Tensions around race and issues of identity are, once again, at the forefront of the American conscience. Shifting demographics have led to an increasingly multi-cultural population. Traditional gender binaries and family compositions are being challenged. Some people are uncomfortable with these changes and are voicing their malaise.
Despite the democratization of the media, brands undeniably have a disproportionate share of voice and therefore an important role to play in this conversation. When well-crafted and executed, their messages and actions have the power to change the way people see the world, to shift culture, for better or for worse. We see brands like Chick-fil-A in the US channeling conservative views while, on the other side of the spectrum, forward-looking brands that seek to represent the new America are taking a pro-diversity stand on gender, race, sexual preference, disability and other issues of inclusion.
Brands across categories and countries are grappling with how to address these important cultural issues. Their strategies range from the very vanilla and consensual to the intentionally provocative. Four approaches emerge, distinguished by their strategic intent and their degree of engagement.
The first and arguably the most accessible approach toward inclusivity has been with us for decades, led by brands like Coca Cola and Budweiser. It seeks to show different kinds of people as a reflection of the true diversity of society. This price-of-entry approach is more difficult than it sounds. Inserting an ethnic minority without considering authentic context and cultural signifiers can smack of tokenism. Portrayals are often criticized for their lack of authenticity: either too 'white-washed' or too stereotyped. A recent example of this is a children's ad by GAP, which drew criticism on social media because of the posing of the kids, with an older white girl using the younger black girl's head as an arm rest. The ad was quickly pulled. Thus, while a simple portrayal of diversity isn't particularly ambitious, it is important to get it right. To do so, brands must be acutely attuned to cultural cues.
A growing number of brands are choosing to more directly embrace difference as an integral part of their platforms. By celebrating a new vision of inclusion, they gain cultural currency and attention. These efforts are most successful when aligned with a brand's equity. When Guinness aired their Friendship ad in fall of 2013, featuring six men playing wheelchair basketball and revealing after the final buzzer that only one of the men was disabled...the brand scored a three-pointer. The ad's emphasis on universal values of friendship and camaraderie, depicted in an authentic sporting situation, rang true and avoided many of the classic traps of objectification or sentimentality. Other campaigns, particularly those that touch on sensitive political issues around gender and sexual orientation, have taken more flack: When Wells Fargo aired 'Learning sign language' , which featured a Lesbian couple adopting a deaf child, they faced a boycott from Billy Graham churches. Tylenol's #HowWeFamily campaign, which also highlighted LGBT households, was equally criticized. Such efforts need to be built from an enduring purpose and must constantly demonstrate their authenticity. And unfortunately, they must be prepared to take the heat.
HoneyMaid 2014, one of the first out of the mainstream gate to take a strong stand on inclusion, fared better and is to be applauded, both for the timeliness and cleverness of their approach. When the 90-year-old brand launched its #not broken campaign in March2014, it was seeking a fresh way to reach parents. The campaign showcased loving families: two fathers with a child, as well as mixed-race parents, along with the tagline 'This is Wholesome'. Not surprisingly, the ad elicited strong reactions, both of praise and anger. Their quick follow-on digital campaign was brilliantly executed. In it, they shared both the negative and the overwhelmingly positive feedback from viewers. By pointing out that the vast majority of Americans were accepting of a new definition of 'wholesome parenting', HoneyMaid played an important role in shifting cultural norms. The brand has since followed up with multiple messages promoting different kinds of openness, the most recent of which is a "Wholesome button," plug-in that instantly transforms text on any given page into "wholesome" messages about love and acceptance.
Certain brands have chosen to take an even more explicit stance, actively leveraging their media presence to right wrongs. SheaMoisture's #BreakTheWalls campaign takes on the segregation of beauty products found at shelf, where we find products relegated to an "ethnic" section. Richelieu Dennis, founder and CEO of Sundial Brands, which owns SheaMoisture, points out that this segregation perpetuates narrow standards of what is considered beautiful in our industry and our society. The campaign has gotten notice beyond the SheaMoisture target and has instigated conversations across the industry about how something even as seemingly pedestrian as retail merchandising can send harmful cultural messages. Ariel India's #ShareTheLoad campaign is a direct call to action for the redistribution of family responsibility. In it, P&G shows how fathers and husbands can take small steps (like doing laundry) to share more of the burden of caretaking, which has traditionally fallen on the shoulders of women. Creating more equal homes, even with something small and everyday like laundry, is an aspirational and progressive message in a culture caught between the codified gender norms of traditionalism and the changes brought about by modernity and globalization. The video has gone viral and has positioned Ariel as relevant in advocating for women and the modern family.
Finally and importantly, we see certain brands seizing the opportunity to change the way they do business to address issues of diversity. These pioneers are developing and marketing new products and services to accommodate the needs of a more diverse populations. Naja (Nude for All) lingerie was launched by Catalina Girald after seeing Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Gabby Douglas compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics wearing a "nude" ankle wrap that didn't match her skin tone. Girald's lingerie proposes seven shades of nude for every skin tone in recognition of the fact that "'nude' is not 'nude' for everyone." Ticketing agent, The Ticket Factory, is another great example of going beyond the 'say' to the 'do'. In February, they revamped their system to make it easier for disabled people to reserve seats. Where before ticket purchasers were obliged to call in to explain their special requirements, they can now easily book online using a personalized Access card. By addressing a source of constant complaint among disabled customers, the Ticket Factory has shown leadership and demonstrated how a little ingenuity can make a big difference.
Media and advertising are not the only ways to effect change. Many believe that diversity initiatives are most successful when they begin inside a company. Starbuck's CEO, Howard Schulz has been a pioneer in promoting freedom around sexual orientation within his organization. His commitment was made apparent when challenged recently in an annual shareholder meeting over his pro-gay stance. He responded firmly on the spot that his decision was not an economic one and that he remained firmly committed to 'embracing diversity of all kinds'.
Kaiser Permanente, recently ranked No. 1 on Diversity Inc's Top 50 Companies, is a noteworthy example of a business that has been fighting the good fight for decades. Kaiser was the first health care organization to have a racially integrated hospital back in the 1940s when their co-founder stated "[Black patients are] to be treated like everybody else. There is no segregation at our facilities." Unfortunately, these examples of organic diversity within companies are too rare. Figures for diversity in the tech industry are particularly abysmal, with blacks/Hispanics representing less than 5 % of a typical hi-tech workforce. Encouragingly, increased transparency on the issue and more proactive policies may be starting to make a slight dent. For example, Google reported a small but significant uptick from 2% of African Americans in their total workforce to 4% African American representation in their 2015 hires. Google's uphill battle to create a more diverse organization underlines the monumental challenge faced by tomorrow's businesses. Diversity initiatives are not only important from an image perspective. With a growing percentage of millennials coming from diversity, homogeneous brands and companies are at a real disadvantage in seizing the opportunities to meaningfully addressing their needs. Research can only go so far. Without representation and deep understanding within an organization, it is hard to translate even the most compelling data into action.
The stands taken by companies and brands to embrace diversity and inclusion have not always been easy. Their actions can come at a significant cost, at least in the short term. Yet each initiative cited is having a positive impact. By sharing fresh cultural perspectives on a topic, brands are reigniting important conversations about equality in fresh, innovative ways. If history teaches us anything, we can expect the brands who wisely and authentically promote diversity to reap lasting benefits in the hearts and minds of consumers, in culture and in their bottom lines.
Written by Leslie Pascaud, Executive Vice President Purpose Branding and Sustainable Innovation Kantar Added Value