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Making diversity pay

Making diversity pay
Is diversity making advertising more effective? The short answer is, 'We will need to try it first to see'.

In the US, where the majority of the population will be non-white by the 2040's and diversity has been debated for decades, black consumers still "largely do not feel that they consistently receive invitations from brands reflective of the way they see themselves" reported a 2014 article in the Journal of Advertising Research.

And in the UK Advertising Association research estimated that only 45% of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) respondents thought advertising represented the UK's multicultural society. Broaden the definition of diversity to include portrayals of women, sexual minorities and people with disabilities, and you are unlikely to find many voices in any market arguing in favour of the status quo.

In this context, diversity means diversity of representation, namely, the belief that the faces, voices, tones and media channels used in ads should speak to a world where, for instance, the UK has a 10m-strong BAME population, and 100-plus languages are spoken in London schools alone. (This post does not address the related question of diversity within agencies which is the subject of this IPA event, though for many there is a clear link between the advertising we get and the backgrounds and experiences of the people who commission and produce it.)

Given that diversity of representation is one of those issues marketers find it easier to sign up for than to implement, what is the evidence for practising diversity in communications not just because it is the sociologically accurate or just thing to do, but because it might also be the more effective approach?

The AA, IPA and Nielsen are among the organisations that have published evidence of the spending power of multicultural audiences in different markets, arguing that more specifically targeting these groups - or at least not ignoring or alienating them - could help mainstream advertisers develop new revenues. Other studies have made a similar case about the under-tapped commercial potential of lesbian and gay consumers, though not without controversy.

However, these reports address issues at market levels. There is much less discussion of individual campaigns where it could be argued that creative and strategic choices made in favour of reflecting social diversity contributed to the overall effectiveness of communications.

While it would it be difficult to prove conclusively that the specific diversity ingredients led to a campaign being more effective (though theoretically you could test ad executions with diverse and non-diverse casts), there are campaigns that have been recognised primarily for their effectiveness, but which also featured pro-diversity choices - so embracing diversity is certainly no bar to achieving effectiveness.

Further, it is possible to hypothesise why, in specific instances, these 'pro-diversity components' made key contributions to delivering the creative impact and core insights of communications initiatives - and by extension, their effectiveness. The piece below analyses trends in campaigns along these lines.

1. The way we are now

There is an emerging genre of ads which takes an overt stance that social and racial diversity is part of the contemporary reality of many Western societies, usually by depicting familial or traditional rituals as experienced by unconventional groupings. These campaigns, which have been particularly prominent in the US, are designed to show that advertisers recognise consumers are changing, and to clarify the roles that brands can play in a more fluid social landscape. Examples include Honey Maid's 'This is Wholesome' with its montage of inter-racial, divorced and gay families, Chevrolet's 'Find New Roads', and Coca-Cola's 'America the Beautiful', in which the eponymous traditional song is performed by a multicultural cast in scenic US locations.

Regarding the Honey Maid work, which subsequently won awards from D&AD and Cannes Lions, the snack brand's owner, Mondelez, says its aim was to celebrate the shifting dynamic of American families, whilst marking the continuance of "wholesome connections". After the Honey Maid spot aired, sales and brand metrics such as relevance reportedly improved.

There is no doubt that many of these executions have attracted consumers' and media attention, though some have also drawn virulent flak from groups less receptive of the ads' soft-edged messages of shared values and tolerance of difference. See Honey Maid's creative response to its critics below.

These ads have not yet appeared in markets such as the UK in any volume. The nearest UK equivalent is probably the national panorama seen in something like Bisto's 'Aah Night', the subject of a 2010 IPA Effectiveness Award winning case study, in which disparate households across Britain were encouraged by the brand to sit down to a weekday family meal which incorporated "proper gravy". Although the insight behind the Bisto campaign - about preserving a domestic ritual in a time-pressured world - seems universally applicable, the few non-white actors cast in the spot seem a token nod to diversity.

This was still an improvement, however, on the comparable UK Heinz ad which, by omitting anyone from an ethnic minority, unfortunately managed to suggest that Heinz ketchup was a natural accompaniment to meals - except, it seemed, for anyone non-white.

