By Jasmine Cruz, Account Manager, BBH LA
Birmingham Business School
Every February, at the start of Black History Month, brands champion an emotional cry for unity. But by the time March rolls around, most brands are back to business as usual. In fact, a recent report found that about 76% of companies still have no diversity or inclusion goals.
This bandwagon behavior doesn’t fool consumers, who are quick to react negatively towards tone-deaf activism. We’ve seen what happens when brands get it right (Nike, Dove, AirBnb) and when brands get it wrong (CIA, Pepsi, Vogue). 68% of consumers expect brands to be clear about their values and take a stand on them (Kantar Monitor). In fact, the study showed this sentiment is particularly strong among African Americans (82%), Asian Americans (79%), and the LGBTQ+ community (71%). With such a fine line between authenticity and performative activism, how can we help ensure brands approach these important conversations in a way that moves the needle forward, not only for business success but for the progression of the movement?
All brands have a voice concerning DE&I. In fact, there’s a great opportunity in leveraging your specialty in exploring the intersectionality of these social issues.
Whether we’ve been allies, victims, or bystanders, everyone has played a role within the DE&I landscape. It’s important to reflect, understand, and acknowledge where a brand’s role sits on the spectrum. Owning their role provides an opportunity for brands to explore the complexities of DE&I through the lens of their tailored expertise. For example, Patagonia historically has been focused on the preservation of the environment. However, they are not exempt from the conversation around DE&I. In this example, Patagonia could drive a conversation that challenges traditional archetypes of outdoor enthusiasts being white males. When brands understand their role, they can authentically act on their commitment to do better – and fearlessly lead by example.
“Walking the walk before you talk the talk” is a lesson that’s consistently learned from the backlash of tone-deaf campaigns. Countless brands have apologized for their well-intentioned, yet misguided marketing efforts. Consumers are highly informed and are ruthless in holding brands accountable for leveraging social issues for profit. So brands must pause before posting our black square on Instagram to ask themselves: do our culture and brand actively reflect and support marginalized communities or is ‘standing in solidarity’ simply a self-serving attempt to show audiences our awareness of the cause? As brands define their commitment to DE&I values, we uncover clarity around actions that incite tangible change, establishing credibility in the space. The added bonus? Consumers will reward these actions with their loyalty.
Often DE&I campaigns are siloed efforts in an effort to raise brand awareness. They’ve even been proven effective at raising awareness for brands and impacting culture. But I challenge our industry to ask ourselves if every DE&I spot needs to (or should be) a singular, anthemic, upper-funnel ad. In fact, I’d argue that DE&I values are just as important within mid-funnel marketing efforts aimed at driving consideration and intent. After all, a Google study found that 64% of surveyed consumers take some sort of an action (including purchase) after seeing “diverse” or “inclusive” ads. Bumble is a great example to look towards within this realm. While their “Find Them On Bumble” campaign focuses on celebrating the diverse makeup of the dating world, Bumble is consistent in ensuring these values are reflected within every campaign that follows. The key here is to emphasize the need to stay consistent in incorporating DE&I values throughout the entire customer journey.
Consistency is what continues to drive credibility as brands join DE&I conversations. If we want to truly resonate with diverse audiences and create cultural change, we cannot rely on occasional calendar pulses. We must be intentional in consistently reflecting DE&I values throughout every piece of creativity.
Stereotypes and tropes are typically used as a device in appealing quickly to audiences to focus on product messaging. But as we know, humans are complex individuals who cannot be portrayed in oversimplified ways. In fact, a Facebook study found that less than half of US participants actually felt represented in ads. So if stereotypes no longer serve as the key to resonating with audiences, what is its impact?
Studies have shown that “audiences substitute stereotypes they see on screen for reality when they have not had any direct interactions with particular racial groups.” An Adobe study revealed that African-Americans (66%) and Latino / Hispanic Americans (53%) feel their ethnicity is portrayed stereotypically in advertisements. Continuing to emphasize stereotypes in creativity further establishes unconscious biases in our culture. This robs us not only of the opportunity to tell stories that dive deep into different cultures but the ability to intentionally highlight people in media as their true, authentic selves. In fact, Unilever discovered that stereotypical thinking restricts creativity, while more progressive ads are 25% more effective for brand impact.
While the intention certainly is not to further progress unconscious bias, if the impact of leaning into these tropes continues to uphold stereotypes, inequality, and oppression we must do better. We have a responsibility to deviate from traditional approaches that inadvertently put marginalized communities at a deficit. It’s an opportunity to tap into creative innovation to shape a culture that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion as its standard.
The power of community and collaboration is so cored in the fight for equity, especially in how we critique. Before we’re quick to point the finger, perhaps consider offering a hand. Imagine the dialogue that our community could spark if we use misguided efforts as teachable moments to highlight the importance of driving DE&I in every facet of our world.
The journey of diversity, equity, and inclusion is hard – and we’re doing the best we can with the best intentions. With “cancel culture” alive and well, we know that the internet is not quick to forgive. Rather than joining in on the humiliation, I wonder what it would look like if we offered support for our industry instead. Of course, we need to keep each other accountable as we collectively run towards the same goal of equity, but what encourages someone to learn from their mistakes if they are shamed for their efforts? We cannot solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it and to that end, we must reframe how we deal with failures by looking at what we can learn and sharing that with our peers.
As contributors of media that seek to inform human behaviour, we have a responsibility in how our messaging impacts culture. Authenticity, credibility, consistency, and creative innovation are how we earn the right to join conversations surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. And in the moments we don’t get it right? Well, we take responsibility for our actions and commit to doing better
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.