones who really know the customers. These are the folks that really know all the different relationships in the value chain. These are the folks that can help make the company a better company and also help it be a more accurate reflection of society. And it doesn’t have to cost you $100 million. You won’t have to hire an ad agency to express how sorry you are and how you will be different. It will be a way to show that your are committed to true action in an arena that is credible for you – your own back yard.
I don’t mean to be simplistic and make it sound that there are such simple solutions to complex problems. Indeed every idea which sounds simple is full of complexities. But it is a start and it is something that can be done within the frameworks that we ourselves control.
There is nothing to lose here and much to gain.
As pressures mount to reopen the economy and “get back to normal,” now what? Our blueprints for success have been thrown out the window. Many marketers will be faced with decimated budgets that will lock away familiar brand building tools.
Perhaps this provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to spend less time on the “cosmetics” of our brands and instead focus our efforts on improving its “complexion.” Perhaps we have the opportunity to push back on our own C-Suites and re-establish a sensible normal.
What Is Normal Anyway?
But what is it that we as marketers should do, and what is normal anyway? The birds are still chirping, and the fruit trees are blooming so I’m glad to see that some normal continues. As we start to restore order, let’s take a look at what our “normal” has been pre Covid-19:
- For one, an unrealistic “addiction to growth” that has fueled many other “ailments” – face it, it’s like we have 4 Quarters of a never ending football game where there never is a break, an “off season”, or even a half time! Well, there is an off-season now isn’t there?
- Being “on call” 24/7 to quench minor brush fires in far off lands while squeezing another .01% market share out of Paraguay for our corn muffins.
- Putting our families off, missing school pageants, paying others to care for our kids while we pursue the next “Atta-(insert your gender identity).
- Pushing our customers to buy more, eat more, party more, drive more, fly more, cruise more, and waste more, all while we claim social justice for the outrage of the week. Just so we can continue to work more, produce more… you get the drift.
Whether you agree or not, you have to admit that what I described has become way too normal… and that’s not normal!
File Under Your “Better Angels” Tab
I have had the privilege of traveling to many countries and firmly believe, that in spite of our flaws, America provides the best opportunities for innovation and global impact. I can’t think of any other place that has the DNA to look inward and self correct when it needs to. It is in that spirit that I believe we all deserve better. We all deserve to be better. And there is much in our control in each of our respective companies.
We can take this little Corona break we have and figure how we can make our own lives better, the lives of the people we serve better, our companies better, and overall country healthier.
Whether you believe in Divine Intervention, Mother Nature, or plain old Coincidence, this situation is a shot across the bow, at the very least. So, Chief Marketing Officers, many of you’ve been pushing to align your brand with various Social Justice causes. Well, perhaps that big cause landed in your lap.
Maybe now is not the time to worry about the money you don’t have to promote your brand. Perhaps it’s more about the time you spend on your value chain to assure your brand is vital in a swiftly changing landscape.
Below are a few thoughts that came to mind – it’s really about appealing to our better angels:
You Can Do This!
- Health Care Companies – the playing field has been too unequal and we were left woefully unprepared to handle this effectively and efficiently. Solutions here are the toughest to come by for sure, but clearly the most urgent. Hospitals. medical practitioners, insurance companies, and government leaders must work together to establish a system to quickly mobilize and de-mobilize care before and then after a pandemic. This is the biggest issue and requires a lot of passion and dedication. But it must be done otherwise people who know little about healthcare will solve it for you. No one knows better than you the issues, and you have an amazing track record for developing practical solutions to complex problems. We now need one on a massive scale.
- Financial Service Companies – you’ve done an impressive job of building a successful consumer credit model over the past 50 years. But it has come at the expense of savings. Most people are woefully unprepared for an extended rainy day. How can you apply the same dedication and passion for building a credit model to a savings model that consumers will embrace? It’s a lot tougher, but you have the smarts to do it.
- Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) – urban dwellers have helped make you very successful, in particular lower income neighborhoods for certain chains. Data is showing they’ve been hit harder by this disease and much of it due to cuisine and limited access to alternatives. What can you do to bring healthier eating to those neighborhoods that align with various cultural tastes? You have great chefs in your test kitchens that can get this done.
- Technology/Social Media Companies – you have provided the infrastructure to connect us but in the meantime we’ve also become disconnected. Alienated from people that think different, that believe different, and from real news and facts. We’ve built a lot of compassion for our own “tribes” at the expense of empathy for others. What can you do to get us to focus on common values and the common good? You have more geniuses per square foot – you can do this!
- Global Companies – we’re witnessing the perils of outsourcing our value chain to countries that don’t share our values. Global trade will continue. But, what can you do to assure that a common standard of health, safety, and supply access is assured so we are not vulnerable to the weakest links in your supply chain? You have the best negotiators on the planet to get this done!
- Are we more productive working from home?
- Are we more nimble, innovative, and creative at home?
