There is no inclusive marketing badge you can put on your website. There is no certification that will provide any type of proof that you are. Being exclusive is one of the things many luxury brands aim for. We use exclusive deals to promote products, offers, celebrities,etc. Exclusivity is a great way of increasing sales. It taps into our primordial FOMO (fear of missing out). But exclusivity can also destroy a brand, à la Victoria’s Secret. At its core, marketing provides a solution to a customer’s problem. As marketers, we make sure that the problem our product is solving is clearly identified. We shouldn’t create or reinforce problems just for the sake of “solving” them with marketing. The problem we solve should also not be rooted in oppression. This is partially why I refuse to work for companies that do payday loans, certain “life” coaches or skin whitening products.
What do I mean by forms of oppression?
“… malicious and harmful pattern[s] of unjust treatment… practised by a regime or societal group… Oppression refers to discrimination when the injustice does not target and may not directly afflict everyone in society but instead targets specific groups of people.” — Wikiwand
What does oppression look like in marketing?
Some common forms of oppression that we see in every day ads are:
- Anti Semitism
- Etc. etc.
This stuff has been rampant for years but we like to think of it as the glory days, the days of “Mad Men”. Sometimes, we don’t even notice because we are ignorant of other cultures or identities. You may think your little quip about some Jewish stereotypes is fun but I’ve heard it so many times in my three decades on this Earth. Surprise: I don’t find it funny.. It starts to feel like an attack after a while. It can be difficult to identify how these little jabs, this type of oppression impact lives. Ignorance is what makes it hard. If you are struggling to identify oppression of other people, there are reasons sometimes. Except that everyone wants to pretend you should just be naturally aware of all of these things. That’s not the case. Take the time to educate yourself, do not let anyone shame you if you make a mistake because you genuinely don’t know something about a culture.
Oppressive Marketing: a Quick Tour
Oppressive marketing fucked up my childhood. Sizeist advertising was awful. Nobody looked like me. Worse…I still don’t know if my body is bikini ready. Do YOU have a beach body? Well, PETA has an opinion on that:‘Save the whales’ and ‘Lose the blubber: Go vegatarian’ I am not even going to post their response because they are not backing down. It’s been more than a decade and I am still repulsed. Fat people are whales apparently? Blubber is not acceptable at the beach? I have no clue how this helps animals. Bullying fat folks is going to help us all treat animals better? Do they hate whales too? Do we save only small animals?
The sexist right one by Martini
The sexual Perrier
The racist White One
Want to read on for more examples? Check out this recap of bad ads on Polygon.
Consider how your advertising looks to someone who isn’t you.
You are not your audience. You are not your clients. If you look around the room and see a homogeneous group of marketers, you need to get a second opinion stat! Research how your messaging could be interpreted. Take action before you cause a PR nightmare AND make someone feel alienated.
Anti-ageing is a ridiculous notion: aging is a natural process. Except that it feels very often like we have an expiration date. Older people in tech aren’t seen as trustworthy. In pop culture, older folks are super misrepresented. Remember the whole 60 year old actors having 25 actresses play their wives in movies.
Let me slather on some retinol and other anti-wrinkle stuff before we move onto sexist advertising. Ah yes, I touched on that already a lot because of the Martini ads. Still, can we discuss the pink tax at least?
I know, I know, most of you are going to go in various directions with that title. We can talk about the disastrous BIC ad that read ‘Look like a girl, Act like a lady, Think like a man, Work like a boss’ but let’s not. Let’s talk about a huge marketing scam dating back 1915: shaving. In the 1900s, most women didn’t care about armpit or leg hair. A shift began in 1915 when advertisers in Harper’s Bazaar started to target underarm hair. They made depilatory creams so they had to find something to depilate I guess.
1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s
2000s: men, welcome to the fold
Welcome to the Nair club! Let’s depilate together (I checked and it is a real word). Inclusive marketing for the win! Oh. Wait. Maybe that’s *not* the way to go?
How Do We Make Our Marketing More Inclusive?
It starts with knowing what not to do. After figuring this out, it’ll be a good time to think about what your best practices are when it comes to inclusive marketing. I’m not an expert on this, just giving my opinion and dusting off my sociology degree. Here are some things you need to take into consideration:
Stock photos are great. Influencer lifestyle shots are great too. You know what the main problem is with influencer marketing and stock photography? It all looks the same after a while. Remember the “woman alone, laughing with salad” stock photo meme? If not, check it out, it’s hilarious.. The imagery you use has meaning, it sends a message about who you think your customers are. Take a moment and represent your real customer base, not the one you think you should portray as a brand.
Not sure how to get started? Get a little help searching for “diversity” in Unsplash.com and looking at the curated collections others made. I’m sure you’ll notice that many photos in your website don’t portray your customers nor do they accurately portray your team.
A word on cultural appropriation
If you use a cultural identity to sell your product, you are guilty of cultural appropriation. Here is a quick definition: “taking or using an aspect from a minority culture without knowing or honouring the meaning behind it.” My cultural heritage isn’t something I think of as a marketing strategy or a way to boost sales. Neither do most people. Representation and appropriation are two different things.
