Can Equality & Inclusion be a Force for Growth?

Here’s to a more inclusive brand building future that is a Force of Growth and a Force for Good. We owe it to the next generation.

The following post was written and contributed by Pankaj Bhalla, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Grooming, based on his presentation last week at the @LEADNetworkEurope conference in Paris.

Does a more authentic and consistent equality and inclusion effort drive higher brand equity, sales and share growth that’s quantitatively measurable over time? Many agree that E&I (also referred to as DEI, D&I or ED&I) is a Force for Good. But is it also a Force for Growth?

Is this good for business?

Equality and Inclusion has always been personal for me. The first time I was confronted with this topic and understood how impactful it could be on someone’s life was as a student growing up in India. One of my dearest friends was gay, in a country where being gay was forbidden by law. He didn’t tell me for years. His reticence was not a reflection of the quality of our friendship, but because of his fear that any acknowledgment (even to his parents) might spell trouble later. He could go to jail. For many years (and to some extent, even now), he was not able live as the person he truly was. His constant fear, discomfort and sadness has stayed with me.

I also witnessed bias watching how my mother was treated vis-à-vis my father. Opportunities were fewer, taunts were louder, qualification mattered less, and the world seemed like less of a meritocracy. These childhood years shaped me; they made me who I am now. Today, I am in a position to steer the future of billion-dollar brands — such as Gillette, Venus and Braun — across Europe, and with that comes a responsibility.

The images we broadcast from these brands have an impact. On average, your brain processes several million images a day. According to a MIT study published in 2014, your brain has the ability to process an image (for retention) even if it only flashes across for 13 milliseconds. Over time, reinforcement of certain images changes our understanding of what that image means to us. It can change our beliefs and values. It can change how we see ourselves. It can change how we see the world around us.

Our consumer-products industry (like the food & beverage industry) is visually intensive. In a slow week, we generate 10 billion images. We show images that seep into your consciousness, inform perception and become available for decision making or processing when necessary or convenient.

Yes, we sell everyday products. But the way we sell them does, in some small ways, impact how you see the world. It may be small, gradual and subtle. But it is real.

No, we don’t control your mind (thankfully) and we are far from the only factor that changes your perception of the world (news, anyone) but we have a role to play. This role can be to reinforce a hackneyed stereotype or to introduce a more equal and inclusive visualization of the world, to the world.

As brand builders, we must recognize our responsibility to represent the community we strive to serve, knowing that brands have the power to shape how people see the world and, ultimately, how we evolve as a society.

Now, let me go one step further than just media imagery.

What we in the corporate world create — product, policy, workplace culture, executive leadership make-up — has the power to spark conversation and change perceptions, tackling bias and promoting gender and intersectional equality.

In fact, I argue that what we create should challenge stereotypes. It should broaden ideas and images of what we define as “ideal.”

We work our advertising campaigns with women's talents

What, how and with whom we create should also reflect the many facets of our world and set new norms.

I want to share an example of our journey at P&G within the Grooming world with a brand you may be familiar with — Venus.

Venus was launched in 2001 with an advert featuring the so-called 'perfect' female image (as we saw the world in the early 2000s). The ad shows a tall, slender, white model in a white bikini, with other models on a white beach. This advert worked for years. Business boomed.

But our consciousness of the world around us has changed. As years passed, it became apparent that Venus’s image of the “Venus Woman” was outdated. As a young consumer once commented on the Venus ads of the 2000s, “boring at best, insulting at worst.”

Our own employees (and our own employees' daughters) described our communication as “wallpaper.” Women didn’t identify with our imagery. This disconnect was particularly profound with younger women, who clearly rejected the 'perfect' Venus goddess image of the past.

The feedback was clear. It was time for Venus to renew itself. Time to change.

So, we evolved the Venus brand. Not by trying to be woke, but simply by migrating our promise from “battling hair” to “loving skin” — no matter whose skin we refer to.

We learned that our future growth lay in the effort to empower all women to feel comfortable in their own skin. We learned to celebrate all women, all skin types, all conditions and all expressions. We learned to celebrate tattoos, piercings, scars, stretch marks and any expression of individuality. We learned to recognize cellulite. We learned that skin conditions are not a taboo or a source of shame, but rather a part of someone’s uniqueness. We learned that grooming is just one symbol of self-expression which cannot be universally defined with a single gold-standard.

Venus’ “My Skin, My Way” campaign was born. Now in its fourth year, the campaign is made by women, with women and for women — in front of and behind the camera. With this campaign, we are fulfilling the following promises:

  1. 100% of our Venus ads are made with a female production team
  2. 50% of our ads are created by women of colour.

This is done in the spirit of promoting accurate representation of all women. Choosing women as production directors has made an enormous difference. We're telling real women's stories through their eyes. It reveals new insights, new challenges and tensions and a new creative tone.

Beyond the values or worthiness of such efforts, it is also sound business strategy. It reflects a deeper understanding of our consumer and how our brand can connect with them on an emotional and transactional level. It’s about being relevant and meaningful:

  • 88% of consumers mention authenticity as a key factor when purchasing products.
  • 90% say they have a more favourable view of brands that support social causes.
  • Half of people say they make purchase decisions based on shared beliefs with the brand.

Since launching the “My Skin, My Way” campaign, all business measures on the Venus brand have reached a record high — volume sales, revenue sales, category growth, share of market and brand equity. This has been true for 3 consecutive fiscal periods. And the trajectory looks even brighter.

Equality & Inclusion as a vector of brand management is a business driver. According to this McKinsey study, companies that place a heavy focus on DEI efforts outperform their competitive peer set by 36% — on the high bar of — profitability.

In the end, a brand’s voice and actions matter. This is a story of one brand on one continent. Imagine what this could look like at scale.

Here’s to a more inclusive brand building future that is a Force of Growth and a Force for Good. We owe it to the next generation.

And, personally, I owe it to my mother and to a dear childhood friend.

-Pankaj Bhalla
Senior Vice President & General Manager, Grooming, Europe.