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Shawn Mak

Does your brand have a diversity and inclusion problem?

Ask any brand marketer what is their ESG strategy, and chances are they’ll tell you they have one in place or about to embark on one. But ask them what is their DEI strategy, and chances are they’ll stare at you blankly: D-E-Wha..? An acronym for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, DEI impacts not just business decisions and operations but also branding. And this is a conversation we must have.

If you’re a brand owner, are you practising it? Or if you’re an agency marketer, planner or creative, are you helping your client actively promote it? If not, why? And more important, how can we fix this?

So…what exactly is DEI?

DEI is a term used to describe policies and programmes that promote the representation and participation of different groups of individuals. These incl. people of different ages, races and ethnicities, abilities and disabilities, genders, religions, cultures and sexual orientations. It’s a component of the “S” pillar in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance).

Imagine the classic Coke Hilltop ad. But a hundred times more diverse and inclusive. TBH, looking back at the ad now, it seems to have barely scratched the surface of what DEI means today.

The diversity and inclusion problem with brands

When was the last time you saw variety in representation and participation in local advertising? How about in marketing briefs? On the product shelves? Or at the workplace?

Not to put too much a damper on it, the advertising scene has indeed made some positive strides. Those who have been in advertising for a while will remember a time when ads featured (and client briefs actually requested for) predominantly pan-Asian talents. Why? Ohh, because they economically convey multiculturalism (debatable), because they are generally good looking (at least according to those few microstock libraries that dominated the scene then), and because they are “aspirational” (perpetuated by ads, no doubt…it’s circular logic fallacy at its best/worst). Today, that sort of thinking strikes us as severely tone deaf, but many seasoned marketers will remember those days. And everyone bought into it. It was diversity of products chasing inclusion of 1 ethnic group.

And then something happened. China rose, and the Chinese demonstrated strong spending power. And where the money is, the scene follows. We started to see more Chinese talents in ads. Combined with an increasingly hyperconnected world where everyone has a platform and a voice; the popularisation of design thinking; and the embracement of UX, CX, and personalisation in marketing; the world started to splinter. And so did advertising. To a degree.

For one, I am grateful to now see briefs that no longer state “mass” as a TA (ugghhh… good riddance), but go deeper into customer personas. Yet, the personas we are asked to market to are invariably Chinese (if there’s a picture attached to the brief), or a faceless “Jennifer” or “Raymond”, who, wouldn’t you know it, is a Millennial (sometimes an older Gen-Z) who lives in a condo, happily married and works at an MNC.

So what’s the problem here?

1. Lack of focus, lack of resources

Unquestionably, brands are starting to ring the clarion bell of sustainability. It’s become a marketing imperative. However, for brands with an ESG mandate, most focus on the “E”, neglecting the “S” and the “G”. Conversations around sustainability inevitably circle climate change. This is of course the lowest hanging fruit. Because it impacts “everyone”, and they think it’s what everyone is preoccupied with. We therefore see brands across industries embracing sustainability messaging, pledging green practices, products and design.

But sustainability means people and planet. While we’re glad so much attention has been placed on the climate (and rightfully so), the question remains: Where’s the people in this equation? For those brands that do dip into the “S” pillar of their ESG mandate, their focuses tend to be around poverty and gender equality. And these focuses occasionally spill into their CSR initiatives. And that’s great!  But there’s so much more to “S” than that.

A Kantar study purported that 88% of consumers think not enough brands do a good job representing them or their community. However, most marketers will tell you limited resources prevent them from picking up multiple swords. Others will advise that if you stand for everything, you stand for nothing. And they’re not wrong. The question then becomes, Do you want to add to the noise and harmonise with a chorus, or do you have appetite to start a new conversation?

2. The representation fallacy

Many brand owners trip up on the fallacy that customers respond to only images of themselves. That they want to see themselves in ads. Yes, people do want to see themselves and their experiences mirrored in advertising. Yet, the opposite isn’t necessarily true: That consumers will reject brands that don’t feature their likeness. This is an advertising fallacy. Just because Dove does not feature male talents in most of their ads has not stopped men from buying Dove. Just because I see a makcik shilling NTUC Fairprice has never stopped me from patronage.

