You’ve probably had several conversations in your workplace focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (and maybe belonging). Despite decades of intentional efforts by companies and organizations to hire and promote based on diversity, within the past few years, DEI has taken center stage again, filtering throughout departments, including marketing.
Part of the focus comes out of cultural and societal impacts of the last few years, including recurrent racial, LGBTQ and gender issues, and a shift in generational viewpoints. For example, millennials and Gen Z are more attuned to companies with a social conscience.
More than 70% of Millennials say corporate and social responsibility weighs into their buying decisions. According to American Marketing Association research, millennials and Gen Z aren’t just cool with social responsibility—they demand it. Also, members of Gen Z are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, and they are on track to be the most well-educated generation yet, according to Pew Research.
Marketers, who are keenly aware of demographics and psychographics because they research and select target audiences, understand diversity and how it showcases a range of demographic and psychographic distinctions, including race, sexual orientation, age, education, physical challenges, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, lifestyle, personality characteristics, family composition and perspectives.
It’s the inclusion piece that continues to get stuck in the gears. Diversity and inclusion work together, but they aren’t the same thing. Succinctly put in a Forbes article, “Inclusion is the behaviors that welcome and embrace diversity.”
When marketers talk about inclusive marketing, they should consider that the goal is to balance inclusive marketing’s output based not only on the message in the marketing, but also with the voices relaying that message. Inclusive marketing has a distinct power to bring the stories of underrepresented or misrepresented people to the forefront—to expand perspectives and welcome/introduce new customers into a commercial space and deepen connections with current customers.
Another way you can see the significance of inclusive marketing is the vast array of companies, including Amazon, Google and IBM, already touting it and their practices of it.
“We define Inclusive Marketing as marketing that may highlight or solve for an aspect of diversity where exclusion exists. This is something that resonates with all of us — by amplifying a common human value like love, family, safety, opportunity, or enduring stories like the struggle of coming of age or the underdog overcoming all obstacles,” according to Microsoft. “Inclusive Marketing considers its products, services, or experiences in ways that deeply resonate with people and make them feel seen and accurately understood. This inclusion and thoughtful consideration fuels long term loyalty and growth. This is at the heart of Inclusive Marketing.”
In short, inclusive marketing, according to Gallup and Salesforce training, means creating content that reflects the diverse communities that companies serve. It requires companies and organizations to elevate “diverse voices and role models, decrease cultural bias, and lead positive social change through thoughtful and respectful content.”
Ok, sounds like a plan. But where do companies and businesses start with their inclusive marketing efforts? Much like companies and businesses do with DEI overall, according to Harvard Business Review workplace inclusion, start with three key steps.
You can formally, or informally, listen to your prospective target audiences. We encourage listening to be part of the marketing process regardless, but particularly if you’re working to be inclusive with your marketing. Listening sessions or focus groups with subsets of your target audiences can reveal changes that should be made and fractures between what you thought you were saying and what your messaging may actually convey.
According to the Harvard Business Review, “Leaders should consider their own management style and approach, looking for ways to demonstrate behaviors known to increase inclusion, such as supporting team growth, managing the team’s networks, fostering team accountability, effectively resolving team conflict, and displaying interpersonal integrity.”
Ditto your marketing efforts. Evaluate what methodology your marketing strategies have traditionally taken, how well they’ve worked and where they could expand in their inclusiveness and reduce their marginalization and even conflict-inducing approaches.
Marketers can influence wholesale process changes that support what’s discovered in the listening and self-reflection steps. Do changes in how a company recruits and assesses those who tell the marketing stories need to be made? Audit regularly for inclusive principles.
Principles of Inclusive Marketing
This brings us to the meat of inclusive marketing: the principles. Although this is a relatively new term for the mainstream, inclusive marketing is mature enough to have a few key principles:
- Tone – Inclusive marketing starts with tone because the style in which a message is conveyed is more important here than anywhere. Prospects who find themselves turned off by a message that isn’t inclusive don’t need a reason to hate it. They will just take their dollars elsewhere.
- Consider connotation – The set of associations implied by a word that expands beyond its literal meaning can strengthen the relationship between business and prospect or it can destroy it. Inclusive marketing carefully considers the connotation of its phrases and symbols.
- Multicultural representation – The visual representation of the multicultural audience is important to business, as people like to see themselves in the media they consume, and this includes ads. BUT don’t just throw in visuals of what you think represent a diverse population. Try to not just include representation in the marketing images, but on internal teams from the brands selling to them.
“The people you serve need to see themselves or who they aspire to be reflected in the visual imagery your brand puts forth. Part of that visual imagery is what your team looks like. Representation matters, “ according to a recent Forbes article. “In addition, consumers find it much more easy to believe that you truly value diversity, inclusion, and belonging when you demonstrate it by having a diverse and representative team, rather than just showcasing diversity in your marketing efforts.”
- No appropriation – Marketing can no longer take from culture without giving the appropriate amount of respect to that culture. This includes images, dress and other cultural signifiers.
- Countering stereotypes – Inclusive marketing gives companies an opportunity to use influence to reverse the standardized images of different cultures. Because the images used in marketing are so powerful, they can be a significant part of countering uncritical judgments about the images within them.
“To combat negative narratives that flow from negative stereotypes, brands should first invest in the cultural intelligence to know these negative narratives exist, and then actively work to combat them in their marketing,” according to the Forbes article. “Changing harmful narratives doesn’t always have to be blatant. They can be combatted simply through casting, visual imagery, and story lines that showcase a different, more accurate portrayal of the communities you want to serve.”
And, although it’s not mentioned as much, it’s important to inclusive marketing: Show up outside of the designated recognition month for groups. Don’t create a marketing calendar that just flags Black History Month, PRIDE Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and International Women’s Day and call it done. That’s not inclusion, that’s delusion. What effort is your marketing making beyond a day, a week or a month?
Traditional marketers may believe diverting attention from the profit motive—bottom line talk— will limit the success of a marketing campaign. But the opposite is true. Inclusive marketing allows companies and businesses to reach a wider audience in a deeper way. Foregoing the profit motive in some cases is the best way to optimize toward it. Curating marketing that resonates with different groups of people takes creativity, research and empathy—with a keen eye on inclusion. It’s not a step to skip.
Cultural and societal shifts, including recurring racial, LGBTQ, and gender issues, as well as generational viewpoints, have emphasized the importance of DEI in marketing. Millennials and Gen Z demand social responsibility from companies, making inclusivity crucial.
Inclusive marketing aims to reflect the diverse communities companies serve, elevate diverse voices and role models, decrease cultural bias, and lead positive social change through thoughtful and respectful content.
Companies can start by listening to their target audiences, self-reflecting on their management style and marketing strategies, and making changes to processes that support inclusivity.
The principles of inclusive marketing include considering tone, connotation, multicultural representation, avoiding cultural appropriation, countering stereotypes, and showing up beyond designated recognition months.
Multicultural representation allows people to see themselves in the media they consume, creating a sense of belonging. It is essential to include diverse representation both in marketing images and on internal teams.
Inclusive marketing can combat negative stereotypes by investing in cultural intelligence, using casting, visual imagery, and storylines that challenge stereotypes, and showcasing accurate portrayals of the communities being served.
No, inclusive marketing goes beyond recognizing specific months or days and requires ongoing efforts to reach and resonate with diverse audiences throughout the year.
No, inclusive marketing allows companies to reach a wider audience in a deeper way, optimizing towards long-term success by resonating with different groups of people through creativity, research, and empathy.