More than ever, business leaders are coming to appreciate the importance of taking a stand on important social issues. On the other hand, “woke” branding also runs the risk of alienating consumers — especially when it comes across as inauthentic or opportunistic. But entrepreneurs can broaden their reach and deepen their social impact by weaving their values into the core of their businesses — that is, according to disability advocate, author and DEI (diversity, inclusion and equity) consultant Alison Tedford. What’s more, by being genuine and proactive, these entrepreneurs can avoid the trappings of scandal and “cancel culture.”
Tedford previously spent ten years working in government on policy solutions surrounding inclusion and has since transferred her skills to the private sector, where she helps small business owners incorporate their own values into their brands. With her new book launched in April — Stay Woke, Not Broke — Tedford aims to create a learning environment where “It’s not about guilt, it’s about growth.”
This means breaking things down to the bare bones and making sure that every aspect of a business measures up with the values that an entrepreneur hopes to integrate. In practice, that involves looking at everything from how services are delivered to whether price points are accessible in order to be more inclusive.
There are potentially uncomfortable questions that need to be asked during this process, such as: “How do you work with diverse groups? How do you serve them? How do you adjust?” These questions give entrepreneurs an opportunity to reflect on why their message might not be landing and reconsider their language. After all, for branding based on values to be effective, it has to be authentic, even transformative.
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“It isn’t about repackaging anything,” says Tedford. “It’s about honoring what exists and presenting opportunities for growth.” Growth is a resounding theme in her work — through which she aims to provide a framework that helps businesses avoid potential scandals.
So, what advice does she have for businesses that may have slipped up and fear the wrath of cancel culture? First, take responsibility and issue a clear apology centered on those who were hurt, not on one’s own feelings. Careless apologies do run the risk of worsening consumer backlash, and while a multinational corporation might not face dire consequences, small businesses have more to lose from blame-shifting, excuses and other apologies that really aren’t. Second, identify what went wrong and how the business will do better going forward. Be transparent about what steps will be taken. Consult with people who can give inside insight into a particular group or community and how it is affected by the scandal. Tedford encourages entrepreneurs to compensate those who offer their time and insight — “Don’t expect people to teach you for free.”
Sometimes, a business can summon cancel culture just by how it responds to a scandal or issue in the larger culture — as Pepsi demonstrated several years ago with its ad featuring Kendall Jenner. The beverage giant would have been better off staying out of the issue altogether than risking such heartless messaging. For small businesses, taking a stand can feel like a big risk regardless of how well-crafted the message is. Tedford advises her clients to focus on what is important to them and what they specifically want clients or employees to be aware of so that everyone is on the same page. She encourages brands to take a stand if the issue is in their geographic area or if their services will be impacted. “Otherwise,” she says, “pass the mic. There’s no need to rush into every fire.”
Tedford wants small business owners to know that just because their company is not Apple or Google that it doesn’t mean that it's too soon to start taking DEI seriously in their organization. Even sole proprietorships can benefit from choosing to integrate their values from the bottom up, just as consumers further commit to purchasing according to their own principles. A commitment to DEI is a commitment to growth.
In the next article of this two-part series, Tedford shares how to create a culture of inclusion by applying DEI to hospitality.
Image credit: Humphrey Muleba via Unsplash
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.