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WHY BRANDS ARE EXPERIENCING BACKLASH? | Adeline Huynh, D&I Expert

Tammy Tsang  00:14

Hi, everyone, my name is Tammy and I’m the Co-Founder and Managing Director of AndHumanity, an Inclusive Content Agency. My pronouns are she and her, and I’m very excited today to have Adeline CEO and principal of the commons, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm, and an advisor at AndHumanity. Welcome!

 

Adeline Huynh  00:33

Thanks for having me. It’s very exciting. Yes.

 

Tammy Tsang  00:37

Okay, so today we’re talking with Adeline about backlash when a brand tries to enter the diversity and inclusion space and is being accused of exploiting. How to handle that and manage that if that happens. But before we begin, and before we dive into it, I’d like to first acknowledge we operate on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish, Musqueam, Tsawassen and Semihamoo, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish nations. So thank you again, Adeline, for being here today. Let’s start off with a little bit about yourself. So how do you get into this line of work? And why do you feel the work is so important?

 

Adeline Huynh  01:19

Oh, yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I feel like I’ve always been in this type of work. Like, it’s just like, social justice issues have always been a passion of mine, I think, probably just starting out even even before high school. I think partly because of it’s just this intersection with my own identities, growing up as a first generation Canadian. And my parents were both immigrants, refugees from Vietnam, they came over because of the war. So , you grew up in that context, and you grew up with an awareness of things like race and racism and then and, class issues and , because they did see like a kind of a downward spiral and in terms of their economic class leaving Vietnam was they were quite well off and then having to work and you’ll gain it all back here in Canada. And then just, I just I think it was something that I was initially, I was always interested in, so I volunteered in the area. I ended up doing a lot of work around, supporting, new immigrants supporting youth and then later on, I came out as part of the LGBTQ community and I think and then I was sort of drawn to supporting those groups of people because I knew how it could be very difficult especially for you. And then yeah, eventually just ended up in this more sort of, I guess I can call it more working towards systemic change around equity, diversity inclusion, and so I’ve been in this space for probably like, all together probably around 15 years, most of my working adult life I’ve done working here but like in terms of just doing really systemic work working with organizations to support them. That work I’ve been doing for that would be more like, five or six years. And so I just found , I was really happy when you reached out because I hadn’t really worked in a specifically in the communications field but the type of work I do is so agile and it really pertains to any, any sector in the industry. So I’m really excited to sort of so enter your space, our space merge, actually,

 

Tammy Tsang  03:30

yeah, it’s really fascinating because you find a lot of the diversity and inclusion work when it comes to marketing communications tends to be written by marketers, and I found it so fascinating speaking with you about it, because it provided a different lens. So collaborating on just how that should look and what the proper practices are, was really informative, and I think very useful for our community. Which is why we have you on today to talk a little bit about how that’s useful? And how can we provide and share information that will help the community? 

 

So I’ll dive straight into our first question. There are definitely brands, big and small who have tried to enter the space and have it go terribly wrong. Complete backlash and accusation of the worst, which is exploitation. So what are your thoughts on this? And can a brand come back from this?

 

