Inclusivity is today’s marketing imperative

Although the world has moved on, marketers are still using the same outdated categories in business, putting aside inclusivity

In this guest feature, global consumer behaviour expert Michael Solomon encourages marketers to move away from traditional categories and see consumers as individuals rather than as part of a homogenous market segment to improve inclusivity.

When Tory Burch ran a spot that featured Poppy Delevingne and other fair-skinned models singing and dancing to “Juju on That Beat,” the designer quickly got pushback.

Many objected to what they saw as the whitewashing of Black music. Tory Burch quickly removed the offending content and doubled down on its commitment to cultural sensitivity. Now the company works hard to ensure that racial or sexual identification doesn’t influence how anyone is treated, and it demands that employees speak up when they witness a problem.

For decades, no one gave any thought to taking ideas from other non-Caucasian cultures and incorporating those ideas into their design and marketing efforts. Today that simply doesn’t work. In our social media-driven world, brands like Tory Burch need to be aware of cultural insensitivity, cultural appropriation and plain old racism within their firms. 

Inclusivity is today’s #1 marketing imperative. 

Until recently, many marketers approached their work in terms of a simple racial dichotomy: White vs Not Interested. If ethnic minorities appeared in a tv show or commercial, they played subservient or comical roles like the Aunt Jemima Mammy character. Advertisers focused exclusively on the bread-and-butter so-called general market (code for white consumers) that held the purse strings in the U.S.A.

The rapidly growing diversity of American culture is one of the most important drivers of change this century. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that it will be impossible to categorise most children under the age of 18 into a single racial or ethnic group within a few years. That helps to explain why about 6% of people who filled out the last Census didn’t select one of the race categories the form provided.

It took some simple financial data to wake up much of the business world to the overlooked economic clout of non-Caucasian consumers. The combined buying power of African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans was $1.4 trillion in 2007, more than double what it had been in 1990. Meanwhile, the economic clout of Latinos rose by 307%, to $862 billion over that span. Multicultural marketing became a “thing.”  But there still are pitfalls along the way to total inclusivity.

The long-standing racial and ethnic labels we use to conveniently group people—and then think we understand them as a result—no longer work. Despite the growing awareness of racial/ethnic issues and the positive momentum of diversification, two challenges threaten the industry: 

  • Appropriation.  Shudu is the world’s first digital supermodel. She has appeared in campaigns for Ellesse and Balmain, among others. She has close to 200,000 followers on Instagram, which isn’t bad for a person who doesn’t exist. But her fame comes with some controversy. Critics point out that her creator, a white man, is making money from a Black woman without paying her. Shudu’s critics are part of a larger group concerned about the consequences of what it sees as cultural appropriation, where businesses or creators “borrow” imagery from other cultures, reproduce it without respect for its original meaning and profit from it.
  • Insensitivity.  In 2018, a Facebook ad for Dove body wash included a GIF that depicted a Black woman who removed her brown shirt to reveal a white woman in a light shirt. Soap advertising has historically been littered with the trope of a “dirty” Black person cleansed into whiteness. To address the ensuing outrage on social media, a spokeswoman for Dove said the spot “was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but we got it wrong and, as a result, offended many people.”

It’s great to cast a wide net as your customer base continues to diversity. But be sure you’re asking yourself the right questions before you pull the trigger on a campaign that could come back to bite you:  

  • Do you have a legitimate, credible and believable story the audience will perceive as authentic?
  • Is there any chance your message could be lost in translation as it passes through your cultural filter to the target market?
  • Is there anything that could offend the target market (e.g., use of ethnic or religious symbols, certain types of humour, colours, patterns or historical references)
  • Are all people involved in the project on board?

Above all, do not patronise the audience. If it looks like you’re trying to hijack an ethnic trend to make a buck, you’re going to get in trouble. But if you are sincerely trying to solve a legitimate problem for them, go full speed ahead and embrace the cultural richness of your customer base.

Michael Solomon is a Global Consumer Behaviour Expert and the author of The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization.
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