Rather than show diversity in images, brands should tell stories that normalize it
As broadcast TV networks prepare to launch their fall lineups, many of us are anticipating how creators, in both programming and advertising, will answer the call for diversity and inclusion.
While diversity and inclusion rightfully reign as top concerns in both advertising and Hollywood, I believe showrunner powerhouse Shonda Rhimes put it best: We don’t need to "diversify" television, we need to "normalize" it.
In advertising, we’ve certainly made strides in showing more inclusive imagery. But in my view, the next phase of equitable representation will have less to do with who brands show and more to do with the stories they tell. Winning brands must capture the compelling and complex realities of Americans, the majority who look, live or love differently than the people we still most often see on screen.
Here are three takeaways from brands who are doing it right:
Broad strokes won’t cut it. To normalize normal, brands must embrace nuance. Consider "The Talk,” for example. The Emmy award-winning spot by P&G, widely celebrated for its empathetic portrayal of African American parenting struggles, actually received some criticism for the absence of men. The creative team held that they were aiming to depict mothers’ reckoning with systemic racism. But by leaving men out of the conversation, the brand unwittingly reinforced the absent-father stereotype. So P&G enlisted the help of male African American creatives at Saturday Morning and set out to make things right. Their next spot, ‘The Look,” offers a nuanced view into insidious bias African American men face. P&G understood that in order to capture the truth of their audiences’ lives, they had to examine women’s and men’s experiences separately. In so doing, the brand delivered equitable representation not by telling one tale, but by exploring the complexity of the black experience.
Commit to more than marketing
From athletic apparel to toy manufacturers (yes, even Barbie), brands are more willing than ever to surrender restrictive ideals of beauty for the sake of inclusion. But none commits quite like Sephora. With “We Belong to Something Beautiful,” the brand takes inclusion to the next level, bringing viewers face to face with non-binary experiences across race, ability, body type, age and transition. It’s equally impactful that Sephora anchors this striking imagery with the gender expansive, “They, She, He, Xe, We,” at a time when the Human Rights Campaign reminds us how deeply personal our names and pronouns are. The anthemic display makes the brand’s world view clear: No matter your identity, there is beauty in the freedom of self-expression.
What’s more, Sephora’s corporate actions back its marketing. The campaign launch coincided with an incident where a store employee called security on an African American shopper who turned out to be Grammy-nominated R&B artist SZA. Sephora responded by shutting down all its stores, distribution centers, call centers and corporate offices to engage its 16,000 employees for a one-hour diversity training. In prioritizing this dialogue about inclusivity, Sephora earned the right to declare that it "will never stop building a community where diversity is expected, self-expression is honored, all are welcomed, and you are included."
Innovate for inclusion
Clearly, it’s a win when brands craft authentic stories that show cultural competency. But when a brand brings inclusivity to its product innovation, it walks the walk. That’s the case with Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller. In an effort to be more inclusive, Microsoft released a controller designed to adapt to differently abled gamers.
Microsoft’s Super Bowl spot shows kids with a range of disabilities who, thanks to the adaptive technology, can experience the gratification of a level playing field. Microsoft’s campaign tagline, “When everybody plays, we all win,” drives home the brand’s commitment to inclusion from the product level on up. It's no surprise that Microsoft was rewarded for its social innovation. In a Super Bowl ad effectiveness rating, “We All Win” ran away with the top score in emotional impact, and the controller won the top design prize at D&AD Festival.
No matter what business you operate, a percentage of your audience is black, brown, female, queer or many other things that are simply normal. It’s time we take audiences beyond merely seeing underrepresented populations to a place where we can actually consider their lives. Consumers trust brands that understand their complex realities and are brave enough to use their platform to tell it like it is—like it really is.