Adeline Huynh  04:32

Right? Yeah. I mean, I’ve been thinking about it more, obviously, since we started working together. And I’m sure it’s one of the reasons why maybe more brands, more companies feel a little bit hesitant, coming into the space and starting to speak up around social justice issues, and I get it, it can be scary. It’s a risk. , it’s, it’s not like you start a shoe company because you think you’re going to be talking about race and Racism, right? Exactly, though some people might, like, we look at some companies and that’s exactly what they do like Rihanna, right? Like, she started her makeup company because she wanted to talk about the lack of race representation, right? And the lack of cover up in color and like just, the lack of, of that sort of thinking and representation. So yes, some people do start like, alchemy deco, I would say most companies Yeah. So, yeah, exactly. And I’m not one to say, don’t enter the space. If you didn’t start out, with this in mind, because I think it’s important to really, truly achieve equity in , in the workplace. , everybody has to come on board and everybody has to realize that it’s an issue that you should be engaging with it because it’s important to you and it’s important that the people you work with and it’s important for , your customers, your clients and , so, absolutely, I feel like, you should, there’s so many there’s a great business case why you should go in there, in terms of, increasing your market base and all that type of stuff. But, at the same time, you can’t just go into it willy nilly,  you know what I mean? You can’t just jump into the hot topic of the moment, without really being intentional and thinking it through. And I always advise any, any company at the very beginning to do it really thoughtfully come up with a plan and anticipate backlash. I think that’s one of the major things is to anticipate that you’re not going to get the best response from everyone. And that’s okay. , and so, I could speak more in that a little bit, but I think that’ll kind of come out as we talk about a little bit more, but it’s always best to, if possible, the issue you decide to kind of jump into to start, making some space for and to start, like, elevating terms of your own communications , so ideally it should be something that you’re already your company’s already involved in a passionate about, and there’s a story in there that you can share from a personal level. And if there isn’t, and there isn’t always then at the very least, do your homework, talk to people like there’s the saying like nothing about us without us. So, whatever issue you want to tackle whatever issue you feel like, like, I’ve got the, I’ve got the whatever the brand power to actually really contribute to this conversation, then consult first, talk to the people that is impacted by like the most by the issue, whether it’s racism or homophobia or transphobia. Whatever it is, sexism, do your research and people say that the best thing that you can do is to use your resources and to make space, for the people with the stories to come forward with them. Right and so so there’s a lot that you can do as a company. And, yeah, and I mean, there’s definitely some best practices around, okay. How do I respond? , when I’m being accused of woke washing or whatever? Or, or accused of, yeah, appropriation or whatever right like so.

 

Tammy Tsang  08:41

Before we dive into that, because we want um, how do  that the positive will outweigh the negative when it comes to , entering space making mistakes and then um, and to back to the one of the questions I had is can a brand come back from that?  You’ve spoken about the redemption factor. Well, can you elaborate on that?

 

Adeline Huynh  09:09

Yeah. And that is a good question. I mean, I think, there if you look at the numbers, and there’s like, I won’t speak to it at length to it in this interview, but there’s definitely a strong business case, for diversity and inclusion. There really is if you even want to look at it in terms of the bottom line. So, I think that in itself might be enough for companies to be like, yeah, okay, I want to get in on this. But obviously, it’s not enough. So, let’s hope that’s not the only motivation. And , if even if it is and then they jump in without looking really, without consultation without doing the intentionality in the plan and everything like that, and then the backlash happens, I think we think lots of examples. And then, yeah, I feel like there’s not like a script or checklist you can follow. But I think there’s a couple of tried and true, things or values that can maybe follow. And one of them would definitely be, take a step back and take the time to listen. Okay, so where’s this negative feedback coming from? , and just to truly understand what your part was in it, and as many as an example, there was a case of Barnes and Noble, that very large, book company like book selling company out of bookstores, whatever across probably the world. I think a lot of people know about them. And I think during Black History Month, they thought they were doing a good thing and decided that , what they would do is they would create new covers for these classics, what we call classics, a part of the Canon like, mostly European classics, right? So we’re talking about like Pride and Prejudice and Tom Sawyer, whatever these types of classic books that we have to read in high school, Shakespeare and all that type of stuff, and decided, well, what we’ll do, because it’s Black History Month is we’ll make new covers for them, and we’ll just put black characters on them. So we’ll reimagine them as, stories, like black stories, except the only thing is they’re not black stories, like because they did nothing else except change the cover. So, they’re being accused of literary blackface and things like that, because the stories are still from a, the white gaze, there were the main characters are white, the writers are white, like they’re, it’s in a European like perspective and an aesthetic and they did nothing to change that. So obviously it was an issue. And, there’s a lot of people who have things to say and wrote articles about it and, and essentially what, they were told they should have done is just, like, take the opportunity to showcase black writers because there’s so many black writers, and maybe they’re not considered classics, so part of the Canon because of things like marginalization and racism, and he kept out of that, right? Like, being told their stories don’t matter. So that’s a great opportunity to showcase, no need for blackface, just actually get black authors in there, and showcase them. Right? So, I mean, yeah, so I think that’s a good example of, if they took the time to listen, maybe if they had actual black writers in the room when they were coming up with this great idea, this campaign, they probably would have gone there, let’s just say so I think representation matters, especially, in the decision making room, so that’s a huge one for mitigating risks is have the people from the communities and were impacted by the issues you’re trying to tackle in the room making the decisions.

