Brands, take a stand

As marketers, it is our job to represent the lives of the people we want to have a conversation with. We’re mediators, unifiers, bridge makers.

Marketing at its best is not just reflective of culture but a powerful change agent and torchbearer for progress. Think about what campaigns like Unilever’s “The Will”, Dove’s “Real Beauty”, Always' “Like a Girl”, Gillette’s “First Shave” did to shape culture. Look at what brands like P&G, Vodafone, MHFA, Nike are trying to do with “The Choice”, “Change The Face”, “My Whole Self’ and “Just Don’t Do It”.

Data suggests progress in ads has stalled, and we’ve all felt the need for a meaningful acceleration of equality. We have a macro role to play beyond our marketing bubble, and we do that best when we recognise people’s demands to be seen, to be heard and to be served.

In today’s world, that means purpose driven communications confidently disseminated in a marinade of empathy, authenticity and transparency. People want brands to assume an unambiguous stance in a turbulent global ecosystem. This must come with a dual approach: in external marketing and communications but also in internal organisational structure and culture. The most effective way to promote Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) is to be it.

Here are two components for fostering DEIB across all levels of the brand:

Looking inward

Walk the talk by having an overarching strategy to normalise intersectional identities and eliminate damaging stereotypes internally, and not just in your creative.

  • Identify your purpose and values as an organisation and weave them into your decision making. Don’t try to cover all bases; keep it relevant to the brand.
  • Transition DEIB from a niche Human Resources department to report to the CEO. Collective ownership will drive your organisation forward (in reviewing your Equal Opportunities policies regularly; speaking out against laws and reporting incidents that threaten your employees’ rights; communication trainings and ERG’s that acknowledge and celebrate everyone’s individuality).
  • Employ progressive recruitment practices to widen your pool of diverse candidates. Install PitchMe.co, which hides names and photos when sourcing candidates and an AI writing tool such as Textio to scan job descriptions for biased language, to actively nurture an inclusive talent lifecycle and create champions of diversity in-house.
  • Be considerate of workplace language: “hey folks’’ instead of “hey guys”; “parental leave” rather than “maternity leave”, “inclusion/exclusion lists” versus “whitelist/blacklist”. Ask for people’s pronouns in the office and consider including them in slack, social media and email signatures. Change the narrative by ceasing the use of words such as “loud”, “aggressive” or “bossy”. Not everything is ill-intentioned, but words matter - and can perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
  • Have a genuine desire to understand the challenges your employees face each day. Seek out feedback from underrepresented groups and don’t wait for them to feel comfortable speaking up. Enquire whether they feel safe to contribute and take risks at work, if their voice is being heard, how much of their day goes into addressing microaggressions, which perspective they feel is missing from the conversation, what some of the barriers to their success are and how you can help address those by amplifying their voice and giving them the opportunity to make significant decisions across the organisation. Ask yourself; are you recruiting, mentoring, retaining, promoting and championing the development of diverse talent?
  • Challenge the status quo and diversify your thinking not just in what you ask but in how you listen. Reflect deeply on what your people are telling you. Demonstrate your interest in their answers, and check to make sure you’re understanding them. Perhaps they are single parents, devoutly religious, worry about their accent or culture, have an invisible disability or are gender non conforming, and harbour deep concerns of being excluded and overlooked.
  • Look into resources that can help you better understand their voices to engage in that dialogue. Leverage the SPACE2 Model of Inclusion, which provides evidence based techniques for managing bias in oneself and others. For an exploration on race, see Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”, Robin Diangelo’s “White Fragility”, Layla F. Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” or Ibram X. Kendi’s “How To Be An Antiracist”. To better understand the experience of women through an intersectional lens,  read Mikki Kendall’s “Hood Feminism”, Jodi Patterson’s “The Bold World” and Minda Harts’s “The Memo: What Women of Colour Need to Know to Secure a Seat at The Table”. On inclusive leadership, pick up Stacey Abrams’ “Our Time Is Now” and Mahzarin Banaji’s “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People”. There are no silver bullets for enabling inclusive workplaces, but you can demonstrate allyship in a position of power and influence by initiating a transparent discussion on white fragility and the issues women, people of colour, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+, religious minorities and other marginalised groups face.

