Feeling like you belong satisfies one of the most fundamental of human needs. You probably remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from a college psychology or marketing class. In his work titled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Abraham Maslow posited a hierarchy of needs that placed love and belonging smack dab in the middle of the needs pyramid.
It’s that sense of belonging that fuels the fundamental idea behind diversity and inclusion at work. Companies that value diversity and inclusion, including Facebook, Dell, Indeed, and Gucci, employ diversity executives to attract and retain a diverse set of employees. According to Fortune magazine, 47% of companies on the S&P 500 Index have a Chief Diversity Officer or equivalent. Two-thirds of those were hired in the last three years.
Diversity and Inclusion in Marketing
Marketers know that audiences want to see themselves in their messaging — and savvy marketers know that audiences are evolving as our population becomes more diverse. But how do you ensure your marketing messages speak to a diverse population so your target feels a sense of belonging with it? You go to great lengths to make sure it’s bias-free.
Bias-free imagery goes way beyond showing a kid in a wheelchair trick-or-treating on Halloween. Unless your marketing personas strongly suggest otherwise, consider including an array of images in your messaging.
Skin Tones: Though we are a single human race, biology and origin suggest multiple differences generally categorized by race and ethnicity. Marketers who want to attract new buyers depict their audience with a combination of skin tones:
- Black, African American
- East, South and Southeast Asian
- First People, American Indian, Alaska Native and Indigenous Peoples
- Hispanic, Latino and Latinx
- Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander
- People with albinism, or without pigment
Broad definitions of ethnicity point to shared language, country of origin, religion, and other cultural expressions. These can help inform and broaden how you depict your audiences or the ones you want to attract.
Naturally, there are risks. Though race and ethnicity are not detectable in the human genome, exclusion and prejudice run rampant these days. Modern marketers show a spread of people in their materials and refuse to show them engaged in negative or stereotypical activities. If you’re unsure about your approach, think about testing your materials with groups of people shown in your materials, especially if your team happens to lack the diversity you’re seeking to portray.
Genders: The World Health Organization tells us “gender refers to the social constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.”
Fully inclusive marketing materials go well beyond our grandparents’ binary norms and definitions. They include imagery that depicts a spectrum of gender identities and expressions. Making a deliberate decision, while avoiding stereotypes, to portray cisgender and transgender people, along with those who may appear intersex, reflects the reality of our species’ ever-evolving human condition.
Sexual Orientations: Depicting images based on the idea of sexual orientation is tricky because it can involve stereotypes and biases of human perception. However, depicting an image of two men or two women parenting normalizes the idea the anyone can be a parent, and it helps eliminate the stigma associated with it. You may recall the Honey Maid graham cracker “This is Wholesome” campaign. Not only did their TV spot include gay parents, it also featured blended families, interracial families and immigrant families — and when challenged, the brand stood by its message and arguably broke down barriers and advanced cultural norms with its inclusive message.
Shapes, Sizes and Ages: Unless your product and service specifically targets a hyper-specific profile, such as a young, ultra-fit consumer, you can further diversify your target audience by showing short, tall, ample, thin, old, young, and in-between people who could benefit from your product or service.
Abilities: Those who live with a range of physical and cognitive abilities have enough challenges without marketers marginalizing them by exclusion.
The World Health Organization defines disability as an interaction between individuals with a health condition and their personal and environmental factors. About 15% of people live with some form of disability — that’s nearly 50 million people in the U.S. — so consider including people in marketing materials with a wide range of ability. You might show people using assistive devices and technology, such as white canes (for those who are blind) or red and white canes (for those who are blind and deaf), walkers, prosthetics, scooters, hearing aids, ramps, reachers, comfort animals, book holders, closed captioning or voice-activated, augmented-reality or virtual-reality equipment.
The more we include people with a range of abilities in our marketing materials, the more they will associate good feelings with the brands we represent. We play a role in how people are perceived by society, so wholesale inclusion may even help close educational, financial and healthcare gaps people with varying abilities often face.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider when writing to avoid bias is to recognize and protect your readers’ humanity and treat all readers fairly and with kindness. Cultural bias stems from assumptions about those who are different from us and can lead to more than just stereotyping. It can perpetuate a stigma, discrimination or worse. Here are some guidelines for changing unconscious bias into culture-conscious, inclusive messaging.
Skin Tones: Unless racial or ethnic descriptors are relevant to the materials, there may not be any reason to specify skin tone in writing. If there is, ask people in your target audience how they prefer to be described. For example, people who are native to America may have specific ways they like to be described, such as Native American, First People, or members of the Cherokee Tribe.
Genders: Use a mix of pronouns. Or better yet, use the pronoun “they.” Avoid “girl” when you mean “woman,” and “boy” when you mean “man.” Also, avoid using “man” or “mankind” to describe people; instead, use “women and men.” Finally replace “man-made” to “synthetic” or “artificial.”
Sexual Orientations: Unless someone’s sexual preference is integral to the materials, it’s probably irrelevant to reference it in writing.
Shapes, Sizes and Ages: These qualities are generally visible in marketing imagery. If text descriptors are needed, say, for screen readers, use bias-free language such as:
“Someone who stood four feet four inches” rather than “a dwarf.”
“Someone born before 1940” rather than “an elderly person.”
Abilities: For those with diverse abilities and with diseases, it’s best practice to use person-first language and to avoid language that connotes pity.
A biased example: the paraplegic
A better example: the man in the wheelchair
A biased example: the woman who suffers from muscular dystrophy
A better example: the woman who has muscular dystrophy
A biased example: mentally retarded
A better example: person with Down syndrome
You can perform research, test creative in focus groups, and release marketing content in test markets. But you never really know if a message will resonate with an audience until it’s running. Chances are you got it right. But if you didn’t, a feedback loop, hashtag campaign or customer survey will let you tap into consumers’ impressions. Real-time feedback gives you the chance to admit your gaffe, revise your messaging and reset your marketing efforts.