When black and brown is not enough

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Pepsi's epic failure is emblematic of the problems of a monocultural workplace, writes the founder and CEO of Reframe The Brand.

PepsiCo has a long history that demonstrates the company's commitment to diversity and inclusion efforts. Most recently, the company won the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Award. The Kendall Jenner spot, however, was both a failure of epic proportions and completely avoidable. That's been reviewed ad nauseum. The larger question is how did this event happen? And how did it happen to a brand like Pepsi with a legacy of getting commercial advertising right?

It's simple. Women have become the new black.

Women are the new sought after target. Supporting feminism is the new message to be aligned with. As women move on up so too does corporate spending and marketing attention.

My hypothesis is that Pepsi thought that swapping a gender issue (demonstrated in Kendall dropping her artificial look) for a black one (the Black Lives Matter movement) was OK. Women? Blacks? They're all underserved right?

The real issue isn't Pepsi. It's that it's actually easy to see how they came to that conclusion. When you dissect it, Pepsi was again very much operating in "the marketing norm."

So how did we get here? Over the past 30 years, we've put a lot of great minds and effort towards getting it right. The major shift birthed from the economic results of trade agreements with foreign governments in the 1980's led to a boom in titles like chief diversity and inclusion officers with various reporting structures for most Fortune 500 companies. This sounds like a great thing, but there was one major oversight. Even though the workplace population was shifting and growing a multicultural candidate pool, diverse candidates were entering a monocultural workplace.

What's a monocultural workplace? It is a business environment dominated by a singular culture. Which means that even if the faces of the organization have become more diverse, its practices and culture stay largely the same. Individuals are encouraged to participate but when push comes to shove, everyone is expected to fall into single file. That singularity is the mono of the monocultural workplace.

Last month, the findings of our "State of the Total Market Industry Vertical Report" revealed big brands and agencies within the workplace are two generations culturally removed from the marketplace.This means marketing practices are still very much a product of the 1960s as well as the workplace. Back then, the sought-after target was the upwardly mobile blacks, 20 years later the growing Hispanic population, and so on. Today the minority du jour is women. The mission is feminism and thus we see a lot of "separate but equal" budgets once reserved for people of color directed at women, primarily white women. This should be a good thing, but in reality, it's not because the real underlying issue remains.

Black or female in 2017, we now have specialized hiring practices and specialized practitioners. But those "specialized practitioners" wind up isolated, underfunded, and misunderstood. They are viewed as necessities and so they exist, but the hands of the specialized practitioners are often cuffed by the monocultural operations of the place where they work. This means the employees of these groups wind up short when it comes to the tools and resources they really need to understand the new marketplace. Again, Pepsi is not immune.

I believe the team at Pepsi produced this commercial with the best of intentions with targeting, however, they simply lacked the cultural insights needed to get it right.

According to industry sources, PepsiCo shifted away from the idea of cultural fluency structural support, education and tools when Javier Farfan left PepsiCo in 2014. They did not see the immediate volumetric gains and dismantled their cultural fluency group. In doing so, they also lost key senior leaders who had their pulse on culture and the idea of developing a culturally-maturing organization from the inside-out diminished. They lost their insights and soon after the Pepsi marketing team too became a victim of the lens of their own monocultural workplace. They tried, and I believe tried hard, to get it right. But they didn't have the leadership for what they needed to succeed.

The result? The internet is calling for the removal of Kendall Jenner's head. We are looking for a responsible party, someone to blame. Pepsi is faceless; Kendall is not. But the real guilty party is our own workplace. Everyone needs to ask, is the company we work for diverse but monocultural?

If you're not sure, you're not alone. From Hollywood to Silicon Valley to Wall Street, every practitioner within the talent and diversity space is asking, "How do we avoid being Pepsi?"

There has to be a major rethink and disruptive ideation to modernizing brands and agencies from the inside-out. There's a lot of work to be done.

—Jeffrey L. Bowman is an author, founder and CEO of Reframe The Brand.