Inclusion of Diversity Equity for the C Suite: Why Marketing and Diversity are Stronger Together

Editor’s Note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column on management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Much like the dark clouds and summer showers that sweep through the Search Triangle on many humid afternoons, roles in the C-suite can change quickly. It’s in these moments, however, that nimble leaders are able to adapt and navigate, even if the flapping windshield wipers and torrents of water can make visibility a little blurry. Today we are witnessing this type of transformation in terms of organizational culture. Even C-suite leaders need partners. What I see and hear from clients is that few partnerships are more beneficial than when marketing and diversity work together for culture change.

Donald Thompson

Chief marketing officers (CMOs) won’t have to think very far to understand the need for strategic partnerships that empower the entire organization. Several decades ago, marketing had a bit of an identity crisis. Many of their C-suite colleagues didn’t see marketing as a driver of business success. This old-school perspective limited marketing to creating sales collateral or presenting at a trade show booth. Marketing leaders battled for a seat at the C-suite table in a tough sales environment.

Fast forward with technological transformation, however, and marketing as a discipline has changed. Technology empowered the field as leaders could track results and see how critical marketing had become to the sales cycle. The digital link between a lead and a sale has transformed the marketing department into an organizational powerhouse. Marketing has also become synonymous with customer touchpoints across the business as technology and social media have geometrically increased the number of people engaging with the brand.

As a result, marketing is well positioned and has its own value proposition. The only person as responsible for the internal and external culture of an organization as the CEO is the CMO, and the latter has more direct control over day-to-day operations. The culture lives in the marketing department and branches out through the business and its stakeholders via messaging.


When I talk to the leaders of the C suite of the challenges diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and specifically the role of Chief Diversity Officer (CDO), much of the conversation revolves around the degree to which this position is isolated from other senior leaders. CDO fights to be heard, get resources at the right level, and embrace emotional programming, often getting to the heart of what people think, feel, and believe.

Like marketing decades ago, leaders can be skeptical of new culture-based programming. Where is the data? How much will these initiatives cost? What do I have to gain (or lose) in the meantime?

In contrast, marketing leaders know how to win these arguments, not only because they’ve been there before, but also because they understand the different voices in each of the constituencies. Frankly, the CDO isn’t used to winning hearts and minds like the CMO.


What diversity leaders can learn from their marketing counterparts is how to speak to and for multiple voices and viewpoints. By focusing on messaging, marketers intuitively understand how to reach audiences and defend a perspective. Therefore, linking marketing to diversity allows marketing to reach more people, while helping to explain why DEI is so critical to an organization’s future success.

Since marketing is responsible for the internal and external face of the company’s image, stakeholders want these messages to be authentic. A Survey 2021 by Smartsheet, for example, reported that 74% of knowledge workers agreed, “DEI is important to my marketing organization.” Where the rubber meets the road on this topic outdoors is ensuring that a company’s advertising and web visuals align with its diverse employees and consumers. Internally, the challenge can be creating messages so that other C-suite leaders see DEI as critical and essential. For example, talking about belonging at work or engaging in cross-cultural communication as ways to reduce costly turnover takes the notion of belonging and turns it into a term that relates to actual business results.

Adding the marketing element to DEI’s understanding of membership enhances an organization’s brand communication value. C-suite leaders can buy into these ideas, because belonging then means speaking to a community of color, across generations, to a single mother or the caretaker of an older relative.


As CEO, I may be hesitant to publicly engage in social justice issues, but I need to understand that social justice challenges affect our workforce and our communities. From a leadership perspective, what I need from my CMO is to help me communicate with empathy, care, and compassion – in an authentic way – while maintaining high standards of execution.

For the CDO or diversity practitioner, the call to action often focuses on the importance of the topic. Having been through this battle before, marketers refocus the message on how DEI makes you a better leader and organization, with a focus on the outcome. Perhaps a simpler way to think about this distinction is that a diversity leader might say, “DCI matters because we need to create a better society. Amplifying the message, however, a marketer would likely approach the same idea from a broader perspective, stating, “DEI is increasing market share and will help us change the world for the better.

The difference between these two statements is subtle, but I’ve spoken to dozens of CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies who are interested in DEI initiatives. The request from these organizations escalates to the CEO or Board through the CMO.

Interestingly, it is marketing professionals’ focus on words that has turned them into advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion. The CMO wants to extend the brand in a way that rings true to all of the company’s stakeholders. So when diversity and marketing teams work hand-in-hand, they create a powerful union that ensures messaging hits the right note both broadly and from DEI’s perspective.

The final point I’ve discussed with other CEOs is the reluctance of some organizations to talk about their DEI programming – even when it’s good work. Many leaders are afraid to talk about these issues because they don’t want it to sound selfish. This is another area where the marketing mindset helps leaders craft messages that are credible, authentic, and without appearing misleading, which is often labeled virtue signaling or performative alliance.


Going back to those ominous clouds overhead, it is when the storms are roaring the strongest that leaders need to learn from past experiences so they are ready to move when the deluge passes. For me, the equation is simple, but needs to be made even less complicated:

Marketing + DEI = Greater likelihood that an organization will act courageously

I know this to be true because I’ve spoken with C-suite executives and board members who face incredibly difficult topics in a multitude of directions. And, we’ve spoken to hundreds of employees about what they expect from their leaders. Courage is always at or near the top of the list.

What we’ve learned over and over is that when there’s a school shooting or when there’s a mass shooting primarily of African Americans, you don’t expect the CEOs talk about gun laws. However, it is assumed that leaders will discuss the impact of these issues on their employees – to share the company’s attention and the resources available to help people deal with these difficult topics and their genuine emotions.

I think many CEOs might think the people around them want all the answers, but I see that reversed. What employees and stakeholders appreciate from the CEO is empathy. They want to understand what we can do to help with the means at our disposal, such as reminding people of employee assistance programs or how their benefits cover mental health and other needs.

No one expects a single CEO to have all the answers, but people want their leaders to share the answers they have. Saying nothing is equivalent to “I don’t care”. No leader wants to be in this position.

The answer is not in the heroic star actor acting alone to change an organization from above. Instead, it’s the combined power of marketing and diversity. Communicators create authentic messages that reach stakeholders and diversity leaders bring the knowledge and power of culture change to organizations. Sunny days are approaching…

About the Author

Donald Thompson is CEO and co-founder of The diversity movement who created a suite of employee experience products that personalize diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through data, technology and expert-curated content. Their microlearning platform, Microvideos by The Diversity Movementwas recently named one of fast businessWorld Changing Ideas 2022.” With two decades of experience growing and leading businesses, Donald is a thought leader on achieving goals, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. An entrepreneur, speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach, Donald is also a board member of several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. . His leadership memoirs, Underrated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, is available for pre-order. Connect or follow him on LinkedIn to learn more.

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