Debating diversity: how representative is your marketing?

Consumers are demanding ads that reflect diversity, which is starting to prompt franchises to look at their marketing strategy in a new light

Debating diversity: how representative is your marketing?

Late last year, Maltesers ran a TV ad showing a group of women talking about their dating disasters while tucking into the snack. Fairly routine, except for the fact that the script was inspired by real-life stories of disabled people and the ad starred Storme Toolis, an actress with cerebral palsy. Maltesers’ campaign proved to be a hit with viewers, resulting in an 8.1% uplift in sales and a 20% increase in brand affinity. This came as no surprise to Rania Robinson, managing director of Quiet Storm, the ad agency, and joint chair of diversity for the Marketing Agencies Association, the trade body for marketing agencies. “The subject of diversity is coming to the fore and this has largely been driven by consumers, who are telling us they want brands to consider it,” she says. And Maltesers isn’t alone: clothing brand H&M promoted its autumn/winter 2016 collection with an ad depicting a septuagenarian, a wobbly tummy, a woman with a shaved head and – in a rare TV appearance – armpit hair.

Large or small, young or old, brown or white, gay or straight, working class or super rich, able-bodied or disabled: people want to see a broad spectrum of life in ads. In fact, according to research by Lloyds Banking Group, although only 19% of people featured in the ads it studied were from minority groups, 65% of people would feel more favourable about a brand that promotes diversity. And for Robinson, this trend is all about trust. “There’s a general lack of trust in politicians and in marketers, which is making authenticity more important than ever – and diversity plays a big part in that because it’s about brands reflecting the world as it really is.”

All this means that stopping to think about diversity isn’t just a nice thing to do: it makes commercial sense too. Brands that want to build trust with their consumers and sell more products need to consider how authentically they’re representing different types of customers. “There have been so many studies that connect diversity with commercial gain,” says Robinson. “And the Maltesers ads show that just because you’re representing a minority audience, it doesn’t mean the mass market won’t respond well.”

In the franchising world, while not all franchise brands are shouting from the rooftops about their diversity credentials, many are making an effort to avoid falling back on casting the same types. “We don’t do diversity for its own sake but, because our customer base is naturally very diverse, we want to represent all of them,” says Meredith Jurek, chief marketing officer at Anytime Fitness, the gym franchise. “It’s simple: whatever stage of their fitness journey they’re at, people want to see people who look like them rather than rock-hard bodies they can’t relate to.” The brand deliberately avoids featuring models with perfect physiques, instead casting people with a relatable look.

Franchises are also becoming increasingly aware that leaving big groups of people out of their marketing messages could cost them when it comes to recruiting the best employees or franchisees. “I prefer to speak about inclusivity rather than diversity,” says Joshua Barker, marketing manager at Dwyer Group, the franchise company that owns Drain Doctor, Bright & Beautiful, Countrywide Grounds Maintenance and many other brands. One reason the franchise is mindful of how its marketing messages might be received is that it wants to attract the best possible people – regardless of their ethnicity, disability or gender identity. “We want to fish in the largest talent pool so it wouldn’t make sense for us not to be inclusive,” he says.

But while it’s obvious why a brand with a broad, diverse target market would want an equally diverse marketing campaign, a franchise with a more niche audience might understandably choose to reflect its existing customer base. Take the recent TV ad for Barking Mad, the dog-sitting franchise, which starred a white woman appearing to be in her 40s – essentially the firm’s average customer. “We’ve got a strong idea of who our audience is and we usually try to represent them in our marketing,” says Richard Dancy, the franchise’s senior marketing manager. “Are they diverse? Probably not. But there’s no point casting someone from a minority group if they’re not representative. Stereotypes are sometimes there for a reason.”

That may be true for Barking Mad but there are no doubt many brands out there that could do more to speak to a broader audience and weed out the unconscious biases that could be focusing their attention on a very narrow audience. “You’ll often find that franchises have a type and they’ll only reflect people they think are their typical customer,” says Pip Wilkins, chief executive of the bfa. “And while that’s understandable in some cases, there is room for improvement.” And this isn’t just about the people a franchise chooses to include in its ads: there are plenty of other unconscious factors that could alienate potential customers. “Many franchises could do more to create a culture that’s aware of diversity and just be conscious of the decisions they make,” she says. “This can be something as simple as asking questions like ‘why are we using the colour pink in this?'”

But embracing diversity is easier said than done: while franchises do seem to agree that having an awareness of the issue is a good thing, many stop short of creating specific brand guidelines that would guide decisions. At Dwyer Group, a commitment to being inclusive is enshrined in the company’s code of values but Barker is wary of anything more prescriptive. “We’re aware of diversity when it comes to casting people for videos or choosing photos but there are no guidelines or quotas – you shouldn’t choose people for an ad because of their race or religion,” he says. “It can feel demeaning when you put people in boxes: discrimination is still discrimination, whether it’s positive or negative.”

And it’s understandable why some franchises might be scared of veering into any kind of territory that smacks of tokenism or coming across as insensitive. “It’s a delicate subject to tackle, especially when you’re starting from a position where your organisation isn’t very diverse,” says Robinson. Nobody wants to be accused of practicing diversity as a box-ticking exercise or committing the ultimate faux pas of being inauthentic, after all.

But swerving the subject altogether or failing to address diversity in your marketing team can be equally dicey, as Pepsi found out after an ad starring Kendal Jenner was criticised for appropriating the imagery of black and feminist protest movements. Crudely co-opting the symbolism of images like young, black protester Ieshia Evans standing up to riot police and making it all about consumerism looked thoughtless at best. The campaign forced the industry to ask itself some tough questions and consider whether agencies were becoming too homogenous and, as a result, out of touch. “Diversity in marketing starts with hiring diverse people,” says Robinson. “Just look at Brexit: it was a massive shock to the advertising world because we all come from a similar backgrounds and exist in a London bubble that isn’t representitive of the majority of the country. It’s important to have people from diverse backgrounds who can bring a range of insights to the table.”

And Wilkins believes that precisely because franchising attracts people from all walks of life, it’s in a strong position when it comes to pushing diversity up the order of priorities. “There’s a growing consciousness among the industry that collective ambition is a powerful thing,” she says. Wilkins also believes that franchisees have the power to effect real change on a local level. “While senior leadership from the franchisor is great, franchisees are often able to identify changes in their local environment much more quickly,” she says. “A lot of change can happen from the bottom up.”” width=

Maria Barr
Maria Barr