Is inclusion at the expense of brand performance?

As a passionate egalitarian I’m on a mission to improve the marketing and creative process to ensure we’re more inclusive. The question comes up a lot, about whether being ‘politically correct’ is counter-intuitive to good marketing and hindering great ideas getting made. I get asked also whether if everyone took this strategic approach wouldn’t all brands muddy into sameness and have no point of difference? Does inclusion then hinder brand and creative performance?

We know that according to Kantar 2019 AdReaction Study that 83% of marketers in APAC think they do a great job with stereotypes, but over 63% of the customer out there disagrees. So, something isn’t aligned; not even close.

Before diving into this, let’s first be clear what inclusion is:

Diversity in the traditional sense is protected legally by a number of factors when it comes to HR and workplace rules, but for the sake of marketing effectively I define it slightly differently and a much wider criteria, because we’re cutting out a significant population if we don’t. Having been in marketing for over 35 years now, and experienced a lot of discrimination myself on top of having a child with gender identity challenges I’ve learned a different perspective.

I consider it important for marketers to define diversity as gender (and all of them, not just male and female), age and life-stages, race and culture, socio-economic, urban and rural, neuro-diversity, and sexuality. Yes, sexuality, gender and our physiology (body parts) are separately defined.

Defining Diversity Differently

Diversity is defined this way because of the fact that our marketing polarizes a great deal of our customers out there if we get these things wrong. With many of the advertising industry in a very niche demographic, living in the affluent CBD and central areas, mostly young and mostly male, mostly Eastern seaboard, and Anglo-Saxon dominant, we’re often off track without seeing the perspective of a wide enough section of our real community…. Way off track, and the data tells us so.

Inclusion is the process of making a wider and more diverse community feel like they belong. In marketing terms this translates into reaching a wider qualified audience, but only if we stop doing things the way we used to. We need to get away from auto-pilot use of traditional demographic profiling.

Budget Management Through Inclusivity

In a recent market survey of 200 senior marketers it was evident that getting the budget to go further is the second most important issue marketers face, next to needing people they work with to have a deeper understanding of their business or category.

These days when budgets are tighter than ever, surely it is more cost efficient to produce work that reaches a wider but highly qualified audience?

Demographic Profiling Limits Your Potential

Think about demographic profiling for a moment. Let’s look at travel as an example. You have set up your brief to reach the female travel buyer, white collar with money to spend with a white collar city job earning $100,000+, living inner suburbs of London UK, and 35-45 years old. If you are like me you’ve no doubt written a brief like this or received a brief like this. You have one budget and only one pot of money to stretch a long way. Imagine trying to sell adventure travel to this demographic profile, when 50% of the audience is likely to have no interest in travel at all and puts all she earns into her comfy home. The other half could consider travel but a big percentage would rather lie by the pool in a resort in Fiji or tropical island. That one budget now has a lot of wastage!

Think about this differently with a very niched audience of people who love adventure travel, do adventurous things and no interest, or less interest, in being at home and nesting. If you open up this niche thinking to people of all ages, all socio-economic groups, any gender, any race or culture then all of a sudden you have a more powerful segment to market to. This is exactly how the Tourism Australia campaign with the mock Dundee film last year ended up three times more successful than they have ever been. By being more inclusive and wider in their reach they achieved this success and still maintained a clear and tight niche with a strategic insight to drive the campaign.

The creative execution and marketing strategy therefore become very inclusive and as you’ll see it certainly didn’t lack creativity! The beauty of this campaign was greater than the creative work with a highly targeted marketing strategy and impressive partnership deals based on the attitudinal insights.

Inclusive Communication Language and Visual Cues

There are very distinct communication and emotional needs of the masculine and feminine (which does not always have to align directly with males and females but does in the main). If we run gender neutral communication then we reach more of our attitudinal segment without polarizing through unconscious bias language, visual styles and symbology. We can then clearly focus on the important strategic messaging that defines our niche and not on whether we have males, females, specific ages or depict specific job roles in the creative.

Being more inclusive reaches more audience, providing you are targeting on something more valuable instead – the key insight on attitude, and that attitude is consistent across anyone in your potential audience. In the case of tourism Australia, shifting this focus made it three times more powerful and therefore you could say three times more cost efficient too (albeit in this case a decent budget to begin with).

Neuro-Diversity is another area where we can cover all bases without polarizing anyone either. This is one system developed by Psychologist Dr Bernice McCarthy created a universal system to reach all personality types in the right order to engage, retain and have the reader take action. First developed and proven effective for the education sector this is a universal system that marketers can adopt too for more effective work that is inclusive across all people. The system entails use of right and left mode strategies with four distinct phases of the learning cycle – experiencing, conceptualizing, applying and refining. It is defined as 5 key stages to reach the widest group in the one communication: Purpose, Why?, What?, How? And What If/Else?

Was the Sales Data Collected With Bias in Place?

Many stick to their sales results as the clue to who their market is and define them by the demographic profiles they have on file. Even the market research is purely about what these existing segments think and not who the potential audience is and what they might want.