 

Tammy Tsang  12:54

Okay. So in the case of Barnes and Noble, what would you suggest that they do, they’ve made them in steak, it’s out there, they have backlash, right? Um, you’ve talked about in the past about how sometimes making a mistake is actually a greater opportunity to apologize and win back the community. Can you speak a little bit about that and what they could have done and and how they could have maybe one back the community in some ways? 

 

Adeline Huynh  13:23

Well, yeah, I think one thing would have been to like, gather up and really listen to all the criticisms, and make sure they then start consulting and getting those people in the room like I was talking about begin at the beginning and get the black writers and publishers and into the room. And then, make sure that when you draft your apology, because I think there should be apology or acknowledgement at the very least of what they did in the potential harm, that that happened and put out an apology, but haven’t really straightforward and backed up with an action. I think that’s like, even more important in some ways than the right wording for an apology or an acknowledgement is that is the next step, then what what am I going to do now, so, am I going to now instead take, the rest of the Black History Month and not just Black History Month, but like, make it part of, Barnes and Nobles, plan to continue to showcase writers of color, like black writers, but also other writers of color or other marginalized colors or other marginalized writers. And, and not just over one month, not just in February when it’s Black History Month, but all the time and, start really encouraging, publishing companies to to, to publish stories that are not often heard, and be , a be that place and that form, like to sell that have these stories assessable. Right? And make them accessible to the larger public or something like that. Right? So not just a not just an empty apology, but actual action and change, right?

 

Tammy Tsang  15:16

Do you have an example of an organization that has done very well doing the apology, like made a mistake and apologized, ?

 

Adeline Huynh  15:28

And made any change? Yeah. Um, there, there’s definitely, um, I think examples out there. I think maybe one that comes to mind, or I don’t know, there was like, or this one’s not so much one where there was an apology needed, exactly. But it was like one of those like, it was a miss one, it could have been a hit. And I’m picking that example. The example I’m thinking of is and , You might know of some tune, you might have to remind me maybe it’s just like, falling on my head or whatever. But I’m thinking of just P&G, I know that they’ve been more and more trying to put out ad campaigns like kind of what I contribute to a conversation like around social justice and things like that. And I think they, initially they had a campaign and from my understanding, it was around. It was called, was like, it was about being a better man or something like that? Because I think for Gillette, I think I think the slogan for Gillette is something the best a man can be here somewhere. And I think they played with it a little bit I don’t really recall or something will be better man and it was speaking to the #MeToo movement and messaging and things of that. When I think, just came across a bit heavy handed, and people going, it’s a shaving company, like the forum for this conversation around toxic masculinity and things like that. And I mean, there were some positive feedback like all these, they’re contributing, and they’ve got this big platform and at least , they’re putting it out there. But , it was a mixed reaction basically. And then but good for them, they didn’t back off and be like, oh, we’re never gonna talk about this again. They just kind of came at it at different angle, but still focused on men and what it means to be masculine and things like that, and a critique of toxic masculinity, which makes sense with their product, too. I think they just did, what they did was they just refined their message, I think, they did one where they depicted a trans man and this is maybe the difference in this ad is because we actually worked with somebody who was from the community who was a trans man. And I believe the other person in the commercial was also actually his father too. And it wasn’t It was a great story around the first shave for trans man, after taking team like testosterone starting to grow facial hair, and then a conversation with his father, right? And I’ve raised somebody he thought was a girl, but it wasn’t. And that was very touching. And, and I think they’ve done other things too around like, conversations around race and , and again there And the thing is, too is like the idea where you might get it wrong the first time and there might be some backlash, but doesn’t mean that you should stop. It should mean that you should stop and look and see what went wrong. Take the good advice, engage with the communities that are impacted and involved. Learn from it, pivot, but but still keep going. ? So, I think that’s good.

