In 2021, we don’t need wider representation, but deeper

Mardi Gras is creeping up, which means brands are competing to show their true (rainbow) colours. It's an expensive time for brands as the cost of cutting through during Mardi Gras increases, but as Snack Drawer chief creative officer Hannah McElhinney writes, many marketers see value in using this time to make a statement about diversity and representation. 

After the major social and human rights conversations of 2020, of which many brands were active participants, 2021 will almost certainly place brands under even greater scrutiny. In particular, the Black Lives Matter movement generated a discourse which shone the spotlight, not just on brands’ outward facing communications, but the inner workings of their companies and diversity of their C-Suites. 

Most brands are looking to place greater emphasis on representation and diversity in their marketing plans, which is smart because Gen Z, the fastest growing consumer cohort and most diverse generation in history, overwhelmingly spend their money with brands that reflect their values (McKinsey). However, as the pressure on marketers to be inclusive in their campaigns rises, so do the stakes. Doing it wrong can be worse than not doing it at all.

With little black squares burnt into the back of their minds, marketers find themselves in a tough situation: be called out for virtue signalling or be called out for not adequately representing their audiences.

What’s wrong with the current approach?

Lofty brand purpose campaigns, which have really defined advertising in the later half of the 2010s, have fallen out of favour with audiences. Kantar has noted that audiences want humour more than anything from advertising, yet the number of ads using humour has consistently declined over the past 20 years. 

When audiences want humour, and they’re being served social good messaging with a tenuous product alignment (no shade, I’ve made a few), it’s easy to see how marketers’ best efforts are labelled tokenistic and their brands are accused of virtue signalling. 

It doesn’t help, then, that many attempts at being representative are actually tokenistic. They either attempt to ‘tick all the boxes’ and cover off as many underrepresented groups as possible, or they focus only on the marginalised quality of the group they’re trying to represent.

For example, most representations of the queer community are focussed on the ‘queer experience’ – coming out, being accepted by one’s parents or marriage. Often they’re released before Mardi Gras or Pride Month, and come with a rainbow version of the brand’s product. Transgender people, if represented at all, are typically represented when a brand wants to make a powerful statement about gender. People of colour are represented to show a diversity of faces or skin tones, in order to highlight a brand’s commitment to all people. They’re very rarely given their own unique story. 

This approach offers a very superficial representation that limits marginalised people to their minority status and ignores all the other facets of their individual selves. 


Don’t go wider, go deeper

The good news here is that the answer isn’t trying to represent more people or show solidarity with more causes. Quite the opposite. Instead of casting the net wider, we need to go deeper and centre our product stories around different voices. 

Queer people want easy dinners, brighter whites and absorbent nappies just like straight people. Trans people want juicy fresh snap frozen corn. African Australian families want dependable and adventurous 4WDs. We don’t need to limit representation of different faces to diversity campaigns. Instead, we could channel our creative efforts into creating new character narratives that could help sell our products. If we think of how our creative might change if we tell our product story from a different perspective, we’ll make better content, connect deeply with new customers and maybe even give audiences their humour back. 

Many of us share the desire to have an impact with our work, and being more inclusive is a way we can make real change. But these aspirations aside, it’s the brands that win big here. By deeply representing different audiences in this way, brands can connect authentically with new audiences others aren’t tapping into, generate loyalty from values-conscious Gen Z and not even need to blow their budget on that big Mardi Gras campaign.

Hannah McElhinney is the chief creative officer at Snack Drawer.


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