What if this data was collected with bias in place in the past and what if the potential audience now is something entirely different? Think about the gaming industry over the years and you’d have said that only men buy online or PC games as, clearly, the sales data showed us that’s all who bought them.

It took Nintendo to step away from the past data and open up their consumer research to see what the potential audience, regardless of age/stage/race/gender/location actually wanted. As a result an inclusive solution of Nintendo Wii games was created and rocked the entire industry with more success than the past games could ever have achieved. This meant that a new product was created, new packaging, new creative and new media and marketing strategies. They then got a whole other result proving the past data was limited.

Many focus on the income as an important demographic bracket but the truth is that not all high income earners actually spend their money and are wealthy because they actually hold on it! Much of the lower income brackets spend more in some areas than those who appear to be wealthy on paper. By focusing on attitudes we get past this. By doing proper research without bias in place we can more accurately find out too. We should not automatically choose aspirational homes, cars or perfectly groomed environments in our art direction either.

There are questions to be asked about whether a city person or a country person does more ‘adventure travel’ too and I’d suggest that a different kind of research project would evolve if we considered who the potential customer was and didn’t keep testing the same old audience as you always did. In the case of Australia Tourism they discovered some countries were more open to adventure travel than others to help target more tightly as well and certainly didn’t just assume it was from the affluent or obvious big city audiences around the world.

At the same time there are niched products by demographic category that are successful too and we shouldn’t outrule them completely, but the big thing is to be conscious about it and don’t just automatically do what you always did. You wouldn’t try and sell tampons to men for example. You might sell tampons to more women of any age and stage who all care about the same problems, rather than only reach the young and youthful automatically as an automatic demographic pot.

The Chicken Or The Egg?

Is it the job of advertising and marketing to simply reflect back what society is doing out there, or to drive change?

Think about marketing to families and to ‘Mum’s’ right now. There is enough sales data that tells us that Mum’s do most of the supermarket shopping, so it would be easy to automatically target the Mum’s and perpetuate this statistic. What if we thought about this statistic as the result of our society’s bias and that the true audience is just starting to appear and to speak up and it is all kinds of parents? Some would say that doing ads that target these Mum’s is just reflecting society, and they’re doing nothing wrong.

The typical family with a Mum, Dad and two small kids now is only 16.6% of all families and therefore is a minority if we look at it deeply. We need to stop showing these families as the only kind of family we have. A brilliant campaign, lacking no creativity, is for Volvo which better aligns with the real family of today and quotes 65% of UK families as non- traditional (and Australia’s statistic is higher again at 83.4%). This campaign was highly successful for Volvo as a result of this new way of aligning with the customer.

The fact is there are growing numbers of men out there that parent, and are currently feeling excluded. The ideal situation is to continue to market to your traditional ‘Mum’ category but open up the creative execution to cover all parents. We don’t have to do it all right away either and just small changes leads us to the right place without brand shock too. How about the packaging just stop having only Mum’s on the pack and having more parents? Or don’t show people at all and keep it ambiguous and in the process stop polarizing a growing segment?

Single father, Michael Ray, featured a lot in the press and a regular speaker on equal rights for fathers took these images in the supermarket recently. This is not inclusive and annoying a decent percentage of parents out there. Being inclusive without polarizing would certainly help at the supermarket point of purchase and be more inclusive without impact to the existing female audience too.

If we don’t stop showing these stereotypes as a conscious effort we’ll keep perpetuating a cultural problem, and in the process miss out on a wider audience. So, even if we think that we’re following the data out there we’re missing the real opportunity and we’re continuing to do harm. We need to retrain the chicken now that the chicken is already here!

Customer Profiling Is Nothing To Do With Creativity

Creativity is a completely other construct than who we talk to and what we say. For some reason many people think that the niche question is about who we talk to rather than be about what we say about what people care about or how they think. Then the next layer is how we execute that message.

This short film by Danish TV station TV2 is the best demonstration of this. See how defining segments by attitude is far more engaging and opens up creative opportunity as opposed to sticking us in demographic boxes?

Having a tight brief that reaches a broader audience is not the enemy of creativity. Creativity thrives in constraint. See how the stories of the people really shine in this creative execution and how much more engaging it is as content?

We can have a wonderful insight but we can equally create amazing creative work and also average work. That’s a whole other layer of concern to factor into the creative process but certainly isn’t impacted by an inclusive brief.

Attitudes Aligned With Demographics

The key to an inclusive marketing campaign is not necessarily to do this every time, but to at least be conscious about it. Beginning with that open research project, properly managed to let go of past customer data and asking the right questions that help discover who the real potential audience is and what they think and care about is a great place to start.

If your audience is proven to be gendered, aged or certain community then go harder there with confidence. At least make it intentional and with the right data behind you rather than on auto-pilot through every point of the marketing and creative process.

Starting to ask questions is the best place to start.

My thanks to Anne Miles for this post. Anne is founder of Suits&Sneakers – a collective of some of the industry’s best strategic (suits) and creative and tech talent (sneakers) and is an advocate for changing the marketing and creative process to remove unconscious bias.

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