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Authenticity Representation Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

How can brands speak their audience’s language? By creating a campaign together

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February 2, 2023 | 6 min read

As the ad industry pushes for greater diversity, equity and inclusion, how do we ensure campaigns are meaningful for the right audiences rather than simply paying lip service? Stuart Collins of Langland explores how we can make communications authentic, empathetic, and resonant for audiences the industry has traditionally struggled to reach, particularly with a subject as sensitive as mental health

The ad industry and the mental health system are both WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. Throw in a lack of racial diversity and we see that both industries are dominated by those who are not reflective of the general population. But what happens when our audience isn’t so homogenous?

A recent ASA report showed that over half of black, Asian, and other racially minoritised respondents said the ways they are represented in campaigns are often inaccurate or perpetuate a negative stereotype. In mental health, studies are not generally geared towards more diverse groups, nor are the majority of mental health professionals representative of them. This can lead to bias, unconscious or otherwise, when giving support to people from communities who already feel ignored. This disparity is illustrated by the fact that black people are four times more likely to be sectioned than white people, yet white people are twice as likely to be treated for a mental health problem than black people.

This disconnect would be an issue in any sector but is particularly problematic in mental health, which has such close links to our ideas of our own identity. The inability of mental health services to bridge the linguistic and cultural barriers can result in scepticism and lower rates of support service use in racially minoritised groups. This results in the need for more communications, perpetuating the cycle.

Under the surface

Representation in advertising is increasing, as is general awareness of mental health problems. While this sounds superficially positive, there are still issues. Too often, imagery of diversity is combined with messages that have been homogenised to appeal to all demographics. And of course, the messages tend to start WEIRD. Inclusion doesn’t simply start and end with an ad showing a mixed-race family.

And, while there is high awareness surrounding mental health, there is still a gap preventing people recognising their own experiences and engaging with support. This can stem from a number of places: resignation that nothing can help, a feeling of unworthiness, or simply denial of the problem. But, in audiences of certain racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds, there’s an added distrust of a system that doesn’t represent or understand them. So, how to connect with disenfranchised, potentially vulnerable people who don’t believe they need connecting with?

Authenticity is the best policy

Audiences respond to content with which they can relate. Shared experiences have been shown to drive to a ‘that sounds like me’ sentiment which is often followed by action. For example, user-generated content and conversations around borderline personality disorder on TikTok led to a 50% increase in Google searches on the topic (aggregated data from Google Trends and TikTok).

If organisations want to produce emotive, relatable content then more than ever there’s the need for authenticity. With a topic so personally/culturally sensitive, any disingenuity will be seen through - meaning messages will be at best disregarded, at worst cause damage to the health of our audience. Communication needs to be done in a way that the audience not only understand, but recognise. In a way that sounds, looks, and feels like them. The right language, with cultural relevance.

Who speaks the right language?

Being aware that our own lived experiences can leave us unqualified to write authentically for these target audiences shows us that we have to think further, beyond the traditional model of campaign creation.

Development of a creative platform to guide co-creation enables us to work with members of target audience groups to communicate with an honest, authentic voice. In areas such as mental health, everyone’s experience is unique, so creative platforms need an in-built flexibility to allow a variety of collaborators to tell authentic stories from their culture. This means that we end up with campaigns that are beyond surface-level relatable and contain culturally anchored stories, with a sense of not simply “this is for you”, but “this is you”. For Langland’s collaboration with leading mental health charity Mind, we developed the ‘If this speaks to you, speak to us’ platform for which real people with experience of mental health problems were paired with spoken word artists from the same disenfranchised group. The artists created pieces that told the stories in way that was authentic to them, but also culturally relevant to the under-represented audience.

Co-creation, particularly with people outside of the industry, isn’t easy. Staying on-brand and on-message, while allowing collaborators to have their own voice, requires clarity of purpose, as well as confidence in the creative platform.

Selecting the right collaborators for their storytelling eloquence as well as from a brand safety perspective is critical to ensuring authenticity; and a sensitive, detailed onboarding and campaign introduction for all partners creates the right environment for an inclusive collaboration.

To inclusivity, and beyond

As the world moves beyond fair representation towards inclusivity and equity, we’re seeing that campaigns can’t be created for the general population and crowbarred to fit specific audiences. A campaign targeting priority audiences is more likely to be able to flex and resonate with other populations than a campaign designed for mass reach is to resonate with minority audiences. If we are serious about reaching all audiences, campaigns need to be bespoke, authentic, and relevant.

The industry is starting to recognise that resonance requires more than representation. As authenticity becomes a necessity, more agencies and brands will recognise they can’t make honest connections with every demographic without help. Even as inclusivity grows within advertising, it’s not possible to cover every background, no matter how big the agency; so, we can expect more campaigns collaborating with their own audience to tell more genuine, emotive stories, peer-to-peer. Excitingly, we can look forward to seeing more campaigns that help us relate to worlds that we couldn’t do before.

Authenticity Representation Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

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