Pepsi released an ad this week with the goal of projecting a message of unity. The company succeeded--but only in uniting the ire of the internet against it.

The ad, which showcased Kendall Jenner alongside a number of diverse faces, was completely tone deaf, as it made light of many complex issues. See the ad here.

Initially, Pepsi defended itself:

This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that's an important message to convey.

After unrelenting backlash, Pepsi pulled the spot and issued an apology a day later:

Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout.

The whole chain of events was just another addition to the mounting evidence that many companies continue to struggle with diversity.

Why most companies get diversity wrong

Diversity isn't about putting a bunch of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions in a room together. And complex problems and injustices that induce massive protests cannot be solved with a simple Pepsi.

Diversity, particularly in business, is about belonging.

In The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth, Chris Brogan explained what creating that sense of belonging feels like to those on the receiving end of it:

"Belonging" is about finding that place where you finally let out a deep breath you had no idea you were holding and feeling with great certainty that the people around you understand you.

You can't make people feel like they belong if you don't have an appreciation for their struggles, experiences, or point of view. If you've never taken the time to walk in your customers' shoes, it will be difficult for you to create products, services, and advertisements that make them feel like you "get" them.

Pepsi didn't have enough folks in the room who understood the people it was trying to reach.

This is why diversity of thought and experiences are critical to any business working to create an environment that earns customer loyalty.

How diversity could have changed the Pepsi situation

I have a number of Facebook friends who are new parents. One day, one of them was ranting about the lack of baby-changing stations in men's restrooms at numerous establishments.

As she made her argument, a lightbulb came on for me. Men have babies. And men change diapers. There should absolutely be baby-changing stations in their restrooms.

But prior to seeing her post, I had zero awareness about this issue. And if I had been tasked with the job of designing a men's restroom, I likely would have missed including this important feature.

Why? Because I'm not a parent, I don't use the men's restroom, and I've never attempted to change a baby in a public restroom.

My frame of reference was completely limited by my point of view. That's why listening to someone's experience that was different from mine was helpful. It opened my eyes. That is diversity in action.

The Pepsi ad situation could have gone differently had the company had a more sound understanding of what diversity meant and what that actually looks like in practice. Here are two ways to help you avoid repeating Pepsi's mistakes.

1. Build a team diverse in thought, background, and experiences

A commitment to diversity isn't just about hiring people who look different from you. It is about valuing and at times seeking out differing points of view, for the purpose of making your ideas stronger.

Had Pepsi known the true objective of diversity, somebody would have spoken up that the concept for this ad missed the mark. And equally as important, in the process of speaking up, that person's voice would have been heard.

That's why your employees need to feel like they belong. When they do, they feel more comfortable expressing a dissenting point of view.

2. Talk to your customers consistently

Your business is about serving your customers. And your customers are the ones who determine how well what you create for them performs.

So have as much contact with them as you can. Make sure your team spends time getting to know your customers deeply. Peel back the layers to understand their plight at its core, rather than just at a superficial level. Let your customers help you broaden your frame of reference.

This can be accomplished through formal market research, observation, and via regular conversations with the people who use your products. Had Pepsi tested its ad with customers prior to releasing it, it would have learned that it didn't resonate well.

Make it your mission to create a sense of belonging for both your team and your customers.

Published on: Apr 7, 2017