On the contrary, studies have shown the inverse to be true: Ads that feature positive portrayal of marginalised groups actually see lifts in effectiveness, including on short-term sales and long-term brand building. A Deloitte study suggests that 69% of brands with representation in ads saw an average stock gain of 44%. Considering that most brands today chase the Millennial and Gen Z dollar, it’s surprising not more of them actively promote diversity and inclusion, seeing as these demographics are most sensitive toward the topic.

3. Outdated data, antiquated biases

There’s probably enough literature out there about the need to be data-driven. It behooves the brand owner to plot their course based on updated data and market opportunity. One suspects many are still operating on outdated hunches, possible hearsays and very real biases. But a deeper probe could reveal, for instance, the true spending power of Baby Boomers or that people of colour in some parts of the world now have more spending power than ever. Or how about the fact that marketers for the last 2 decades have already acknowledged the power of the “pink dollar”. Yet, for 20 years, we have seen shockingly little mainstream attempts to market to the LGBTQIA+ community. Might any of these be your untapped markets? If so, how can you reach them?

Some marketers will appreciate the occasional inclusion of a trans talent or a heavy-set model in a presentation slide. But they will fall short of agreeing to actually placing these talents in their ads. It’s possible they believe they are selling a dream: That people want to see “actualised” selves in advertising. But they may have missed the fact that advertising today no longer trades in fantasy, but authenticity. Sociologically there is no longer a standard definition of beauty or perfection. That many people already feel actualised, but it’s advertisers who are telling them they have not arrived.

Others would reason that society and consumers are still not ready; that putting out “controversial” ads will alienate customers and significantly dampen sales and brand image. Such sensitivity in marketing is of utmost importance, to be sure, but some markets may be more ready than we think. Is your market one of them?

4. No such stuff

Even if we manage to cross the 1st 3 hurdles and decide to widen our repertoire for representation and chase diversity and inclusion in our work, we find the industry infrastructure lacking. For starters, search “diversity” or “inclusion” on most stock libraries and you’ll see images relating to gender and race. Yay for gender equality and inclusion! Ditto racial representation! We can chalk it up to a win, but there’s lots more to be done. Where are the disabled, the seniors, the LGBTQIA+? It’s not that these libraries lack such images…they’re merely hidden behind a paywall or poor keyword tagging. If we want to change the world, we want to start by changing how we see the world ourselves.

Why it is important for brands to take a stand on diversity and inclusion

Not to overstate the obvious, but brands can make a positive impact on society. After all, brands are made by people, for people. Products and advertising, like all media content, art and pop culture, have the power to shape the way we understand the world. They have the ability to influence how we understand ourselves and relate to others. The good news is, things are changing.

Case in point: According to WARC, 2020 and 2021 were pivotal years for brands in acknowledging the need to pursue diversity, equity and inclusion across all aspects of marketing. In 2021, diversity searches including race, ethnicity, ability, age, body and LGBTQIA+ increased 104% from 2019. While downloads of diverse content increased by a massive 191% from 2019; with 3 million more downloads of content that included more authentic representation of communities in 2021. More than 50% global consumers in a Kantar study, meanwhile, acknowledged that brands “have an important part to play” in social conversations.

The world has spoken, but are we listening?

How we can get on board diversity and inclusion

Progressive portrayals of diversity and inclusion can indeed play a role in delivering more effective advertising, and is now key to brand trust. So where do we start? How can we build an inclusive brand?

1. Be intentional about it

Whether penning a brief and creating an ad, mindfully cast your net wider. Don’t rely on muscle memory. Develop and train new muscles. Must your talent be an ethnic majority? Or must they be young and cisgender? Is “fresh off the runway” the best look for that ad? Consider if real portrayals of everyday people might send a clearer message about authenticity. Perhaps a middle-aged couple can better convey a story of actualisation. Be intentional about who you cast as the protagonist of your story and campaign. Go beyond the obvious.

Diversity and inclusiojn

If you’re writing copy, how do you handle gender pronouns? When building data forms, are you giving the consumer more options beyond “Male” and “Female” when it comes to gender? (Assuming this is even a necessary question to ask.)

