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Unilever’s DEI chief on a new initiative to ‘unstereotype’ branded influencer content

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By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

June 16, 2023 | 11 min read

The consumer goods multinational has introduced a new set of guidelines, created in partnership with real creators, that spell out practical ways to eliminate stereotypes from branded influencer content.

Influencers

Unilever has published a new open-source guide to help influencers 'think more inclusively' about branded content / Adobe Stock

New data from market research firm Basis in conjunction with Unilever shows that 93% of gen Z consumers globally have seen stereotypes on social media. In particular, they say they see stereotypes about women (61%); stereotypes related to body image (57%); stereotypes about the LGBTQ+ community (54%) and ethnicity-related stereotypes (52%).

And encountering these skewed representations on social platforms is having a negative impact on young people. Some four in ten have questioned their body image, while 38% have questioned what it means to be part of the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s also affecting how they view the world and the communities in which they live. 73% feel that the world is becoming more divided and 51% sense that it’s less tolerant and inclusive.

In total, over half (57%) of gen Zers report feeling frustrated with the problem of stereotypes on social media. Other common emotional responses include anxiety, sadness and anger while using social media. Social media-related anxiety is particularly prevalent among those who identify as LGBTQ+ and those with disabilities.

In many instances, young people are encountering these stereotypes in influencer content. More than 80% of gen Zers follow influencers and encounter branded content on these pages that can perpetuate negative ideas about groups.

To combat the issue of stereotypes in influencer content specifically, Unilever – the consumer packaged goods giant behind top brands like Dove, Vaseline Axe and Ben & Jerry’s – announced Thursday that it’s expanding its ‘Act 2 Unstereotype’ initiative, which seeks to promote more inclusive and fair marketing.

“The problem with stereotypes being perpetuated in influencer content is that they are having a profound [and negative] effect on how Gen Z consumers view society," Unilever’s chief brand officer and chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer Aline Santos tells The Drum. "At Unilever, we believe we have a responsibility to ensure consumers don’t feel this way because of the branded influencer content we produce. Therefore, we need to work closely with content creators to ensure we produce unstereotypical content that helps shape a more tolerant, inclusive and equitable society.”

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New guidelines for influencers, by influencers

As part of its commitment to working with real creators to stem the spread of stereotypes on social media, Unilever teamed up with a group of influencers from the US, UK and Brazil to release a new guide for influencers everywhere called ‘10 Ways to Unstereotype Influencer Brand Content.’ The open-source guide includes 10 questions meant “to encourage content creators to think more inclusively,” Santos says. The project has received support from the UK’s Diversity Standards Collective, which works with top brands including Amazon, Coca-Cola and Lucky Generals to promote diversity.

However, the version released this week is just the first step in addressing a broader problem, Santos suggests, adding that it’s intended to be “a living and breathing document” that will evolve as needed.

The company is also rolling out new guidelines around stereotypes that will be included in all of its brands’ influencer contracts. These new developments add to Unilever‘s existing commitment to never alter digital content or images to change a person’s body shape, size, proportion or skin color.

The initiatives reflect the demands of young consumers today: 61% of gen Zers believe that brands and influencers have a responsibility to ensure their branded content is free of stereotypes, and 70% think there should be more checks in place to ensure stereotypes aren’t being promoted in social media content.

Leaders in the diversity, equity and inclusion space have signaled their support for Unilever's new efforts to combat stereotypes in influencer content. “As influencers become increasingly central to brands looking to connect with their audiences in an authentic way, it is equally vital that clear guidance is in place to ensure the content is free of stereotypes. As an area of content creation that is exploding in prominence, this level of rigor safeguards against potential bias that could otherwise be missed,” said Sara Denby, head of the Unstereotype Alliance Secretariat, a UN women-led action platform to eradicate stereotypes in media and advertising, in a statement.

Influencers, too, are voicing their support. Laura Mathias, an Instagram influencer who uses her platform to spread awareness about alopecia, a medical condition, believes the new open-source guide is a valuable resource. “Assumptions are made about me every day, purely based on how I look. I have alopecia which is hard to navigate in traditional and social media platforms where audiences instinctively seek visual cues to make meaning,” she said in a statement shared with The Drum. “So I'm really encouraged that Unilever is gathering insights from creators, like me, with lived experience of discrimination on set and social media due to our differences and disabilities. Being bald should never have been a barrier to me pursuing dreams of being on camera. And now, years later, with a guide like this, those in positions of influence within the industry will ensure it no longer is.”

Unilever‘s record on combating stereotypes in influencer content

Unilever has focused on eliminating stereotypes from its own branded influencer content for a number of years now. Dove in particular has been a leader in the space – its ‘Reverse Selfie’ campaign made waves in 2021 for boldly condemning photo manipulation and the social pressures that have made it a phenomenon among girls and women. Earlier this year, the brand’s ‘Turn Your Back’ initiative called on brands and consumers to reject the harmful ‘Bold Glamour’ filter popular on TikTok.

Other Unilever brands have also made it a priority to work with influencers to reject toxic ideals and champion inclusivity. Its deodorant brand Sure (which in the US is known as Degree and in other regions is called Rexona) teamed up with influencers on a stirring content series that detailed the creators’ individual stories and how they’ve challenged society’s limited ideas of who can be a mover and disruptor.

Although Unilever has in recent years called out many of the problems with influencer content – from the proliferation of toxic beauty advice to the impacts it can have on young people’s mental health – Santos says that influencer strategies remain a priority for many brands, including Unilever’s. “Influencer marketing is a key way for our brands to connect with consumers in an increasingly digital age.”

Still, she keeps the focus on the need to evolve influencer marketing. “Whilst social media and influencers are a source of great connection, community and inspiration for consumers, it’s critical that branded content isn’t reinforcing harmful stereotypes.”

And breaking down negative stereotypes in branded influencer content doesn’t benefit consumers alone. In Santos’ estimation, it can actually have positive business impacts, too. “Unstereotypical branded content drives better engagement and business results,” she says. She points to proprietary data that has determined that “progressive advertising” is bolstering key metrics for Unilever, with 67% better ‘brand persuasion’ among consumers and 76% higher enjoyment of ads.

An ongoing mission

The new guide for influencers is the latest iteration of Unilever’s ‘Act 2 Unstereotype’ initiative, which rolled out two years ago and expanded upon the company’s original ‘Unstereotype’ commitments (unveiled in 2016).

What started as a limited focus on dialing back stereotypes in its ads has blossomed into a much larger project. “We realized that if we wanted to create systemic change, we had to completely re-examine how we approached our marketing and advertising,” says Santos.

Starting in 2021, Unilever began taking “a more forensic approach to ensure equity, diversity and inclusion are embedded at every point of the end-to-end marketing journey,” she explains.

The integrated effort includes everything from promoting an attitude of challenging everything to putting equity at the heart of creative ideation and building a diverse workforce across the company’s various functions, agencies and production partners. “If we ensure we have diverse talent right at the heart of the creative process,” says Santos, “we have much more opportunity to create something that is absolutely going to engage our consumers, as it truly reflects the diversity of our society.”

With a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion across its entire value chain, Santos says Unilever is able to keep its eye on what matters most, every step of the way. “For us, Unstereotyping isn’t just about the final end creative or content – it's also about ensuring our brands are truly reflecting the people and societies that we serve, and providing equity, representation and inclusion for underrepresented and underserved communities. It’s a never-ending journey but I’m driven to put stereotypes aside and humanity first.”

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