When It Comes to Diversity in Advertising, Avoid the Obvious

A recent survey by Facebook found that more than half of consumers (54%) report they “do not feel fully culturally represented in online advertising.”

This matters: not just ethically and culturally, but with regard to the effectiveness of a brand’s digital messages. In the same survey, 59% of consumers said they prefer to buy from, and are more loyal to, brands that stand for diversity and inclusion in online advertising.

Ryan Barwick of Marketing Brew gave his obvious takeaway: “[T]he marketing and media world must accelerate diversity initiatives both with external-facing talent and behind the scenes.”

But is that, perhaps, a little too obvious?

The most important concept in advertising is YOU. The more personalized and relevant an ad message is, generally speaking, the better it will perform. (This is especially true of digital campaigns expected to generate demand, leads and/or sales.) I’ve often said that the leap from good to great in advertising happens when your audience sees its best reflection in the creative.

Now, think about how your brand might pull this off with “external-facing diversity initiatives.” If your goal is to represent the wide swath of American experience in an ad — accounting for gender, race, age, education, income, style, religion, location (warm vs. cold regions), health/weight, and on and on — how many different “types” would you have to show? Can an audience be expected to look into a mirror with 37 different faces in it, and stare long enough to pick out which one best represents them?

An ad shouldn’t set out to show how diverse or tolerant your company is. It should set out to show how your brand and its offering(s) can help its audience. Consider creative ways you can invite your audience to “see themselves” in your ad without trying to buy the world a Coke (as it were):

  • Eliminate people imagery altogether — e.g., feature your product alone, and invite your audience to imagine themselves using it
  • Leverage representative imagery — where a little can imply a lot (e.g., see the Starbucks “hands” IG posts below)
  • Connect in more specific ways — e.g., Coca-Cola did a magnificent job connecting 1:1 with its personalized bottles campaign (see below)

(Keep in mind that the above are tactical approaches for brand- or product-specific campaigns. An initiative or campaign that is about diversity is something else altogether. That’s where brands can push themselves forward — ethically and culturally — by stretching their empathy and creativity. Heineken’s “Open Your World” campaign, below, is a fine example.)

Now, Mr. Barwick is spot-on that “the marketing and media world must accelerate diversity initiatives … behind the scenes.” Industries like tech, media and marketing have a lot more work to do to become more inclusive and diverse. As I wrote in Technical.ly Philly three years ago, continuing to minimize or ignore these diversity problems is both unethical to the individual and damaging to our greater society.

It’s also bad business. Overwhelming research shows that companies with diverse staffs benefit in numerous ways:

  • Their teams tend to be more creative and innovative
  • Their staffs tend to be more engaged and challenged
  • Employee satisfaction and retention is significantly higher
  • Increased job satisfaction drives increased productivity and quality
  • Diversity of staff means diversity of networks, which brings more opportunities

But these are questions of business and ethics that require many separate conversations.

Most marketers, right now, are faced with the next ad or campaign. So, when starting one with “diversity” in mind, begin with the question, “Why are we doing this?” If the answer is, “Because our audiences want to see it,” you need a better answer.

Marketers need to step out of the role of short-order cooks, serving up whatever the data says your audience wants. People want to be led. By leaders. By empathetic thinkers and innovators who imagine a better world and how we can build it. Not by virtue signalers trying to shine a pretty light on their brands in the name of “diversity.”

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Originally published in Marketing Insider (MediaPost):

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