Humans are social creatures at heart, and we take a lot of cues from our environment. We unconsciously use those cues to help calibrate our sense of “normal” and triangulate our place on the social map. If the cues that we’re getting from our environment tell us in subtle ways that we aren’t part of the definition of “normal” or if they flatten aspects of our identities into tropes and stereotypes, that has a significant effect on the way we view ourselves and each other.
As marketers, our job is to build the bridge between brands and their customers in creative and engaging ways. To do this effectively, we often tap into what we see as common cultural understandings and use them as vehicles for our messages, then project those messages at scale to the public. But it’s critical we understand that we have the power to “normalize” culture. Our work can foster either belonging or exclusion, and we haven’t always gotten it right.
It’s our responsibility to use our tools to celebrate people as they are and respect the depth and nuance of the audiences we speak to on our clients’ behalf, fostering belonging through accurate and respectful representation. This requires a shift in the creative culture of our industry toward more inclusive marketing. And that shift starts with each one of us.
We Have a Lot of Work to Do, and It Can’t Wait
The work we do focuses first and foremost on our clients’ goals—often with very little thought put towards the secondary impact it may have. One of the tools we use to further our clients’ goals, for better or for worse, is aspirations. We often try to present a case where our products or services will help people achieve some aspirational state—frequently one that we’ve conveniently painted for them.
While this may feel a bit disingenuous at best, it can be downright dangerous when applied to cultural norms or stereotypes that don’t offer a healthy reflection of the people in our culture—and it’s critical that we understand the role we play in defining so-called ideals. For example, aspirational marketing around certain “ideal” body types has contributed to a host of unhealthy side effects, including an epidemic of eating disorders. Aspirations-oriented marketing has also played a role in perpetuating an idealization of lighter skin tones, which can have an awful impact on how people view themselves and each other relative to perceived “norms” around attractiveness.
The challenge is that any decisions we make that aren’t directly informed by the brief come from our own perspective and experience, which leaves a lot of opportunity to project our own biases and incomplete understanding out to the world. Ideally, all of our creative, strategy and account teams would be full of diverse and intersectional viewpoints that round out each other’s perspectives and offer opportunities for us all to learn. However our industry has a big problem with representation overall and, even if some agencies are doing a good job at pulling together people from different lived experiences, the training, recruiting, and shifting leadership profiles that are really needed to make a difference at any scale will be a long-term effort.
But we can’t wait. And the plan should not be to make it other people’s responsibility to fill gaps in our understanding. The responsibility is on us to better understand the people and communities we communicate with to ensure that what we project into the environment represents them in positive and inclusive ways.
How We Addressed this Challenge
At Media.Monks we started to explore what this responsibility meant in earnest a few years ago. Our first step was to create an internal working group so we could share experiences and learnings and develop our point of view as a marketing organization.
As we began this work, we found there were very few resources available that discussed inclusion and representation in the context of marketing creative. We found lots of great examples of things that worked, a lot of wonderful discussions that focused around individual communities, and a ton of data, but nothing that pulled it all together into one place that we could share with our broader teams. So we set out to do it for ourselves.
What began as a group of volunteers with a common interest in furthering our inclusive marketing efforts and approach, developed into a full blown, year-long (plus) labor of love, listening to the voices around us and developing guidelines for creating diverse and inclusive marketing practices and content.
We use this work to help train ourselves in the development, curation and delivery of content and uplevel the baseline cultural awareness of our creative, strategy and account teams. And we’re sharing our work with the creative industry at large.
Let’s Use Our Power for Good
Many in our industry have already taken important steps toward more inclusive content and campaigns. We admire brands like LinkedIn for highlighting the positive impact of a diverse workforce, Nike for celebrating all kinds of athletes and Oreo for showing us what it means to be an LGBTQ+ ally all year long. We admire these brands even more for going beyond a single campaign and striving to make inclusivity and representation values that live as an integral part of their marketing efforts, every day.
This is no easy task. It means continually seeking out ways to demonstrate that we see, hear and value all of our customers. It means showing up to every strategy session, brief, photoshoot and creative review with an inclusive mindset. It means doing our best to do what’s right, always. That’s why it's important to create guidelines and materials easy for teams to digest, use and refer to as they produce work.
As marketers, we have the power to create real change when it comes to inclusive marketing. Let’s continue to learn from each other and be open to support so that we can further the industry together and use our power for good.
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