Do we need more diverse brands? Or more diverse companies?

It’s great to see diversity firmly on the ad industry agenda – but we need to be clear about the objective

March 26, 2019

Do we need more diverse brands? Or more diverse companies?

More representative and more diverse ad campaigns have been one of the dominant themes of Advertising Week Europe this week. By my reckoning there were at least seven different sessions dealing with this issue. It’s encouraging to see diversity this far up the advertising industry agenda at last. However, I think there’s still a lack of clarity about what marketers should be trying to achieve.

Is it enough for brands to create advertising that includes a greater range of ethnic groups, disabilities, genders and sexualities? Or do we need something more from the organisations behind that advertising? Is this a creative advertising problem? Or is it a far more fundamental marketing and business problem?

There’s a definite school of thought that a business putting more diverse groups into its advertising is having a positive social impact, regardless of how diverse that business actually is. Minority groups are often either absent from the media environment – or used as shorthand stereotypes: from submissive Muslim women to a promiscuous and flamboyant LGBTQ community, to disabled people perpetually facing hardship and living on benefits. Recent research from Lloyds found that representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups in advertising has doubled from 12% to 25% since 2015. However, only 7% of lead roles in ads are played by someone from a BAME group. Making minority groups more visible in advertising provides an opportunity to erode the sense of otherness and confront the clichés – and this opportunity isn’t to be taken lightly.

However, let’s make no mistake. The most direct and obvious benefits of just creating a more diverse ad are the benefits that brands themselves hope to achieve.

The commercial logic for more diverse ads

LinkedIn’s VP EMEA and Latin America Josh Graff spelled out the logical business benefits of diverse ads when he appeared on the Microsoft panel, ‘The World is Diverse so why isn’t your Advertising?’ The examples he gave included the fact that there are over 1 billion people with some form of disability worldwide; and the LGBTQ community has global buying power of at least $3.7 trillion. So creating ads that are relatable to such big and lucrative addressable audiences makes commercial sense. And as the Creative Director of Therapy Agency, Richard Miles pointed out, inclusion does make a measurable difference. Three quarters of the UK public remember ads featuring diverse people more than ads that don’t.

The question we have to ask ourselves though, is whether an ad with more minority groups in it is really enough to change a brand’s relationship to those groups. More importantly, does it deliver any real positive benefit to the minority groups themselves?

Are diverse ads automatically more inclusive?

Research presented by MediaCom at another session shows that including diverse groups in ads isn’t enough. In fact, it can have very serious unintended consequences. When asked if advertising presented LGBTQ audiences in a negative light, for example, only 11% of straight survey participants said that it did. This shot up to 54% among LGBTQ audiences themselves. Ads that feature diversity often can’t resist drawing attention to that diversity – they either conform to stereotypes or draw attention to them by calling them out in a way that’s equally unrepresentative (going out of their way to show Muslim women swearing, for example, as happened in one ad recently submitted to Amaliah, an organisation that campaigns for fairer representation of muslims in media). It’s almost as though, after going to the perceived trouble of putting diverse characters into advertising, brands want to get maximum impact from it, one way or another.

What’s missing are fully rounded, diverse characters whose diversity is incidental to the point of the ad. And yet that’s the type of representation minority groups actually want. “Are we using advertising as a way of talking to diverse audiences – or are we really talking to mainstream ones about their concerns?” asked MediaCom’s Content Director John Beardsworth. “Are we alienating the audiences we’re trying to portray in more diverse advertising?” Without a genuinely inclusive viewpoint behind it, diverse advertising can feel like tokenism. It’s not just inauthentic – it can be counter-productive.

Is understanding enough?

Members of both panels spoke about the value of advertising and media agencies reaching out to minority groups in order to build greater understanding before attempting to create inclusive advertising campaigns. Beardsworth also stressed the need to allow time for this education process to take place. These approaches have produced some excellent results, notably in the treatment of disability in recent Maltesers ads. However, I’d argue that they have to be part of a wider cultural journey that a business needs to embark on in a meaningful way, before it starts to signal values of diversity and inclusion in its campaigns. It needs to start by committing to serious, open and inclusive conversations with the most important brand asset that any business has: its own employees.

