Marketing has made great strides in diversity and inclusivity and, while there’s still work to be done, it’s time brands start thinking deeper, about real equity.
This year gave us no shortage of examples of brands missing the mark when it comes to true diversity. While popular African American artists, from Beyoncé to Pharell and Kanye West, have partnered with Adidas, it was revealed that less than 5% of the employees working at the company’s headquarters are black.
Gucci has launched rainbow-colored shoe collections in celebration of the LGBTQ+ community in addition to its "Queercore" collection – inspired by the gay punk movement of the 1980s – but failed to see the problem with the infamous blackface sweater, taken off the market earlier this year.
These kinds of missteps could be avoided if brands were able to see past surface-deep inclusivity to equity.
The difference between equity and inclusivity
Equity is not just about being in the room, it’s about everyone having an equal seat at the table and equal billing. In 2020, the issues we’re facing are structural; we have to look for diversity beyond headline marketing campaigns, to creative teams, production teams, internal organization and advertising agencies.
Equity ensures that all stakeholders have equal voices, compensation and recognition. We’re going to have to change the barriers and systems that block diversity and exclude people from the generation of marketing or products that are aimed at their cultures.
As brands like Victoria’s Secret have learned the hard way, simply espousing inclusivity before completing meaningful reforms is a recipe for disaster. The company announced it was cancelling its annual fashion show, which has been heavily criticized for its lack of diversity.
Why brands should care
Equity is becoming a commercial and cultural imperative. No brand wants to be the subject of media scrutiny for the next tone-deaf ad – think Peleton’s holiday spot. But more than that, demographic shifts are slowly transforming the expectations of consumers. Generation Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse in American history, with 48% identifying as a minority. This generation, which is expected to become the largest generation of consumers by 2020 and accounts for as much as $143 billion in direct spending today, prioritizes brands with integrity that reflect their own values and are leading the charge both in terms of spending clout and cultural shifts.
Savvy consumers are paying attention to what or who is behind the camera as much as what’s in front of it. Earlier this year, for example, Virgil Abloh, Off-White designer, came under fire after social media users commented on the lack of diversity in photos he posted of his design team on Instagram.
More and more, consumers, and even the influencers brands hope to partner with, are going to expect a brand’s external messaging to reflect internal diversity and substance.
How to achieve equity
Brands will need to lead the charge. They are going to have to change who they work with starting with hiring practices, opting for non-traditional formats and finding ways to welcome marginalized communities. Unconscious bias training can help break down internal personnel barriers to equity. Procurement and financial structuring needs to be more equitable to different forms of agency.
Brands may need to pressure their advertising agencies to adopt similar changes and commit to diversity in creative teams. We’re going to have to ask the uncomfortable questions we’ve often overlooked, such as ‘Is this being looked at through the lens of whiteness?’ Do women really have a seat at the table? Are we using partners that sign up to equity across their processes?
Sometimes it’s just about knowing when to step aside. If you’re hoping to connect with a community you’re not a part of, you need to accept the feedback and guidance from the individuals in that community.
Equity will look different for different brands, depending on values, demographic segments and products offered, but there are some consistent indicators of equity that brands should strive for, including positive consumer sentiment, the incorporation of direct community feedback and internal teams that reflect the makeup of the population.
In return, brands will achieve better, more relevant, creativity and contribute to a fairer society. By being more attuned with culture, brands will be more equipped to adapt to the changing needs of consumers and forge deeper connections with the communities they hope to reach.
Rana Reeves is the founder of RanaVerse