Change your region

Inclusive marketing amid the new culture wars: Starting with know what you stand for

Two decades into the 21st century, diversity and inclusion in marketing shouldn’t be afterthoughts, mere add-ons, the proverbial box to tick. Both should be table stakes, something marketers do not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it can grow business.

Yet, in the past couple of years we’ve witnessed even mild attempts at diversity and inclusion get dragged into culture clashes we thought were behind us.

These battles have grown so bitter in some cases that major corporations have lost business (if only temporarily) and marketers have lost their jobs.

The facts shout that marketing outreach to underserved or underrepresented communities can still grow business, especially for the long term.

For example, last year we worked with adidas to challenge inequality in sport through a unique content series called “Running While Black.” We showed people the uncomfortable reality of what life is like for black runners – specifically highlighting the murder of Ahmaud Aubrey – and challenged people’s perceptions through a three-part content series. The effort notched 38 million video views, a 6% lift in unaided brand awareness, and a 4% lift in visibility and support of Black runners.

But there’s no escaping the reality that we live in polarised times in many countries, including the United States. For brands who do want to see and seek purpose as the cultural power grid that lights up marketing activities, the question becomes, how do I identify and mitigate risks that might arise from this?

Know what you stand for

I have a belief that if a brand knows what it stands for, it knows where it stands, and for whom. If diversity and inclusion are part of your core values, then make it core to your messaging. If they aren’t, then don’t. You might be leaving money on the table, but many brands steer clear of purpose-driven marketing—focusing more on uniqueness of services, products and features-- and do just fine.

If you do decide to talk the talk and walk the walk, the working teams have to reflect and embody these principles.

And this is where it’s important to have diversity of thought in your teams, in addition to representation. If you are delving into matters that might be politically charged, it’s useful to have someone who can point out how and why that might be so. That doesn’t mean you need the entire political spectrum represented. But you at least need people who can give voice to different viewpoints and litigate the opinion that is in opposition to your own. 

Grant standing permission to share alternate points of view, even if it’s just to say, “While we all agree in this room on this approach, here’s where we might run into resistance.” Team members should feel safe in expressing them. Once leaders stop listening or forgo forums for debate, team members will stop talking. Don’t let this happen.

The more diversity you empower in the decision-making process, and safer space to speak – constructively, empirically – the fewer blind spots you are likely to encounter as a team.

Data is defence and the source code for dialogue

Data can help you see the forest for the trees, so to speak – and allows you to compare your possible future audience with your present customer base. 

Reaching out to underserved groups may seem like a risk right now but the data shows that GenZ and GenAlpha — and what comes after them — is shaping up to be a multicultural, new-majority population that prides itself on tolerance and acceptance. 

According to Pew, “members of Gen Z are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, and they are on track to be the most well-educated generation yet. Pew also found that “similar to Millennials, Gen Zers are progressive and … most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing.” And according to U.S. census data 26% of Gen Alpha will be Hispanic, compared with 19% for the general population. On top of that, 7% will be two or more races, versus 3% for the overall population. Meanwhile, with that number only expected to go up.

Prepare for the worst!

If data and emotion can work together in harmony, the campaign should be able to stand against any critic.

In an ideal world, brands would be able to engage with one group without alienating another. But in some cases, you might not be able to. That’s the risk and reality.

There was a time when you could run campaigns in specific media outlets to target specific groups without any other demographic being aware of it. Today’s politics-pervasive climate combined with social media means containment is a folly. Any campaign can be seen by everyone. And “bad” typically travels faster than good.

Even with the best of data, and intentions, brands should have the right people in the room considering all possible outcomes and designate a team ready to respond to any crisis. 

Respond to facts rather than reacting to noise. Look at the actual numbers versus the perceived outcry or loudness of that outcry. Years ago, Cheerios ran an ad featuring a multicultural family. When the video was posted to YouTube, there was a lot of divisive, ugly commentary that then got picked up by mainstream media and blown out of proportion. The reality was most viewers liked the ad. A few hundred – or even a few thousand ugly comments – did not represent a majority.

Stand your ground!

If you’re going to take a stand then you have to be ready to defend that ground. If you start to backtrack because one set of people are angry, you’re also going to anger the people you were trying to reach – potentially alienating both customer bases. In other words, if you’d banked on taking a stand, you should avoid trying to retreat to the middle, where one supports all and everything. Be consistent and confidence of your brand’s stand, and those who stand by you. 

If you have confidence in your data, and your media and message, it’s okay to challenge audiences. Most groundbreaking campaigns can and probably should be a bit uncomfortable at first.

That’s not to say you should have some sort of plan in place if you start taking real-world business hits. Even then, you should consider short-term pain vs. long-term gains. 

The chance to unite – and grow

But it’s also possible to create powerful campaigns that unite people, since most of us have more in common than we think. The Ad Council’s “Love Has No Labels” campaign jumps immediately to mind.

More recently, Ally Financial leaned into the world of sports, with focus on women’s soccer. In its own way, sport is a universal language. But even here, there’s room for inclusion. Professional women’s athletes across leagues are paid less than men. Ally wanted to do something about it. As part of that effort, it decided to break the Catch 22 of some women’s sports leagues. Sponsorship dollars are low because ratings are low. But ratings are low because the games are aired during horrible time slots (when they’re aired at all). Working with the National Women’s Soccer League and CBS Sports, they moved the championship game to prime time. The NWSL Championship was the most-watched game in league history with 1 million viewers, representing +71% year-over-year increase. The Ally brand, under its visionary CMO, Andrea Brimmer, saw a 55% awareness among female sports fans and an all-time high favorability (85%) amongst female sports fans. This is just one example of Ally Bank seizing its commitment to Do It Right.

While perfect inclusion is elusive—as one person’s progress can be another person’s outrage—every brand has a right and responsibility to have a point-of-view, a stand. A stand that is true to their unique histories and stories. A stand that is directed by clear evidence lending both credibility and viability. A stand that is seen, remarkable and memorable.

Seize your rightful stand.