Lessons from trying to build the world's most inclusive brand from scratch

The founder of >we, a new app designed to help people build meaningful connections, shares his lessons from trying to build the world's most inclusive company.

Disruption and innovation are no longer the advertising world’s favourite words beginning with D&I. It’s now all about diversity and inclusion. It’s suddenly ‘become cool’ to make a modern day United Colours of Bennetton ad again. But that’s the problem right there. Without diverse teams behind the creative and production, diversity has been weaponised by the world of advertising for commercial gain. And it’s backfiring.

We’ve seen slip ups by Tesco, Dove, BooHoo.com and Pepsi to name but a few - where they’ve been distracted by the aesthetic of diversity for a short term campaign, instead of focussing on building a truly inclusive, long lasting brand. Brand is no longer about your celebrity endorsements and witty straplines. Brand is about having clear and strong values, and operating with authenticity and integrity in alignment with those values. People have a low tolerance and high sensitivity to brand bullshit. If what you’re doing isn’t genuine, and is all just lip service, people won’t just know it, but they’ll be vocal as hell about it too.

For our young company, >we (pronounced More Than We), not only do we hope to help young professionals build more meaningful relationships in their lives and careers, but most important of all, we want this company to be a representation of what it means to be inclusive from day dot. We want to ensure everyone feels valued, respected, considered and equal - whether in our communications, our products or even the fundamentals of our company.

This week we launched a film for our rebrand, and it is a shining example of how regardless of all the awareness and passion in the world, our working mentality, rhythm and biases can lead us to be anything but inclusive. I’m so immensely proud of what we’ve created. I’m proud of the team that worked crazy hours and gave it their all to make something that shares our vision with the world. That said, I know it could have been better.

I wanted to share my reflections and a couple of key lessons learned with the industry - not just because I believe it is valuable knowledge to disseminate, but to also hold myself and my company accountable for improvement and growth from here on in.

Lesson One: Focus on outcomes and feelings, over tactics and aesthetics

I’ve come to learn of the importance of representation in the media for marginalised people over the past few years. I recognise that this film is not fully representative of the broader community I want to build for and serve, and their absence doesn’t sit well with our vision and mission.

I ended up having a drawn out dialogue with Hanna Naima McCloskey (founder of Fearless Futures) in the days after the shoot, as I wrestled with the complex tension between ‘a diverse cast’ and ‘an inclusive piece of communication’. One thing that didn’t sit well with either of us, is what felt like my pushing for tokenism, rather than a meaningful inclusion of these people into the film.

This is the classic ‘tick-box’ mentality that most people experience when they focus on the tactic of diversity, and not the outcome or impact of inclusion. Failing to consider them at an earlier stage meant that they weren’t getting the same treatment and consideration as say women of colour, who I made a conscious choice many weeks before to ensure they were not only represented, but shown as strong, respected and talented, as they are.  

I spent significant time mulling over what we could cut or kill from the budget to afford another half day shoot. I’d decided to invest our entire marketing budget into this film, in the knowledge it would create much of our content for the coming months and would be utilised across every possible platform. But I came to the realisation that I was trying to buy away my guilt, and hide the reality of what had actually occurred. That didn’t sit well with me, and it certainly didn’t feel authentic.

Lesson Two: Education of team is paramount in the absence of understanding

I was lucky enough to meet the director for the film, a chap called Michael Garsin, via a mutual friend of ours hip hop artist Clement Marfo. Michael was the only director I met with, and I do not regret for a moment deciding to work with him. But I didn’t give anyone else a shot at forming that same relationship with me. The inherent trust that was created as a result of a recommendation was enough for me in that moment to move onto the next objective.

I had a chat with Michael in the few weeks leading up to the shoot, and asked him to be considerate of the production team that he built and potentially giving some new folks an opportunity to be part of the shoot. But understandably, he reinforced the need of compiling a team of people he trusts to get the job done and within my budget.

In the end, over the course of a three-day shoot, this nine-person team was composed of seven men and two women, all of whom were white. I made huge assumptions about Michael’s flexibility and network, and that my polite request would be but a formality. Maybe I could have been firmer with Michael. Maybe I could have found a collaborator who wasn’t a white middle class man just like me. What I do know is education of others takes time and investment that I just didn’t factor into the process. Just because I’m on a journey to become an inclusive founder doesn’t mean everyone else is in the same headspace too.

#OurFutureWillWork

"Nothing about us, without us"

This film is a representation of the company’s reality right now. It was my mentality and network that was brought to life by this film, and it showed the holes and inadequacies. Although this does not undermine my passion or vision for the company, it illustrates where we and many other companies are today.

Instead of attempting to spin the film, or maybe shoe horn in some folks in a mini-shoot, I made the commitment to be open and honest about the process, share the key lessons, and to be clear about my desire to radically improve and grow as the company moves forward. We want, can and will do more to ensure we build a company, brand and products that place everyone’s needs and dreams front and centre.

If you have feedback in whatever form, you can email me directly at carl@morethanwe.co. I’d welcome it and learning opportunity.

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