Moving the Needle on DE&I through Emotion and Storytelling

Ty Heath, Director, Market Engagement – The B2B Institute at LinkedIn joins us for a conversation about DEI progress

System1’s Feeling Seen USA is an instructional guide for developing ads that excel in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) as well as creative effectiveness. Designed for both brands and advertising agencies, the report includes insights based on our own ad testing research as well as industry experts from leading organizations.

We recently spoke with Ty Heath, one of the guide’s contributors and Director of Market Engagement for The B2B Institute at LinkedIn, a think tank that researches the impact of B2B brand building on marketing, product, sales, corporate communications and talent development. She has been instrumental in bringing The B2B Institute’s award-winning Equity Every Day research to marketers around the world. Heath is also Co-Founder of TransformHer, the premier conference for professional women of color and allies in technology.

What was the driver behind The B2B Institute’s Equity Every Day research? What was the most surprising finding?

Ty Heath –

We can learn a great deal and make progress by looking across other disciplines for solutions. For instance, the world of finance informs our approach to marketing insights at the B2B Institute in wonderful ways. Our Equity Every Day research was born because we saw an opportunity to apply solutions from our beloved marketing discipline as well as organizational behavior and behavioral science to help make progress on diversity, equity and inclusion. We sought to understand the reasons behind slow and underwhelming DE&I progress with the help of research fellow Dr. Jamillah Bowman Williams. If diversity is good for business, why aren’t people buying? What are the root causes of inaction?

Bowman Williams found a phenomenon called the “knowledge-action gap” to be true in her research. The knowledge-action gap highlights a gap between people’s stated and real preferences, and shows there may be a breakdown in communication in how the case for DEI is being made. According to the study, 80% of participants indicated diversity is an important goal in organizations. Yet only 38% of respondents actually took action to promote a promising Black candidate to a leadership position.

The counterintuitive thing is that focusing on the business or transactional case for DEI can actually work against action. While the business case for DEI is still both popular and compelling, research by Bowman Williams reveals that it may be more rhetoric than action, and may actually increase bias. For instance, even when people say they believe diversity is good for business, it doesn’t always lead them to take tangible steps. For others, it just doesn’t resonate, despite the perceived rational appeal.

How does Feeling Seen USA complement the work you’ve done with Equity Every Day?

Ty Heath –

The key takeaway from these research findings is that we need to move from transactional messaging to transformational messaging that inspires moral beliefs. This is more likely to motivate people to act in ways consistent with these beliefs, which advances equity in real ways. The transformational case embraces storytelling in a way that generates empathy and perspective-taking, which in turn motivates action. It invests in a culture of shared values that makes space for all talent to belong, grow and thrive. Not because it will lead to business gains, but because it is the right thing to do. To inspire real change and reduce the presence of the knowledge-action gap, messaging should be people and culture-centered, not profit-centered.

Transformational messaging has a higher likelihood of striking moral chords and sparking emotion. For instance, human-centered goals like “treat people fairly” and “celebrate diversity” are more likely to resonate and drive action than phrases that rely on logic and reason, like “diversity helps with the bottom line” and offers “improved ability to serve clients.”

Emotion and storytelling are also central to successful inclusive ads, as noted in System1’s Feeling Seen USA report. Ads that tell stories that make people feel happy or surprised are more memorable and more likely to drive business results. And great storytelling not only makes an impact on the under-represented groups being featured, but also the general public. People like diverse ads, so more brands should be bringing these stories to the forefront. Everybody wants to see themselves reflected. There is something human about seeing yourself, your lived experiences and your culture acknowledged.

Many people don’t think advertising influences them, so why is prioritizing inclusive storytelling such a necessity?

Ty Heath –

While it’s true that ads typically have short durations, we are exposed to many messages from brands each day across television, social media and out-of-home activations. We may not realize it, but advertising does shape our feelings and actions (or even inaction) over time. When a story is disproportionately reflected everywhere, it confers advantages to the group that is always the focal point in the story, reinforcing the status quo.

We must bring systemically excluded people into the light. And inclusion goes beyond simply featuring under-represented groups in advertising. While that’s an important first step in making advertising more reflective of the diversity of our society, it’s important that diverse experiences are authentically showcased so that we celebrate cultural nuances and break down misconceptions and biases. As brand stewards, we must get better at telling inclusive, authentic stories with our marketing. Storytelling is the medium we need to leverage in order to bring people together and have specific groups feel seen. The importance of brand storytelling should not be underestimated here.

Which of LinkedIn’s advertisements is your favorite and why? How does it showcase or celebrate inclusion?

Ty Heath –

Ty Heath: I love the “In It Together” ads! “In It Together” resonates with me as a call to action connected to LinkedIn’s vision of economic opportunity for all professionals.  Aaron and Diamond’s stories especially hit home for me.

There was a message arc moving from challenge to resolution in a single powerful story and there was emotion. We got to know them as characters and we can all relate to their struggle in some way. It also does the job of expanding the definition of what we picture as professionals in the workplace by telling the stories of historically excluded audiences in a relatable way. This is important because we want everyone to know and feel that they belong on LinkedIn, that it is a place to invest in your potential. Through the story, you see how community and connections inspire progress and help people reach their potential.