2. Different but safe

In the UK, perhaps the longest-running current series of ads fronted by a non-white face is comprised of the Premier Inn campaigns with comedian and actor, Lenny Henry. Recognised for its effectiveness with a silver award in the 2014 IPA Effectiveness Awards, the budget hotel chain's marketing has made its promise of a good night's sleep a differentiating point in its sector, and generated an estimated £593m of incremental revenue

You might argue that Premier Inn's success is more due to its selection of Henry - himself a high-profile campaigner for greater ethnic diversity in casting - as the right likeable and trusted celebrity to deliver this brand promise than in any particular acknowledgement of racial diversity.

The choice of Moira Stuart, the BBC news reader born of African-Caribbean parents, to front the 'Tax does not have to be taxing' campaign, winner of the Best Short-Term Effect prize in the 2010 IPA Awards, was similar. As a well-liked, familiar face in British homes, Stuart was hired not because she represented a diverse population, but because her profession meant she could be trusted to tell that population about a tax deadline in an authoritative manner.

These ads work in part because the celebrities involved bring relevant positive associations from their main careers. The stars' ethnicity isn't particularly germane to this effect or commented on, though they add visibility in what is a small field of UK examples. (Others are the Barclays series of ads with Samuel L Jackson and the longer-lasting 'staff as stars' approach fronted by singing bank employee, Howard, from the Halifax bank in the 2000's.)

3. Different but the same

To mark Gay Pride in San Francisco, Burger King issued a Proud Burger with rainbow-coloured external packaging and the message "We're all the same inside" on the internal wrapping. The campaign, which filmed consumers' responses to the burger, generated more than 1bn media impressions and $21m of earned media value, and picked up both a D&AD award and a Clio. We will have to read an effectiveness case study to see if the approach shifted more burgers, but it certainly succeeded in getting the brand talked about for a relatively small outlay.

The Burger King campaign, and the award-winning 'Gaytms' created by ANZ bank for Sydney Pride, were however temporary, marginal, attention-grabbing initiatives, with the aims of generating brand goodwill and showing support for minority groups.

For an example of a diversity message in a more core piece of marketing, consider 'Learning Sign Language', a spot aired by Wells Fargo bank as part of its 'total marketing' strategy to diverse audiences. Although definitions of 'total marketing' differ, broadly the approach involves communications to specific audience segments which are integrated into whole-market messaging by "leveraging universal commonalities whilst acknowledging cultural differences".  

In 'Sign Language', the evolving storyline of a same sex female couple adopting a deaf child (with a beaming African-American counsellor in attendance) is tied together by the bank's promise to help consumers with their financial planning, whatever their goals or social demographic. Wells Fargo says that positive brand sentiment rose five-fold, largely due to the TV spot, though it has not published evidence of harder business benefits.

Another embodiment of this approach is the 'Your Father' spot for Campbell's Soup, in which gay fathers provide a twist on two recognisably irksome parenting situations - namely, feeding a small child and being embarrassed by your partner. The end line is "Campbell's Soup. Made for real, real life."

Whilst superficially showing unconventional social units, these ads show them operating in relatively conventional ways, suggesting that there is as much that unites diverse groups as in what separates them.

4. Diversity as a goal in itself

Some brands embrace diversity as its own goal rather than as a way of communicating relevance or empathy. You could hardly get more plain-speaking than the Nando's South Africa ad below, with its satirical swipe at critics of that country's multicultural make-up - and its clumsy last minute tie-in to the chain's 'diverse' menu.

Or there is the "embrace diversity or kiss my ass" musical message of this film from the Asta Philpot Foundation, which unapologetically celebrates what makes us different, rather than what makes us the same.

However, outside of the recruitment category, where advertisers sometimes make attracting a diversity of candidates an explicit part of campaigns, there are not many examples of mainstream brands positioning diversity as a goal in itself. The nearest might be the Guinness wheelchair basketball ad, with its suggestion that a group that includes someone "different" in their activities is making a statement about its values.

5.  Making diversity count rather than counting diversity

The final group of ads are those in which the diversity elements add to the storytelling and emotional appeal of the executions to all kinds of audiences.