“People often talk about brands with a purpose,” said Josh when he appeared on the Microsoft panel. “but I subscribe more to the idea of companies with a purpose.” If the vision that a brand shows in its ads doesn’t align with the reality of its values then sooner or later it runs into trouble. If you advertise values of diversity and inclusion, you need to be serious about creating products and experiences that reflect those values, and to do that you need to be serious about embedding those values within the business as a whole. This takes time – even more time than properly researching an ad among diverse groups.

It’s easy for marketers and advertising agencies to convince themselves that by holding up a vision of diversity in advertising, they magically inspire the business itself to become more diverse. The reality is very different: it involves a long and complicated cultural journey requiring members of privileged groups to accept limits on the privilege they’re accustomed to enjoy. It involves difficult conversations about unconscious bias and a rigorous process for identifying and addressing it. An ad is no shortcut to any of this. It’s definitely not a substitute for it.

The growing importance of authenticity on diversity

In a CNN session on the Science of Emotional Storytelling, I watched a Cannes Lion-winning short film that the media brand’s content business, Great Big Story, had helped to create for P&G. This was a film about LGBTQ rights – but it was a film that took as its starting point the fact that, in the 1980s, this community had almost no representation whatsoever within the P&G business. It demonstrated authentic commitment in the present by showing the journey the organisation had had to take in the recent past. And as PHD’s Group Innovation Director Phil Rowley pointed out in that session, this level of authenticity is absolutely crucial if you’re to build your brand position around a sense of inclusion. He explained that one of the most significant differences between Millennials and Generation Z is younger audiences’ interrogation of claims of brand purpose: “You have to be belt and braces on legitimacy before you start talking the talk on cause-based marketing. Gen Z will call you out on it straight away.” As Josh pointed out, consumers are smart enough to recognise that brands displaying a rainbow flag once a year to mark Pride aren’t necessarily being authentic.

If creatives fear the sack for creating diverse ads, what’s that say about the business?

Josh’s fellow panellists talked quite a lot about marketers and advertising creatives being brave enough to risk the sack for creating bold ads with more diverse themes and casting. I know the advertising industry likes to see itself in the role of courageous, creative-minded people saving the day in this way. But I believe it fundamentally misses the point. If you really fear getting sacked for putting a representative disabled or LGBTQ person in your ad – does that business really deserve the benefits of the diverse ad you’re creating? Are you in danger of misleading your audiences and promising an experience of your brand that sooner or later, your non-diverse business will fail to deliver?

When it comes to diversity and branding there is almost inevitably a tension between aspiration and reality. And we need to be sensitive to that tension in order to get the balance right. I think there are lessons from the world of employer branding that apply here. Businesses who want to build a diverse workforce and inclusive culture understandably want to create job ads and employer branding that shows diverse people happily working at their organisation. However, if that’s not the reality, they are very unlikely to keep hold of diverse employees once they’ve hired them. Their reputation may well suffer as a result. It’s vital to be honest about what’s an ambition – and what’s the truth about where you currently are.

This doesn’t mean that you have to have arrived at a fully diverse and inclusive place before you create diverse advertising. However, you definitely have to start that journey in a way that everyone working for your business actually notices. You can’t tell your existing organisation that you are now inclusive and diverse through advertising alone.

Make sure you’re walking before you start talking

Microsoft is a business on a diversity and inclusion journey, that’s fairly open about the journey not being yet complete – but is still able to tell authentic stories about the tangible difference it makes to people’s experience of the brand. A more diverse and inclusive business influences the innovation process, the products that the business develops and markets, and the experiences that people therefore have of the brand. Microsoft’s Super Bowl ad for the Adaptive Controller was a case of a brand working hard to earn the right to tell disabled people that it values them.

Marketing is about more than just advertising. It may be a creative no-brainer that you’re more effective when you feature all of your addressable, valuable audiences in your communication. But that’s only part of the challenge – and part of the benefit. Building a genuinely diverse and inclusive business means shaping every aspect of your marketing proposition around these things: addressing diverse groups’ need for inclusion and belonging through the way you operate and the products you bring to market.

When a marketer and agency work together to create more diverse advertising they make a promise to customers that this is a business that values them, and makes meaningful decisions that reflect those values. It may not be a perfectly diverse and perfectly inclusive organisation,  and those on this journey know how difficult that is to actually achieve. However, as a marketer, you need to believe that there is sufficient commitment from your organisation to deliver on the promise. If not, then maybe that’s where your focus needs to go first.