Rethinking DEI: Is it Time for a Rebrand?

DEI, short for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” is an organizational framework of a concept that quickly rose in popularity in 2020. It shone so bright in the corporate firmament that it essentially became the brand to represent all initiatives that promoted the fair and equal treatment of all people.

Recently, though, we’ve seen DEI fall out of favor with the corporate elite and the general public. Negative perceptions of the once-celebrated DEI brand fill the news, beginning with the Supreme Court ruling that reversed affirmative action. Billionaires Elon Musk, Bill Ackman and Chip Wilson have publicly raised concerns on the merits of DEI initiatives. Corporations are experiencing the backlash of DEI initiatives, being criticized as performative and a waste of money. Attorneys general from 13 states recently went as far as issuing a letter to Fortune 100 CEOs with a request to “refrain from discriminating on the basis of race, whether under the label of ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ or otherwise.”

What has caused this sudden fall from grace? Why has DEI fallen out of favor in the eyes of corporate America and society as a whole? Given the tsunami of negative headlines, it’s time to ask the question: Does DEI need a rebrand?

First, a little background.

What is DEI?

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, defines DEI as “organizational frameworks which seek to promote the fair treatment and full participation of all people, particularly groups who have historically been underrepresented or subject to discrimination on the basis of identity or disability.”

DEI came into the front lines during the height of one of the most difficult times in modern history — a global pandemic which was further heightened by the death of George Floyd and other racially charged incidents. The DEI movement quickly infiltrated corporate America, with major corporations mobilizing to address diversity in the workplace, including hiring for full-time positions and building teams dedicated to DEI.

The Light of DEI Dims

Perceptions of DEI began to crumble following the Supreme Court ruling in the summer of 2023. This ruling effectively ended race-conscious admissions. As a result of this momentous decision, “the terms affirmative action and DEI have been conflated,” says Valerie Capers Workman, chief legal officer for recruiting platform Handshake, in an article for Axios.

This conflation of terms further amplified the politicization and polarization of DEI, associating those who support DEI as blue and those who do not as red. The more politicized DEI became, the less enthralled the general public began to feel toward related initiatives. Many people began to view DEI actions by corporations as disingenuous, only implemented to “check the box.” This led to companies rolling back on their DEI programs, causing impacts on resource cuts and what it signals to employees and investors.

Despite this shift, chief human resource officers do not plan to scale back their DEI strategies, according to a recent survey conducted by the Conference Board. High-profile pullbacks represent only 5-10% of activity in the field of DEI today, according to the Aspen Institute.

What’s Next for DEI?

At the core of DEI is the idea of fairness and equality. The validity of the DEI brand remains, but we are beginning to see corporations reframe DEI, changing how they approach and talk about it.

Corporations must be clear in communicating what DEI is and what it is not, using more palatable language and dissociating the brand from its now ideological politicized associations, and pivoting to establishing closer associations to the ideas of “well-being” and “equal access to opportunities.” As an example, at some companies, DEI surveys are being reframed as “culture surveys.”

However, a panel discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute cautioned that DEI initiatives are quite fresh in many countries outside the U.S. — that rebranding them now may create confusion and stifle progress made in recent years. A fair point.

In terms of activation, we will continue to see companies turn inward, cleaning house to ensure they are practicing what they preach by evaluating everything from employee manuals to hiring practices. Corporations will likely be quite cautious about publicly promoting any “culturally focused” initiative unless it is truly authentic to their brand.

This is the first of many speed bumps DEI will encounter. It’s important that the palatable language used going forward will allow DEI 2.0 to grow and mature, and perceptions to shift. Companies should ensure they are creating a brand for DEI that can withstand the inevitable ebbs and flows of what the audience finds acceptable given ethnographic trends.

To Summarize

DEI is at a critical juncture. We agree with the prudent steps corporations are taking to reframe DEI in the minds of their internal and external audiences while maintaining the essence and spirit of the brand. Taking a page out of the branding playbook, you can’t be everything to everyone. Clear communication on how a corporation defines DEI will be critical to the livelihood and longevity of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the years to follow.