Corporate diversity is a cop-out. It's time to go further

Diversity is a complex area that needs brands to go beyond the superficial and dive deep.

"We need a person of colour, a female, an LBGTQI person, preferably trans. A mentally and physically disabled person and maybe an older person to round it all off. Be great if we could encompass all of this into one influencer."

This isn’t far off from what many of my clients and agency partners say.

Are they championing positive change?

No. They are coming from an endemic culture of fear to not offend and not get called out.

The aim? Continue selling products in an ever-more complex, divisive and often explosive online arena.

But in this new decade, the world is complicated, divided and far from uniform.

Is one-size-fits-all corporate diversity really appropriate any more?

There was a time when diversity was a radical act in and of itself. One of my favourite Instagram accounts, @AdArchives, shows what manifested itself in fashion magazines in the 1990s, including then-risky campaigns from the world’s biggest corporations, from Coca-Cola to McDonald’s.

These campaigns genuinely made huge seismic shifts in culture because they were the first to do so (before even TV, movies and magazines).

But fast-forward a quarter of a decade, this kind of diversity is not the exception but the rule when it comes to Western media, from the BBC to Barclays.

It’s not a statement, it’s just basic corporate manners. It’s a one-dimensional approach still focused mostly on physical appearance. The complexities and layers are airbrushed out to create a neatly packaged, politically acceptable message.

Yet being different can still mean life or death. Identity and representation can still be a radical act.

We just need to shift from a 1990s mentality to a 2020s one.

As a second-generation British Sri Lankan, growing up was a confusing time for me. Wanting to fit in often overpowered being different.  

Just seeing brown faces on posters was enough to feel acknowledged then.

Today, the generation below me feels far more comfortable with their complex identities.

Look at my aisle in the identity supermarket. Diaspora South Asian brands have complex diversity confidently baked into their DNA, from Burnt Roti and Not Sari to Brown History and The Indian Feminist. Their approaches are rich, complex and far from straightforward.

It’s the same for many minority groups, from queerness to blackness to disabledness and beyond. It’s nuanced, messy and often unresolved.

Just read gal-dem for 20 minutes if you don’t believe me.

Can this fit neatly within traditional advertising? 

Millennial brands with millennial owners (see Fenty, Off White and Glossier for starters) embrace this complexity effortlessly. Mainly because they know how to navigate through "real" diversity in 2020.

Corporations such as Nike, Zalando and Google have started to go deeper than surface diversity by creating a catalogue of representative content over time.

This is by no means CSR either. It’s business. Netflix has created a whole programming strategy around it to boost shareholder value significantly. A diversity of niches.

And perhaps this is where the future lies for diversity and advertising in the 2020s: not in trying to please everybody in one go, but going deep into different subcultures and identities, slowly building a meaningful constellation of connections over time.

Perhaps it’s better to be loved by some than be ambivalent to all.

A curation of different stories, journeys and experiences, warts and all, co-created with the groups that are on screen. That’s next-gen diversity. Who’s on board?

Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is co-founder at Soursop

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