Diversity & Inclusion in Marketing Communications

I was recently asked to sit on a panel to discuss diversity and inclusion in advertising. As a 44- year-old white guy, let me start by saying, “Really? Me?”  But, in truth, all marketers need to be aware of how brands can pursue diversity and inclusion in their communications in the right way. We see great examples like “Always, Like a Girl,” and we see some tone-deaf executions.

To dig in, I started where I believe most should start in this space, and that is by recognizing your ignorance. To prepare for this panel, I spoke to many wonderful people at my agency and learned quite a bit.
What I learned is that success requires three things: 1) an authentic purpose that runs deep and starts inside; 2) an execution that brings the message to life by making sure diverse communities are represented in both research and development;  3) it has to be meaningful to your target customers.

Be Authentic

When we trod sensitive ground, brands can be great or be terrible. Consistently, the brands that do it right are not taking advantage of an opportunity to run a short-term program—they are acting from conviction. The first question people ask is, “Why are they doing it?” What is the authentic purpose behind it? Are you supporting Dr. King’s causes with a significant investment, or are you just leveraging his memory to enhance your brand on MLK Day?

Start inside. Believe it. Act on it internally first. Dove established themselves as a leader by breaking the historical beauty standards and supporting the self-confidence of women. This was part of their core brand values. The Canadian Dove ad “Evolution” was one of the first viral videos and a good example. It wasn’t a stunt; it was an authentic shift.

Patagonia took a stand grounded in their long history of conservation that alienated some people, but it was right in the wheelhouse of their core target.  AirBnB took a perceived stand against Donald Trump with their WeAccept campaign—this came from an issue where they found racial biases in who was being denied rentals. They started inward, introduced policy changes, partnered with impacted groups and then went public.

Execute Right  

Dove has also had a couple executional missteps, such as the 2017 ad that showed an African American woman turning into a white woman after using Dove lotion. Hearts in the right place, but they missed something.  I don’t know what happened in the Dove case, but typically this happens to companies when they don’t involve people within that community in the execution of the communication/marketing/etc. You need to have substantial representation of that community on the team—not just a token person—in order to gain full perspective.  

Be Meaningful

It’s important to be inclusive and culturally sensitive as a baseline for business. Practically speaking in many companies, the amount of support for higher-order brand messaging rests on the ability of the program to deliver business results.  The goal of marketers is provide a solution to our target customers that is better than competitive offerings. In many categories, the offerings have lost any functional differentiation. Standing for a higher-order purpose can be both the ethically right thing to do and a great business decision that creates meaningful differentiation vs. your competition.

In a previous post, I talked about Lyft making a stand for immigration rights (and some people thought I was trying to make a political point). The reason it seemed like a sound marketing strategy, regardless of the politics, is that they are undifferentiated vs. Uber, and that association could provide their target customers a reason to choose Lyft over Uber. With price and service being undifferentiated, their authentic stance can make all the difference for consumers.


1)      Be authentic

2)      Execute with the folks you are representing

3)      Create differentiated value for your customers

I welcome builds/comments. This is something I’d love to get better at, and I know I have plenty of room to learn.