Opinion: How to guarantee that your marketing images are diverse and inclusive
Diversity and inclusion matter in business. When marketing services, products or brands, images can create a connection, or repel, in an instant. But inclusive marketing means more than adding a variety of skin tones to images.
To begin tackling this complex and nuanced challenge, you need to know your baseline by conducting an audit of your visual content.
Why a D&I audit? Once you recognize the need to visually represent diverse audiences in an inclusive way, it might be tempting to add a wider variety of people to your imagery. But a methodical approach will set a baseline for measuring our progress and hold yourself accountable to real change.
An audit can also help identify blind spots—do images of inanimate objects contain inappropriate racial or gender coding?—and help chart the path forward. Here’s how:
Build your team
Put together a team with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Seek volunteers within your organization across a variety of roles—senior staff, new hires, management and technical specialists, creative and administrative roles. Consider inviting customers to participate.
Look at the focus of the specific project and its target audience to consider what perspectives will bring different points of view. In a receptive environment, adding fresh voices to teams can add new perspectives to your organization and your work.
Establish longer-term goals, including embedding diverse perspectives into work, reflecting diversity across all creative elements and incorporating cultural context. Goals should also include depicting positive portrayals that challenge stereotypes and championing different groups across all marketing assets. Tell real stories when possible but, if you fictionalize, make sure they are based in deep insight.
Encourage team members to call out anything they see to ensure you are covering the bases. Diversity and inclusion misses might not be detectable in every instance, but it’s better to overly scrutinize than miss something obvious. Here are important questions to ask:
Is gender equitably represented? Consider a goal of gender parity, and of making space for less conventional depictions of gender or for non-binary representation.
Are various ages represented equally?
Are you disproportionately representing a particular race? Show a variety of real skin tones and hair types.
Are you positively representing heterosexual and LGBTQ+ communities?
Are you including a range of representations of income/wealth levels, education?
Are people with disabilities equitably included? Is a range of disabilities portrayed? Is their presence or activity defined by their disability, or are they there as equal members of the cast?
Are your assets free of stereotypes? Be aware of your unconscious biases and how they might cause you to perpetuate certain stereotypes.
Are portrayals multidimensional? When it comes to intersectionality, many dimensions of diversity can overlap in complex ways.
Now go deeper
Once you’ve worked through your criteria, evaluate how characters are represented. Are roles, physical appearance and visual prominence positive and empowering or promoting stereotypes?
Diverse perspectives of team members are especially valuable here. Make sure to create a safe space for feedback and encourage people to voice their unique opinions. If one person on your team interprets something a certain way, it’s likely that so will someone in your audience.
You can also solicit suggestions from your auditors/reviewers to address holes, and to improve portrayals of different groups in authentic ways.
When evaluating, watch for these possible pitfalls:
You represent men and women equally, but regularly depict women as passive or in the background—shopping or caretaking—rather than leading.
You depict multiple races in group shots, but single-character images default to the same race.
Age groups are equally represented, but younger groups are shown as active and happy, while older groups are depicted as wiser and more responsible.
People with disabilities are not portrayed as engaged in action or as complex as others.
Where to go from here
You’ve evaluated visual assets for diversity and inclusion and can measure progress against your goals. Next steps will vary greatly depending on your organization.
Consider creating guidelines for internal teams, partners and vendors, prioritizing the criteria that need the most attention. It’s also helpful to communicate a shared responsibility for applying a D&I lens to marketing, and to encourage people to speak up if something doesn’t feel right—even when the conversations feel uncomfortable and clumsy.
Everyone benefits from positive reinforcement, so take note to celebrate good examples that your team produces as inspiration for all. And schedule a date for your next audit to measure progress.
Diversity and inclusion in marketing are not items to cross off your list. They’re part of an ongoing journey well worth traveling.