Brand outreach to families begins with authentic portrayals

SXSW panel offers a guide for unsure or unwilling marketers

AUSTIN — The face of the American family is changing, and brands that want to remain relevant need to change the way they portray those families in their advertisements. So said the panelists on "The Scariest Word in Brand Advertising: Family" at Day 2 of SXSW Interactive.

Ads need to authentically represent new and diverse kinds of families, like single parents, multigenerational families, people of color, interracial relationships, adoptees and LGBT families, said the panelists. To illustrate those challenges, Vida Cornelious, chief creative officer at Walton Isaacson , screened an ad the agency created for Walmart that featured an African-American single mother who was grateful to be able to indulge her son for the holidays.

"It’s not like we can afford to eat like this every day. But we can live like this every day," the woman says.

To capture the struggles of a real family without coming across as condescending, Walton Isaacson cast a real single mother and her son — not actors — to talk about the issues they faced.

"One of the things we were trying to look for is, how do we depict them in a way that shows there’s still a level of dignity, even when you have to be financially tight," Cornelious said. "The notion of abundance, being able to have the liberty and the freedom to, basically, let your child overeat for the holidays, was a very distinct insight for this particular audience."

Sometimes brands are less subtle, to the point of taking a stand for diverse family representations. Manoj Raghunandanan, senior director of marketing for Tylenol at Johnson & Johnson, screened the popular HowWeFamily ad (made by J. Walter Thompson New York) from last year.

In conversations with consumers, Tylenol discovered a common sentiment. "They said, ‘We feel like you serve all families, but I’m not really sure you really see all families,’ " Raghunandanan said. "We realized as a brand that there was an opportunity to be a bit more authentic."

Cornelious warned that targeted marketing needs to be done carefully. She cited Jeep’s "freedom" slogan as an example of an idea that has to be marketed very differently to African-Americans than from Hispanics, given the cultural associations. 

Raghunandanan countered that targeted marketing often isn’t even necessary, since universal messages that resonate with all people are usually the strongest anyway. HowWeFamily was a successful national campaign, not despite the diversity of it message, but likely because of it.

"We hope that many people can recognize that moment when they decided to become a family, and all we wanted to bring to light was that there’s another moment for many other people who are fighting for that moment," he said. The response was "Ninety-nine percent positive sentiment coming back for the brand."

Of course, some consumers will be negative no matter what. The backlash against Gracie, a mixed-race child in a Cheerios ad, blindsided General Mills and agency Saatchi & Saatchi, who hadn’t actually intended to take a stand on an issue, according to Jane Lacher, EVP of strategy at media agency ZenithOptimedia.

"All we talked about for six or seven months was heart health. The casting didn’t matter," she said. "Give Saatchi their due, they went to do the storyboard and it went to casting, and nobody thought about it. We cast the African-American dad, the white mom, and nobody said anything."

After the ad premiered, racist comments overwhelmed the YouTube video. "The negative people — they’re fast, they’re vicious, they’re vocal," Lacher said. But General Mills continued to air the spot, and even brought the family back for a Super Bowl ad the next year that received widespread praise.

"We’ve stopped talking about multicultural versus general market," Lacher said, "because for us in media, general market is multicultural."

And brands need to understand that. "Evolve or die," Cornelious said, relating the story of how her team had to convince Jeep to expand their target consumer beyond a 40-year-old white man who offroads on the weekends. Turning Jeep into a lifestyle brand increased sales and revitalized the company, she said.

But embracing the mandate to accurately represent audiences doesn’t have to be painful, Raghunandanan said. Content can speak to diverse audiences while still being successful. "I don’t think anyone is looking at Like a Girl and saying, ‘Oh god that’s unbearable,’" he said. "No, there’s something universal about it that has some power to bring people together."

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free