Browse through your imagery of people on your website — do you see diversity?
Do your research and get to know your audience AND your customer base. They are not always the same people. Make sure your visitors feel represented in your marketing imagery, your brand copy and your overall communication. Inclusive marketing can be a great way to increase profits but without authenticity and commitment, it won’t work.
SEO: Inclusive search engine marketing
I am not going to delve into accessibility here. There are laws in Canada and other countries that are very clear on you should go about making sure your website is accessible to as many people as possible. I am going to venture into the realm that I evolve in: search engine optimization. My job is to find ways to analyse and optimize for different search intents and visitor motivations. Some of the ways I go about it are common with accessibility best practices and others are not. What I like about search engines is that they can give you a lot of visibility without the political red tape to go with it. I am not one of the biggest blogs out there and yet, here you are reading this blog post. Since I don’t promote much, either you find me through social media or through Google. Guess what? These platforms have one thing in common: they all have search bars and specialize in giving certain types of content visibility. SEO is more of a mindset than a job for me. Inclusive search engine marketing often starts with a desire to improve search experience optimization. If it doesn’t come from a place of empathy, your content may struggle to rank.
Choose your words carefully
Language evolves, unless it’s Latin (because it’s dead)
Words we used decades ago are not always aging well. Some are considered derogatory, racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist and a slew of other things. These common words are now considered slurs and rightfully so. Words matter a lot. As a marketer, I can attest to that. Do not hesitate to share some links or words that should not be used. I won’t go in-depth into this aspect as I believe it deserves its own article. If you fuck up, and you will fuck up once in a while, here’s how to recover: apologize, listen to feedback on how to avoid this type of damaging social interaction and move along. That’s it. Stop trying to prove that you aren’t what you think others think you are. You will just make things worse.
Avoid stereotypes, active stereotyping
Stereotypes are defined as: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. I prefer to define them like this: a ready-made idea that disregards any personal quirks or qualities. Stereotypes are incredibly useful. I am so tired of hearing the same old “stereotypes can be harmful”. Of course they can be harmful, just like you can die from too taking too much aspirin. Anything can be harmful. Stereotypes are broad generalizations we make as humans to help us navigate the world. A green frog looks generally safe but a black, red or yellow one screams danger. I have this strong, oversimplified idea that I should stay the hell away from any animal that color codes its warning signs. Bees? Yup. Snakes? You bet. Am I going to go out there and murder every living bee? Nope.
I don’t like pink washing. It’s an active demographic segmentation technique that enables us marketers to “shrink and pink” products. We take a general product, make it smaller, make it pink or any other girly color (usually this means purple if you ask any old-school marketing guy) and hike up the price. Brand, spanking new product! Next time you think you can squeeze out more money from a specific segment, make sure it doesn’t start squeezing your back. Hi, Victoria’s Secret, how you doin’ angel?
Last note on stereotyping: I know stereotypes are part of how we operate as human beings. We default to stereotypes as a mental shortcut to keep us safe. However, please, don’t actively stereotype. I spent most of my late teenage years and early twenties being sexually harassed by neo-nazis. Being tall, blonde, blue eyed made me a prime target. Being named Myriam, with a younger brother named Michael and a father named Moses, active stereotyping caused many hijinks. Shout out to the man who told me that it was a simple mistake that we could rectify. To do this I ponder if he planned to fuck the Jew out of me or kill me. I am so glad that my metro stop came right before I started opening my big mouth again (what do you think got me in this uncomfortable situation in the first place? Of course, I naively tried to correct his anti-semite assumptions!).
You may not always get it right
This is a learning curve. Do not pretend your fuck ups never happened. Everything is forever on the Internet. Accept responsibility for your marketing, and the impact it has on your audience, even those who aren’t your target audience. Learn from your mistakes but first and foremost learn how to give meaningful apologies. As PR professional Ronn Torossian said: “A good apology is always telling the truth. A good apology is owning up. A good apology is moving quickly. And a good apology is authentic and real and isn’t fabricated, it needs to come from the heart.”
Tap Your Audience: Ask, Listen, Learn
What does inclusivity mean for your audience? Ask many and be willing to learn from their feedback. You aren’t an all-knowing deity. Ask, listen, and learn. Start with your customers and employees. In marketing speak, we call that voice of customer and net promoter score. Yes, we even have metrics to measure some aspects of this in customer experience. Inclusive marketing is not a tactic to increase sales; it’s a means to prevent customer churn and improve your employer brand. Normally, if you do this right, you should have employees that help you improve your bottom line and get those dollars in. I love how many marketers pretend that their strategies can be copy-pasted to any situation. Oftentimes, we listen carefully or we stumble on something magic. Everything else tends to fail.
Inclusivity as a brand value
Faux inclusivity won’t work as a marketing strategy
Be genuine or focus on your audience exclusively. Inclusivity is core brand value. If you don’t think about it and strive to improve it within your company, inclusivity is not for you. Inclusive marketing is not a quick add-on, a gimmick or an easy last minute fix. You need to have it at the core to have a real impact.