And if you’re in the business of product and experience design, how about overcoming any unconscious ableism and think about whether there’s a need to (re)shape your products or edit navigational conventions so as to make your designs more accessible to, well, more?

With all brands having social media presence now too, you can also very quickly produce micro stories that expand on your brand and product universe without busting your wallet. So start telling more stories to connect your brand to a wider spectrum of audience.

2. Go beyond a demographics checkbox exercise

Intentional casting is great, but you must go beyond mere presence and representation. Diversity and inclusion is not a checkbox exercise lest you get accused of the social equivalence of greenwashing. Already, some brands like Calvin Klein and Balmain have come under some shade for less-than-delicate handling of talents in their #MYCALVINS and Balmain Army campaigns respectively. The former being accused of queerbaiting, and the latter for creating idealised and ultimately fictional (and literally, fake) talents not grounded in reality.

When portraying diversity, we mustn’t forget we’re dealing with real stories and real experiences behind very real people. Let’s celebrate, not commoditise. Go beyond casting and mere visual representation. How? By focusing on emotions, attitude, psychographics and what’s archetypal to the human experience. Because these run deep and are universal. These will help you avoid tokenism, and effectively connect your TA to those whose stories you’re trying to tell. Remember: When we tell stories of diversity, we are not creating divide, but seeking to unite.

So focus on painting positive portrayals of people, rather than demographics, or worse, chase an empty box-ticking exercise which will certainly backfire. The 2022 TV series And Just Like That learned this the hard way. No one appreciated its forced “wokeness”. And just like that, they lost many fans. Don’t make yours a cautionary tale too.

3. Research the opportunity, practise design thinking

If it’s been awhile since you conducted a market study, do one now. Re-evaluate the market viability of your product and service. Is there an untapped market? What you thought were your TA from 5 years ago could’ve identified themselves differently now. Are you still relevant to them?

When you’ve identified a segment, flex design thinking. Recruit them into your focus or testing group. Understand them as people, and see the world from their lens. The best advertising thrives on empathy. It’s our most powerful weapon yet. So wield it.

4. Examine your brand purpose

While at it, is it time to also examine and re-evaluate your brand? We live in an age of purpose. What is your brand’s purpose today? If you haven’t identified one, you should get down to doing so. If you already have a purpose, check if it’s an inclusive one. Remember: An inclusive purpose tackles injustice and harmful stereotypes.

A revitalised, culturally relevant brand purpose can then enhance your brand narrative and steer your advertising strategies. Ask yourself: Can you see your brand in the future of a diverse and inclusive nation?

Diversity and inclusion

5. Enforce DEI initiatives at the workplace

It’s also important to be inclusive in your hiring. Many have documented the benefits of doing so. Key among which is that cultural inclusion gives you richness and variety in voices, solutions and creativity. Ideas become richer when you tap into the multiplicity of passions and experience that you won’t be able to access in a homogenous setting. When you have idea diversity, unexpected patterns can start to form. Follow this simple formula: Group work = good; groupthink = bad.

So forego pithy aphorisms like “great minds think alike” or the myth that cultural streamlining yields speed and efficiency. For small companies or teams, however, it may not be realistic to have (as) much diversity: They simply do not have the headcount. If you’re one of those companies or teams, you just have to be even more intentional about involving the relevant group(s) outside your core dynamic; doing so will help to expand your sphere of consideration, ideas and thinking so you can develop richer, more accurate and effective work. You may wish to set aside some of your marketing or HR budget for this purpose.

6. Be an inspiration

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! No one said DEI work is easy. We need vanguards and champions in this industry. Will you be one of them? Take a lead, leave a wake, shape a new reality and improve lives. Market mindfully; and not just for business impact but also for social impact. Be bold and be brave! After all, we’re advertisers, creatives and marketers. It’s in our DNA to shape culture, paint possibilities and think beyond. Just as we have been inspired by advertising giants before us, we can look at creating a legacy now to inspire others after us. The world has many stories yet left to tell. Will you join me in telling them?