The Business Case for Doing the Right Thing

Inclusive marketing is slowly becoming the new normal, and it’s about time

Inclusivity, diversity, social awareness — these concepts are worth a lot more than the annual corporate sensitivity training might indicate. Given how flippantly terms like “diversity” and “inclusion” are used in marketing, it’s easy for even the most conscientious of us to glaze over when these buzzwords enter a business conversation. However, the purpose of inclusive marketing is to take these ideas out of mere abstraction, upset established inequalities, and affect change.

Inclusive marketing sets out to solidify an essential point: diversity is not a trend, but rather the new standard. Inclusion shouldn’t merely be viewed as a marketing strategy but more as a way to bring to fruition the way things should have always operated. We’re just late to the game. This is a historically underdeveloped schema that is just now gaining attention as social awareness evolves.

What is inclusive marketing?

Put simply, inclusive marketing is an opportunity for brands to be better. At its core, it embodies the values a company claims to represent. According to Forbes, inclusive marketing is about finding common ground with customers and delivering a message of belonging.

“Inclusive marketing strives to create a visual culture that is more representative,” according to Jessica Fish, the article’s author. “It endeavors to appreciate and understand our various identities, differences, and histories, while also illuminating places of commonality. Inclusive marketers are willing to cultivate the skill set required to market to specific demographics without relying on stereotypes.”

This means being dissatisfied with the status quo, questioning established practices, and considering, objectively, how marketing standards might have been shaped by ideological agents. Doing something a certain way because it’s “how it’s always been done” is no longer good enough.

Take buyer personas, for example, — the prevailing method for understanding consumer behavior. Although personas remain an effective tool for understanding an audience, marketers must avoid homogenizing individuals into amorphous, ineloquent masses. Personas are often based on generalizations rooted in stereotypes. Marketers must challenge themselves to think more broadly when attempting to categorize groups of consumers.

Inclusive marketing challenges these types of stereotypes and asks “why?” Why are products advertised in this neighborhood but not the other? Why are certain identities overwhelmingly visible in advertising while others go unseen? Why do we rely on antiquated market research tools when we know them to perpetuate implicit biases? Inclusive marketing raises these questions in an effort to forge a new path — one in which marketing appeals to the sensibilities of the individual rather than an ascribed group.

Okay, but why now?

Depending on your own level of involvement in inclusivity initiatives around the office, you might wonder, “Why is this just now taking off?” A better way to frame this question, and the way that a great majority of the population thinks about the issue, is actually, “What took so long?”

Part of the recent inclusivity push can be attributed to evolving awareness. As cultural norms shift with the times, brands are expected to reciprocate. And when that expectation isn’t met, the vocal majority becomes more vocal. A tension between employees and leadership is brewing as expectations for inclusivity grow but results remain static — this has only emboldened inclusivity initiatives that have now reached a tipping point.

A Gartner study found that only one-third of employees agree that they have the ability to influence inclusion in the workplace, and only 27% of employees feel that their organization informs them of the different ways in which inclusion can be promoted in their day-to-day work. Employees are aware of inclusivity, but are lacking the resources to be able to enable proper change.

“Progressive organizations take an employee-centric approach to creating sustainable D&I [Diversity & Inclusion] — focusing on what is relevant to their unique employee base and promoting employee ownership through communicating plans,” according to the study. “To do this, organizations must first determine organizational and employee challenges, in order to design a relevant D&I strategy.”

What it means to be inclusive is changing, and embracing diversity has become inherent to running a business in the 21st century. We are now incorporating an evolution of social causes and changing definitions of identities that would have never entered the marketing conversation a decade ago. And consumer culture is evolving at a rate that many companies struggle to understand.

How do you keep up? Inclusive marketing is all about living what you preach in how you develop, manufacture, advertise, and sell your products. During a 2019 Google event focused on inclusive marketing, Kendo Beauty Chief Marketing Officer Sandy Saputo described how integral inclusive marketing has become to the beauty industry.

Known in marketing circles as “The Fenty Effect,” the Rhianna-owned Fenty makeup brand took a chance on a bold and inclusive marketing campaign — and it paid off. The brand launched with an unprecedented 40 foundation shades in an effort to serve previously underrepresented skin tones. As is the case with any successful inclusivity initiative, the brand “showed” inclusivity rather than “told” its message. Fenty never explicitly used the word “inclusivity,” but rather the message was ingrained in the marketing campaign from day one — inextricably linked to the Fenty mission.

It worked. Fenty earned over $100 million in 40 days after launch and was named one of Time Magazine’s best inventions of 2017. Other beauty brands have attempted to replicate the success of Fenty by broadening their makeup lines to include a greater diversity of skin tones. If nothing else, the Fenty success story should stand as a testament to our current times and the rippling effect a well-executed inclusivity initiative can have.

How doing good pays off

First and foremost, inclusivity makes good business sense because it’s the right thing to do. Think of it as an investment in the moral caché of your company, which will help customers better understand your values. With that in mind, inclusive marketing can also pay back financial dividends to the brands that make social and cultural change a legitimate priority.

It’s not only socially responsible, but also profitable, to align marketing strategies more closely with the lived experience of the modern world. For example, 70 percent of Gen Z consumers are willing to pay a premium for products from brands that embrace causes those consumers identify with, according to a 2018 McKinsey study. Inclusive marketing is a rare win/win for businesses — it not only helps to engage historically underserved identities, but is also proven to extend the reach of your brand’s messaging.

To reiterate: Inclusivity isn’t a trend. It has always been the necessary standard for the majority of the population, but brands are just now catching up. This decade has proven the need — and demand — for greater consideration in the way products are marketed, developed, and distributed to ensure the daily practices of your company stand as proof of your values. Although there is always work to be done, companies are starting to recognize the value of inclusivity and making meaningful changes in their messaging. We’ve entered an age of marketing where the brands that tell authentic stories rooted in experience will not only do good business, but more importantly, will do good for the world.