Six ways to consider race in marketing beyond Black History Month

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Businesses around the world are taking steps to address the importance of race in their marketing and communications. What does marketing need to do to make real progress?

Marketing is affected by culture, but marketing also affects culture – with the power to introduce and encourage progressive values and also, sadly, to reinforce and perpetuate harmful narratives.

This is why consideration of race, and racial diversity, is fundamental to the health and effectiveness of our entire industry. According to Marketing Week’s 2020 Career and Salary Survey, the distribution of race within the marketing industry is 88% white, 5% Asian, 4% mixed heritage and only 2% Black.

Cultivating a racially diverse workforce benefits business by creating environments where effective communication is informed by a rich array of perspectives. This means your next campaign is less likely to commit an insensitive cultural faux pas, and more likely to connect with wider audiences who feel recognized in your communications.

Here are six considerations to help you make sure your company is moving in the right direction:

1. Representation

Not only does the marketing industry itself need better representation of race in its employees, the marketing materials themselves need to do a better job of representing the audiences they are aimed at.

Surprisingly, the results of unequal representation can best be seen in the deeply negative responses to marketing that does feature minority race portrayal, such as the Christmas ads from Sainsbury’s in 2020 and John Lewis in 2021.

2. Colorism

In her article for Harvard Business Review, ‘Marketing Still Has a Colorism Problem,’ Mita Mallick shared this telling exchange: “She’s too dark,” the creative director snapped at me when I recommended the image of a dark-skinned Black woman washing her face for our hero campaign shot. “We can’t use that image for this global campaign.”

Colorism is discrimination that favors a decision-maker’s own racial group. Many darker-skinned groups are more likely to be represented in the media by lighter-skinned people. Look again at Marketing Week’s industry race percentages above and you’ll see how it can quickly become an issue.

Bring a range of complexions to your campaign assets and avoid perpetuating color biases.

3. Stereotyping

A much higher value is now placed on genuine self-expression than on reductive labels. Presenting racial stereotypes in marketing, both positive and negative, can be extremely harmful because they can either affirm negative attitudes people already have toward a racial group, or they restrict people from being able to express their true and unique character.

A recent example of this is an ad produced for The Ivy Asia, which features stereotypical depictions of Asian people and culture to promote their London-based pan-Asian restaurant. The ad was roundly criticized for being ‘inappropriate and culturally insensitive’ and was quickly removed from sight.

4. Trivializing racial issues

You may remember the ad Pepsi released in 2016 at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

The ad clearly evoked the image of Ieshia Evans being arrested by officers in riot gear at a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in July 2016. The Pepsi ad was slammed for co-opting and trivializing complex and emotive racial issues to promote their product.

When a business turns racial discourse into a marketing strategy, they can appear disingenuous, performative and attempting to profit from racial trauma. If you’re going to talk about race, always approach with care and sincerity.

5. Tone Deafness

Someone thought it would be fine to put a young Black boy in a hoodie with the words ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’ printed on the front for an H&M catalog. The outrage from people through social media highlighted H&M’s lack of cognizance of the appalling history of apes being used as racial slurs against Black people.

Failing to see the potential impact or social relevance of a particular message occurs when there is a lack of historical and cultural knowledge of other races, and is another reason why it’s so important to have racially diverse teams.

6. Tokenism

When a company does something just to appear racially progressive or inclusive, this is tokenism. And it’s important to remember that it’s the motivation here that is key, not the act itself.

For example, employing someone of an ethnic minority is not inherently tokenism. But if the motivation behind the hire is to deflect criticism and appear to be more diverse, it most definitely is. So is featuring people of ethnic minorities in company photos so diversity can be documented as opposed to simply wanting them involved.

This is something that is hard to monitor, but it’s important that workplace cultures are actively moving toward genuine diversity without superficial motives.

The marketing industry is striving to become more racially inclusive, which will result in greater brand perception, stronger engagement from younger audiences and participation in meaningful, long-term societal improvement.

It’s a big task, but being intentional about your company’s marketing decisions by paying attention to these six considerations will get progress moving in the right direction.

Sonia Marange, innovations executive at Earnest.