 

Tammy Tsang  18:52

I think a pretty good example of a brand that made a mistake, trying to relate to the community probably didn’t do as much, reach out to the community as much as they should.  And then the second time around, that actually did a bit more of a thoughtful process and they really won and really did well in the community. There was another example that you spoke about that brand that Target picked up. There was a bit of a backlash there but it didn’t come out exactly… horribly.  Can you…

 

Adeline Huynh  19:30

Yeah, in the beginning, a different type of backlash where it wasn’t a backlash, like sometimes the backlash comes from the communities that … whose story is being told, and those who really, really want to listen to. And then sometimes backlash though, comes from people who feel somehow threatened or don’t agree with your politics or your message, or Yeah, somehow their identity feels threatened somehow. And those who should listen too, but doesn’t mean that your messaging is wrong. It just means that , not everyone’s gonna agree. And but it’s important and there’s a conversation around, it’s important to stand by your values, right? Because it was, I think it was a case of different values. And the case you were talking about was Target during this was .. I think, a Black History Month. We wanted to showcase their sort of their entrepreneurial like products or whatever, and particularly black entrepreneurs, just to show some representation and role modeling and things like that. So there’s one particular company called Honey Pot that was started by black woman, it was a feminine hygiene line of products. And so there was a great commercial and she talked about her story and, and how she thought was important part of this campaign as a role model because young black girls don’t often see themselves as entrepreneurs, reflected back to them. And this was great. And how she developed the product in a way for other black women, because she was finding like, she was a fine products working for her and things like that. And, and then the backlash came from mostly white women who were saying, well, this is this is exclusion and this is racist, or reverse racism or what about like, Well, Oh I didn’t realize I used to buy her products, but I didn’t realize they’re made for black women, so they must not be made for me because I’m not a black woman, just things like that. That didn’t really I don’t know, like, so they were bad. But in the end like so she got on there’s a lot of online negative feedback and then what happened was Target still supported her and put out a statement and said – no, we like this representation is important and it doesn’t mean that you have less or , that we’re not representing you. It’s not about like, kicking you basically off the playing field, it’s like making it bigger. We’ll be there together and and then what happened was people notice like the negative feedback and said no this is like a positive thing she’s doing and so be encouraged to show me the right really positive product reviews of Honey Pot which people did and then not only that, gained so much like attention in social social media that people like I wasn’t even aware of this product and that’s great and I’m gonna support her and , and so in that case,  that being actually good publicity right for the brand and for for Honey Pot, but also for Target right? And, and Target stood by, their campaign around Black History Month and, and the entrepreneurs that they were featuring, so that was really positive. Mm hmm. That’s another type of backlash you might get. And that type of backlash actually could be a barometer for how successful you are actually getting your message out. Because social  justice is all Almost always controversial, right? And you never get people to always agree. So even if you get that negative feedback, it actually could be a good thing and could actually be telling you that you do something right.

 

Tammy Tsang  23:14

And then in this case, I think that they actually saw increase in sales and saw increasing your organic exposure, which was 

 

How would you prepare for the potential backlash? Would you prompt , apology in advance? Or how do you prepare for something like that?

 

Adeline Huynh  23:35

Yeah, I wouldn’t, I definitely would not prepare a statement in advance because it would come across as really general and and , and not sincere. But basically, you would want to have the people around you who are who are good at preparing, the wordsmiths and things like that, but then just I would not rush to put out a statement and I would take the time to maybe sit back a little bit and listen to the people and listen to what’s being said out there, and actually go out and consult with some experts in the field/subject matter experts or whatever. And because I think you want to put out when you do put out your statement, you want to include what you did. Right? To respond to. To respond to the harm to make reparations, or, if you want to call it a reconciliation, right, you want to include the adding thinking in your statement. And then I think the next part is like the most important part, which is the action part, like what are you going to do differently? And how will you move forward from there? And it’s, and I don’t think it’s about like, then going, No, no, no, we’re just going to put it out, communications and ads that are super safe all the time. Like, that’s that’s not the point. The point is to still take the risks. But to learn from your mistakes right and that can actually gain you more loyalty from people because they could see that you’re humble in your response, you actually made the necessary changes. And you’re moving forward, So, I never fear backlash to tell you the truth because it is learning, right? It’s a way to grow and, and you can’t avoid it. Yeah. And if it’s the sort of backlash like Honey Pot, then you just go, thank you.

