This article was originally published by Ad Age @ adage.com
You know that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) matter in business. And you know that you need to incorporate DE&I into the marketing of your products, services, and brand. An obvious place to start is with images—they can spark connection with your brand, or repel, in an instant. But creating truly inclusive marketing is about more than adding a medley of skin tones to your images. For images to resonate, representation is important but so are the manner of portrayal and the avoidance of stereotypes. You must consider the context.
To begin tackling this complex and nuanced challenge, you need to know your baseline—how you’re currently doing when it comes to DE&I in your marketing efforts—by conducting an audit of your visual content. Here’s how.
Why a DE&I audit?
Once you recognize the need to visually represent diverse audiences in a more inclusive way, it may be tempting to simply start adding a wider variety of people to your imagery. The urge to accelerate the process (or fear of discouraging and disappointing findings) can deter people from completing a full audit. But the methodical approach of an audit will allow you to set a baseline for measuring your progress—where you’re starting from based on the assets you already have, and how your current marketing efforts measure up—and hold yourself accountable to real change. An audit can also help you identify blindspots you may not have considered (for example, do some images of inanimate objects contain inappropriate racial or gender coding?) and help chart the path forward.
Step 1: Build your team
Put together a team of people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to help with the analysis. A call for volunteers within your own organization can garner motivated team members who may help move the process along more quickly. In addition to including voices that represent the DE&I criteria you’re evaluating for, consider including perspectives specific to your company: senior people and new hires, management and technical specialists, and creative and administrative roles. You should also consider and understand the communities that you exist in and serve, potentially even inviting customers to participate.
When putting together teams for specific projects—whether to complete your initial audit of assets or to create marketing campaigns and assets moving forward—look at the focus of the project and its target audience and consider what perspectives are needed to bring different points of view. In a receptive environment, adding fresh voices to teams can start new perspectives flowing through your organization and into your work.
Step 2: Set goals
Although the primary goal of an audit is to discover where you currently stand, keep in mind the longer-term goals that you plan to accomplish once you have implemented your DE&I marketing efforts. Goals will help you keep your eye on the ball as you evaluate assets and formulate recommendations. Some examples of long-term, broader goals include:
- Embedding diverse perspectives into the work
- Reflecting diversity across all creative elements
- Understanding and incorporating cultural context
- Telling real stories when possible—real stories are more authentic, but if you fictionalize, make sure stories are based in deep insight
- Depicting positive portrayals that directly challenge common stereotypes and preconceptions
- Challenging yourself and your team to champion different groups across all marketing assets
Step 3: Conduct your analysis
Encouraging team members to call out anything they see, no matter how out of bounds it might seem in the moment, will ensure that you’re covering the bases. You likely won’t need to act on every single thing and some aspects of diversity and inclusion will not be detectable in every instance, but better to overly scrutinize than miss something obvious. Here are eight key criteria foundational to analyzing your current marketing assets:
- Gender: Are the genders equally and equitably represented? Consider an overall goal of gender parity. Are you making space for less conventional depictions of gender or for nonbinary representation?
- Age: Is there a balance of age ranges represented? Depending on your target audiences, balance age ranges so that higher age ranges and lower age ranges are represented equally.
- Race: Are you disproportionately representing a particular race? Show a variety of real skin tones and hair types.
- Sexual orientation: Is your imagery skewed toward or shying away from any depictions of sexual orientation? Ensure that you’re positively representing heterosexual and LGBTQ+ communities.
- Socioeconomic status: Consider context of people represented—clothing, accessories, surroundings. Are you including a range of representations of income/wealth levels, education levels, and occupations?
- Disabilities: Are people with disabilities included? How often is their presence or activity defined by their disability, or are they there as equal members of the cast? What types of disabilities are portrayed?
- Stereotypes: Watch out for typecasting. Be aware of your unconscious biases and how they might cause you to perpetuate certain stereotypes.
- Intersectionality: More than just a single trait, there are many dimensions of diversity that can overlap with each other in complex ways. Are portrayals multidimensional or singularly focused?
Step 4: Now go deeper
Once you’ve worked through your criteria to gauge whether you’re representing people equally or in proportion to your target community (a quantitative metric), be sure to go deeper to evaluate how those people are represented (a qualitative metric). Consider whether depicted roles, physical appearance, and visual prominence are positive and empowering, or promoting stereotypes.
The diverse perspectives of your team members are especially valuable here. Make sure to create a safe space for feedback and encourage people to voice their unique opinions. If one person on your team interprets something a certain way, it’s likely that someone in your end audience will too. For example:
- You get high marks for representing men and women with parity, but you find that you’re regularly depicting women as passive or in the background—shopping or caretaking—rather than leading. And what about gender-fluid and nonbinary/androgynous people? Are they included?
- You often depict multiple races within your imagery, but when it comes to images of one singular person, you find you’re defaulting to the same race time and time again.
- You have a balanced representation of age groups, but groups skewing younger tend to be represented more active, happy, and engaged than groups skewing older. Or groups skewing older tend to be depicted as wise, thoughtful, or responsible more so than younger groups.
- You’re including people with disabilities, although they tend not to be portrayed as engaged in the action or as complex and layered as other people.
You can also solicit suggestions from your auditors/reviewers to address any holes you’ve uncovered, and to improve portrayals of different groups in authentic ways.
Where to go from here
Nice work! You’ve evaluated your visual assets for diversity and inclusion, have a solid sense of where you are, can measure your progress to date against your goals, and understand what you need to focus on to get to where you need to go from here. Next steps will vary greatly depending on your organization.
You will very likely want to create guidelines for internal teams, partners, and vendors, prioritizing the criteria that need the most attention. It’s also helpful to communicate a shared responsibility for applying a DE&I lens to marketing, and to encourage people to speak up if something doesn’t feel right—even when the conversations feel uncomfortable and clumsy. Everyone benefits from positive reinforcement, so take note to celebrate good examples that your team produces as inspiration for all. And, of course, schedule a date for your next audit to measure progress.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion in your marketing are not items to cross off your list. They’re part of an ongoing journey well worth traveling.
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