- Do our employees finally get a better work life balance?
- Are we on the road to something sane and sustainable, for ourselves, our customers, our companies, our country?
True Social Justice In A Post-Covid World?
There is so much more to be said and done. Perhaps we can use this as a new era to “right size” Normal. Perhaps this is the opportunity for real change in our way of working and our way of serving. Perhaps we will redefine what true profitability is. Perhaps we will find that this deadly virus helped cure a number of ailments. Perhaps there is nothing new here. Perhaps our role is and always will be to truly serve what is in the best interests of our customers. And by doing so, we truly serve our own best interests. Truly!
Perhaps that is the real Social Justice marketers should embrace. Perhaps! #BeVital
Author Ed Faruolo led marketing and brand development for 3 Fortune 500 companies and runs his own business consultancy, VitaLincs LLC
Most train rides to NYC are pretty non eventful… and the riders pretty much want to keep it that way. Very little eye contact, never mind a “good morning” — even though we are sharing our personal space for between 1-2 hours. Which brings us to this day.
Seated in front of me was a young woman, late 20s/early 30s… carrying her oversized handbag that was half as large as her in one hand… some kind of large iced coffee drink in the other… and her ears safely blocked from the outside world with those trademarked white Apple ear buds.
I didn’t even notice the middle aged gentleman that sat down next to her. He came in with the crowd from Fairfield where the hunt for a seat intensifies to a winner take all battle stance. In fact, I wouldn’t have noticed him if she didn’t turn around with a look of panic on her face about 20 minutes into the trip. I was one of the few that actually had his head buried in a newspaper as opposed to an iPad (which I think protects you from having to share a seat far more than an iPad does).
She caught my eye probably the second or third time as she turned around and was trying to mouth something to me… it was almost like she didn’t want to break some kind of Quiet Car Train Code. But then it registered… “he is having a seizure!”
The young lady with the iced coffee and the big bag and ear buds didn’t realize she was getting a call today.
And that call was from someone right next to her, a neighbor who was actually foreign to her… and needed her help in a big big way.
I got up and thought the gentleman had already passed on… he was very pale, his eyes were open but little sign of consciousness. A conductor was near by, I got his attention and told him about the seizure. He called for help and the train proceeded to Stamford where it stopped for Rescue to board and attend to the sick man. That distance seemed to be an eternity. During that time, the man regained consciousness and wanted to know what we wanted of him. He acted like he was just sleeping and I started wondering if that is really what had happened. “Thank you for your concern but I am fine.”
The Rescue personnel had the train stopped for about 10 minutes or so…
It was weird… some people in nearby seats were either sleeping or had their heads buried in their iPads… like this wasn’t even happening. At least no one complained about the train delay.
The man was polite, soft spoken but firm in not wanting any help. He said, “I just passed out for a couple of minutes, it’s nothing!” I really started thinking we made a big blunder and were totally embarrassing this poor soul until one of the Rescue workers asked, “has this happened before?” To that he said, “3 times in the past 2 months.” Rescue finally convinced him to get off the train and at least sign some paperwork. When he realized that he was holding things up and folks were starting to look up from their iPads, he agreed to get off.
I don’t know what happened next, whether he continued to refuse help but I do know this much. If he was sitting next to me I might not have noticed there was a problem. The young lady did tell me that he started shaking and is eyes were rolling into his head. Sitting behind him I could detect no such activity. I might have thought he was asleep… I might have left him there… He could have been having an embolism, or a stroke, or a heart attack. But the young lady next to him did notice…
And as soft spoken as she was, she spoke up.
If she wasn’t there, we might have walked by, figuring he’s still sleeping as lots of the long haul commuters do.
It doesn’t sound like much does it? Someone needs help and you get if for them? Thankfully, this young lady had the good sense to notice. To realize there was something wrong… and to act. When something is obviously catastrophic, your attention is riveted and your better instincts and adrenalin kicks in. But this was subtle, quiet, camouflaged. How easy it is to overlook the quiet cry for help. But she heard it…. right through her ear buds!
I spoke to her before she got off the train… and thanked her for paying attention. She was shaking and crying a little. I told her she might have saved his life. She said, “I don’t think it was that drastic!” I said, “who knows, maybe you stopped him from getting in a car later in the day, and hurting someone else.” I guess you never know when you’re going to get called for an opportunity to make a real difference.
I wondered what happened to that gentleman. The other day I was in NYC again and as I was getting off the train I noticed him walking on the platform… so I guess things turned out all-right.
But this young lady, whoever she was, knows what it is to #BeVital.
Let’s Give Them Something (Good) To Talk About!
A few short years ago while heading marketing for one of the top global health benefits providers, I had just come out of a meeting with the CEO and immediately called my own staff to provide all the answers to several burning issues. At the end of that meeting my head of research, MY HEAD OF RESEARCH… stood up and said, “I’m going outside to have a cigarette and find out what is really going on!”