 

Tammy Tsang  25:34

And I think it’s partly that, you mentioned previously, to me that backlash is an opportunity to show that you’re actually there, it’s part of your values and there you’re standing up for it and you make mistakes, makes a brand human. Looking for humanity and then not to not to plug AndHumanity. Thank you. Is there anything else you want to share that you think would be helpful for our listeners?

 

Adeline Huynh  26:06

I think, I just wanted to, again, thank you for the opportunity to speak on these issues like obviously equity, diversity, inclusion, social justice is something that is that I’m very passionate about. And I just hope that everybody steps into the space because it’s, I think it’s just so important it is where we’re evolving into workplace culture is often reflected in everything you do, including your brand, your communications, everything. So, I say just make it a part of your DNA. And it’s never too late to start and feel free to reach out to you for me. And we’re like, we’ll be so happy to like, support this work.

 

Tammy Tsang  26:52

Yeah. Well, um, yeah, it’s, I think your passion obviously comes through having worked with you for a while now. And it’s very exciting to, to work with someone who has so much heart in what they do. So I really appreciate that. But before I let you go, we call it a final question, which is, generally what are you grateful for?

 

Adeline Huynh  27:15

 What am I grateful for? Well, that’s a very interesting question during this time, and I was actually like, I was actually I’ve been thinking about a little bit more since this pandemic, and we’ve been inside and, trying to prepare for the new normal. And I realized, like, I’m very grateful for, like, so many things, but especially, I think, for family at this point in time. Especially because we’re only allowed to see family right now. And so, I’m grateful that even during this really difficult time, that the whole world is like, I know, we’ve heard this a lot, but we’re kind of in it together, even though , maybe we’re different. Both but we got we’re facing the same storm and I’m grateful that  that I know that like we’re gonna make it through

 

Tammy Tsang  28:10

Yeah it’s really surreal  what we’re going through I think not many people  just six months ago would have ever thought anything like this would happen right? It feels like a straight out of a movie, of course. But yeah I personally am really grateful for  having this time, like obviously horrible circumstances, but having my son and with my husband working full time and babysitting full time is the one of the hardest challenges I’ll ever go through. I’m sure  how that feels. 

 

Adeline Huynh  28:50

They shouldn’t pay child care workers more money. If I knew I had to spend too much time by too much with my kid… just kidding.

 

Tammy Tsang  29:00

But I think oftentimes we underestimate how much work it takes to take care of a child, especially one that’s almost two which again, is no easy task.

 

Adeline Huynh  29:12

Absolutely, yeah, it’s hard to find some time for yourself for sure.

 

Tammy Tsang  29:17

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I know you’re busy, obviously your home life as well. So where can people find you?

 

Adeline Huynh  29:27

Where can people find me? Well, I am preparing to launch a website really, really soon. And once, should be any matter of time now. And the URL will be if you just look up thecommonsconsulting.com you’ll you’ll find me. That’s probably the best way. And if you’re really, really stretched, and have no other way to figure out how to get a hold of me, you can maybe get in touch with AndHumanity and Tammy. 

 

Tammy Tsang  29:57

By all means, I’d be happy to forward anybody who wants to get in touch with Adeline, she’s fantastic to work with. So please, please do.

 

Adeline Huynh  30:06

Yeah, for sure. Maybe I should give you my email address or something like that.

 

Tammy Tsang  30:09

But yeah, I’ll post it as well. And you as listeners, if you have any questions that aren’t answered or that you want to be answered, please reach out. If you’re interested in joining our community, either to collaborate or to even work with us, please do let us know. You can find us at andhumanity.ca and we really hope to hear from you. We’re always open for chat or talk. So thank you. Thanks again Adeline.

 

Adeline Huynh  30:42

Bye

 

AndHumanity
Adeline Huynh, Tammy Tsang

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