As a leader, don’t let your fear replace your desire to learn. Nobody is born perfectly “woke”. If we can normalise a more honest kind of leadership, one that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers or projects an image of perfection, one which is adamantly against cancel culture, despite heightened scrutiny, then we might actually give ourselves the space we need: to listen to those around us, to ask embarrassing questions, to reflect openly about our shortcomings and blindspots, to allow for the learning and unlearning that must occur to correct them, choosing to teach rather than punish and to drive meaningful change within ourselves and our organisation's by committing to doing better than we did the day before. Progress over perfection is key.

Art should imitate life

We can do more to combat damaging stereotypes in our ads. If we believe advertising can inspire and entertain, then we must also accept its influence in reinforcing division and bigotry. The images and portrayals of people in the media can affect the way someone views the world. Seeing a positive portrayal of someone that looks like you onscreen can have a massive impact and the opposite effect is also true: 66% of women switched off content that negatively stereotyped them, and a majority of ethnic minorities do not see themselves represented within advertising. We know that diversity is good for the bottom line and fosters innovation and creativity, and to close the gap of where we are and where we need to be, reflecting on whether DEIB is built into every stage of ad development and aligns with your brand purpose is essential.

  • Challenge your assumptions on DEIB. Don't expect groups that have a similar education or skin tone to have the same perspective and to therefore be reached and represented in the same way. It is the intersectionality among these groups that we must truly understand to move the needle. Success lies in acknowledging that diversity is not a static, perpetual concept and that each person comes with their own experiences and preferences. If you are creating something socially relevant, you cannot be doing it for impressions, press coverage or as a box-ticking exercise to appeal to underrepresented groups. Understanding the implications of tokentistic marketing can serve as a catalyst to step-change thinking within advertising.
  • Collaborate with agencies who have a personal stake in the community you are marketing to. Speak with your wallet by moving your budgets and business to Certified Diverse Suppliers in Marketing/Advertising and pull back from partners that do not show progress on that front.
  • Course-correct the entire creative ecosystem by using a rigorous framework of inclusivity, from staff selection, briefings, artistic direction, casting, to pre and post-production. Consider including race, ethnicity, age, ability, religion, sexual and gender identity in the narrative and using an intersectional lens, particularly and especially when it's aligned to the brand and the central message of the campaign.
  • Think about the person that is behind the camera, as it's as important as who is in front. Storytelling from a point of view that’s more in line with your target audience will resonate authentically. Foster a culture that isn't afraid to choose and place underrepresented creators in the director’s chair.
  • Run a litmus test and consult a sensitivity reader on whether your ad is reflective of society through the physical depictions of your characters, the perspective from which we are seeing said characters, if you can you imagine the characters as real people. Are you recognising that diverse people are complex, relatable human beings? Is the ad inclusive, i.e. does it cater to someone with disabilities by offering closed captions or a sign language interpretation?
  • Reconsider what data-driven marketing really means. Big data ethics are interlinked with trust, and trust in a brand reflects directly on its market share. According to Ipsos Connect, trust in advertising has fallen by 37%, fuelled by years of ad saturation, counterfeit reality, privacy breaches and misuse of data. Ask yourself, is the data telling you the whole story? Are the machine learning tools in your tech stack showing representative data sets or perpetuating bias because they are trained on a skewed view of the world? Machines are only as good as the information fed to them and whilst brand safety technology is paramount for reducing hate speech and fake news, is personalisation creating digital echo chambers and stifling diversity of thought by censoring all that is not tailored to an algorithms understanding of our needs? Is targeting advertising accidentally encouraging prejudice by restricting underserved communities from seeing recruitment ads or microtargeting to influence political elections? Reflecting on the overreliance of myopic data when fleshing out creative briefs is vital. Concrete protocols should be taken to partner with responsible platforms, create responsible content and sustain a responsible infrastructure. Join forces and seek guidance from associations such as ANA, the Coalition For Better Ads, Conscious Advertising Network and Unstereotype Alliance to adopt and reflect best practice.

Meaningful brands appeal to the emotions of people. Don’t forget to channel your organisation’s purpose when championing the changing views, behaviours and expectations of today’s world. You can be an ally, an advocate, an activist. You can certainly be anti racist. According to Howard Zinn, one cannot remain neutral on a moving train. All it takes are these small pivot points, where you are exposed to something that you otherwise would not be, to inform and deviate the course of a lot of societal designs going forward. Achieving true Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging remains a work-in-progress, but brands exist to make people’s lives better. Let’s make sure we’re living up to that promise for our employees and consumers. 

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