3 Signs that your brand is focused on diversity over equity

April 18, 2023
Mint line brushstroke

Since the Black Lives Matter resurgence and uprisings of 2020 and the #MeToo and #TimesUpreckoning of 2017, brands have been under pressure to create more representative communications.  However these efforts still fall short of being truly equitable. So where and how are brands doing diversity in place of equity?  

Here are 3 big mistakes brands are making right now.

1: Optical Representation

‘Optical representation’ happens when brands and/or organisations do just enough to be perceived as valuing diversity and inclusion. For example, when a curated panel event of four speakers has three white men of the same socio-economic background and then one Black woman. In this situation it looks as if diversity of thought is being offered to the audience, but really, the three men are likely offering similar takes on the topic up for discussion, whereas the Black women speaker will also like have to do some of the work in educating the other three panel members and the event audience about the systemic causes of differences in their life experiences. And this might be difficult, complex and triggering for the Black woman compared to the other three male panellists.

The opposite of optical representation is meaningful collaboration. This would mean all panellists talking about shared working in service of equity and justice, with each person having an individual role or perspective which adds to this collective effort.

2: Cultural Dissonance

‘Cultural dissonance’  refers to the phenomenon of cultural elements such as ethics, religion, fashion, entertainment, and speech, clashing or not ringing true in the way that they are being portrayed. Tesco have been putting out campaigns to tie in with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (this year it’s 22 March–21 April) for a number of years now. However, each time they release a campaign, they have been criticised for showing signs of cultural dissonance. In this year’s Tesco #FoodLoveStories Ramadan/Eid spot there are subtle signs that this may have been  signed off without a depth of knowledge or involvement from people from Muslim communities.  For example, there are a few subtle, but basic mistakes like falsely depicting opening the fast by seeing the moon, a mispronunciation of the name Umar and accents heard in the ad that don’t ring true. (Thanks to Umar Malik for bringing this to our attention on LinkedIn).

The flipside of this is the cultural celebration shown in the 2023 ‘Iftar Incoming’ campaign from Mother London for Uber Eats. Each billboard showcases signature Iftar (breaking of the fast at sundown) dishes popular with Muslim communities across the UK such as watermelon, fattoush, sheesh and dates.  The authenticity and simplicity of this campaign offers meaningful insight without clichés.

source: The Drum

3: Paternalism

Lots of us now have the level of cultural competence to know that charity adverts which exploit or fetishise poverty to try to drum up sympathy or support for a cause by objectifying a subject and exploiting their suffering can be dubbed ‘poverty porn’. It has long been common for charity organisations such as UNICEF and Oxfam to portray famine, poverty, and children in order to attract sympathy and increase donations. But this is objectifying and dehumanising.

A recent example of this is the current #WalktotheWell campaign from charity Just a Drop. Drone footage captures a lone, young woman walking in the blazing sun along dirt covered roads holding a large vessel, which she will need to fill with water. There is overlaid text footage, which reads “Help me end this walk to water”.

source: Twitter

The accompanying text is as follows: “I’m Ann and I have no choice but to walk 9km every day, just for water. Donate now to help me start my future”

The framing of this campaign is fairly problematic as Ann is depicted as being isolated from her community and isn’t shown to have any agency or control over her situation. And the viewer is cast as the saviour in the visual narrative.

At the time of writing it has been viewed 15.6million times.  Undoubtedly, these stories gain visibility but at what cost?

However, charities are starting to move away from this style of campaigning. For example, Comic Relief made a big commitment to shift towards racial equity in their films with their 2020 pledge to hire African filmmakers to work on international appeal films.

To avoid ‘paternalistic’ campaigns – paternalism refers to  actions which limit a person’s (or group’s) liberty or autonomy in place of promoting their own goals – brands need  to put equity at the heart of their briefs, planning, creative and execution. These questions below can help ensure that your focus is more equity-focused rather than paternalistic.

    • Who are we excluding with our communications (and if we aren’t sure, how can we find out)?
    • Do the words or images devalue, disrespect or disregard the people we are representing or helping?
    • Does the communication help to tell the full picture or perpetuate a single perspective of an issue? ?
    • Have we sought the consent of those whose story we are describing in words/photographed?

Remember, brand communications that are truly equitable mean going beyond just representing a diverse range of people and communities.  Instead, think about the ‘equity impact’ of all elements of the campaign including concept itself, the vocabulary in the script and/or ad copy, and both the still and moving images. Carefully considering all of this will help you create equity-focused, over diversity-focused campaigns.

We work with Brand and Communications teams to help you embed equity, inclusion and anti-racism into your work