Take the British Airways campaign, 'A Ticket to Visit Mum', which features an Indian-born son, now living in the States, and his mother back in India, who plans to send him some of her food as a nostalgic reminder of home.

This viral hit was awarded a North American Gold Effie and an International Direct Marketing Association Award for helping BA increase its share of the US airline market.

The spot was created specifically to grow sales on US-India flights, though one can theoretically imagine alternatives featuring families separated along other long haul routes. For this viewer, however, the ethnicity of the protagonists is key to making the film resonate emotionally with non-Indian audiences too. Western viewers bring to the film all their cultural assumptions about Indian mother-love, the traditional role of food in Indian families, and the distance, cost and other barriers holding back an ageing Indian mum from getting on a plane to see her son, rather than waiting for him to visit. It would be difficult to see the story of a European mother and her expat offspring having the same emotional pull.

A second example is an older US Marine recruitment spot, 'The Leap'. Although this campaign does not explicitly refer to the protagonist's race, the fact that the actor is African-American is relevant in several ways.

The campaign had the stated objective of increasing African-American applications to the Marines, which regards diversity as a must-have requirement given the fact its members are deployed on five continents. Indeed, African-American applicants did increase following the campaign. But it is the fact that the storyline featured an African-American man overcoming his fear of jumping into water that gave it power among disparate audiences, and may explain why it outscored previous Marines campaigns in tracking.

The film was built on the insight that a disproportionately high proportion of African-American men were afraid of swimming. As such, the leap shown illustrated a tangible feat of mental rather than physical strength. It was presented as the first step on a journey of self-empowerment that would ultimately lead to a respected military career ("So I jumped in, afraid, ...but I came up.. a Marine", the voiceover says) and one that has traditionally proven to be an engine of social mobility for African-American men. 

This creative approach marked a break with traditional Marines ads which had marketed the force as the elite home of "the few, the proud", and had highlighted the extreme physical prowess of recruits. This treatment offered a more universally accessible story of an individual conquering self-doubt and adversity, without losing any of its culturally specific associations. 

There has already been much written about the next example - 'This Girl Can' from Sport England. Suffice to say that the diversity of women shown on screen during the hip hop soundtracked film makes the point about why no woman of any background should be deterred from exercise by what others think. All that remains is to read the proof of whether and how the campaign increased participation in physical activity in a forthcoming Effectiveness Awards entry!

Finally, there is the 'Love has no labels' spot from the US Ad Council. In the spot, dancing couples are shown as X-rayed outlines on a giant screen before revealing themselves in front of the screen to both the viewer and a public crowd. The gradual reveal of the couples and the reactions of surprise they draw from onlookers play with expectations of gender, race, religion and disability right to the end. And this effect survives repeat viewings in a way the Wells Fargo or Honey Maid ads simply don't (try recalling what pairing will emerge next, and what their relationship is). The spot has been viewed more than 100m times, making it the second most watched community activism campaign of all time. Not proof of effectiveness in changing prejudice, perhaps, but evidence that the clip proved engaging to online audiences.

These films manage to be effective by employing diversity to amplify specific creative and audience insights, even though we still need many more rigorous demonstrations of effectiveness in this area.

However, it is tempting to argue that in at least one sense, a diverse approach is currently generally likely to be more effective than a non-diverse one - and that is when the primary, short-term objective of an execution is simply to get the brand noticed and talked-about.

It is probably no accident that three out of the four examples above feature not for profit groups. There are still whole swathes of commercial marketing in which brands rarely risk even acknowledging diversity issues - few high profile campaigns featuring female or ethnic minority business decision-makers, for instance, or where the disabled characters have the best lines.

Commercial brands that do air non-stereotypically diverse executions are almost by default likely to attract more comment, earned media value and social sharing at the current time. This is no guarantee of success for mediocre or misjudged creative and strategic work, no matter how well intentioned.  But it is to suggest that this is a window of opportunity that will close in the near future when practising diversity is more widespread - and paradoxically, less worthy of comment. At least one hopes this is the case.


Last updated 19/01/2016

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