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OPINION5 July 2018

Three principles for authentic diversity

Media Opinion Trends UK

With LGBT+ festival Pride in London just around the corner, numerous brands are embracing it with advertising supporting the diversity agenda. But what’s the secret to authenticity for brands in this space? By Frances Revel, Michelle Milner and Shze Hui Tjoa. 

It has been a long time coming, but adland has finally had its awakening when it comes to the issue of diversity. In recent years there has been a groundswell of debate around diversity, and the industry is increasingly looking at how it can address shortcomings and promote a more inclusive environment.

But awareness and internal debate is one thing. When it comes to tackling and championing diversity within advertising campaigns, brands and agencies are faced with a minefield of issues to navigate, with a great deal of consumer sensitivity around how – and how deeply – commercial organisations should get involved.

Views and expectations vary greatly between demographic groups. And when brands do take on a responsibility to promote greater diversity, their approaches are not always well received. Despite research showing 79% of people feel gay women are underrepresented in advertising, for example, 42% feel events like Pride are ‘exploited’ by brands. 

For advertisers who do get it wrong, judgements made in the court of social media are immediate and damaging – just ask Pepsi. So, what exactly can brands do to approach inclusivity in an authentic way? How can advertisers ensure their efforts are not just translated as cynical and opportunistic?

The7stars and Sign Salad partnered on research to uncover how brands can effectively champion diversity with authenticity. The project used semiotic analysis to reveal the signals and messages being communicated by advertisers and media brands in relation to diversity, and how these can be received by consumers. What emerged were three key principles that advertisers should follow.

1.Taking a consistent approach

The first is the importance of avoiding tokenism. It may sound obvious, but the fact that consumers are increasingly sensitive to the mechanics and aims of advertising means that poorly-judged, half-hearted efforts to address diversity – however well-intentioned – are readily sniffed out by consumers as box-ticking exercises.

Indeed, one-off activities that draw attention to diversity can do more harm than good, presenting a more diverse world view as an exception that opposes the norm, coded as something outlying ‘regular’ activity.

The antidote is consistency. Nike is an example of a brand that has always included and championed ambassadors from minority backgrounds and socio-economically diverse groups within its work. And those ambassadors are portrayed as complex and multi-faceted – not simply used for aesthetic effect. Mencap’s exemplary ‘Here I Am’ campaign also achieves this, showcasing the talents of Casey, a DJ with both skill and attitude, who also happens to have a learning disability.

For brands to bring this more ‘genuine’ sense of inclusivity into the DNA of a piece of creative, it’s imperative that diversity is embedded in the make-up of the creative team behind it. Lloyds Banking Group did exactly this for its ‘By Your Side’ executions in 2017, including its Rainbow team in discussions on how best to represent bisexuality.

2. The importance of celebrating difference

The second principle is the importance of showcasing minorities who are often unseen or ignored. Brands have received criticism for appearing willing to include minorities who immediately signify diversity but not those whose differences might require more nuance in how they are portrayed.

One answer here is for advertisers to ensure they depict a plethora of difference, such as McCain’s ‘Here’s To Love’ creative. In other instances where brands do hone in on an ‘unseen’ minority group, it’s important that the emphasis is not simply on ‘difference’ but on how that difference has made that group better, or stronger.

3. Guiding principles for complex issues

The third and final principle highlighted by our semiotic analysis was the importance of difference being used as a force to galvanise. There is a danger that brands playing in this space only highlight social division, but Smirnoff’s ‘We’re all equal on the dancefloor’ billboard execution is a prime example of a campaign that cleverly highlighted commonalities regardless of background.

Examples such as these highlight how brands have come a long way on the diversity journey, but there are still learnings for advertisers looking to understand how communication cues can be received by consumers.

By Frances Revel and Michelle Milner of the7stars and Shze Hui Tjoa of Sign Salad

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