How to Avoid Insensitivity in Marketing
Marketing in a multicultural landscape is inherently difficult. With so many perspectives to consider, brands often miss the mark in marketing campaigns.
Recent offenders include Dove’s Body Wash campaign, Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner commercial, and RAM Trucks’ Super Bowl ad. (How did the world not realize that Kendall Jenner was the answer to all of our social issues?? Or that RAM was the successor to enact MLK’s dreams?? Yikes.)
Obviously none of these brands intended to come across as insensitive or tone deaf. No one wakes up in the morning wanting their marketing brain child to trigger the outrage of thousands.
Besides, offending consumers leads to hefty costs dealing with social media backlash, public relation nightmares, a decrease in followers, and loss of brand credibility and loyalty.
How can brand marketers avoid cultural insensitivity in campaign advertising?
#1 - Listen.
Always have awareness around the fact that, often times, the first idea may not be the best idea. Sometimes an idea can be so close to the source that a team overlooks the problems with it. Diversify your staff of decision makers and business executives. Hiring a group of people with different perspectives, professional backgrounds, and experiences offers new and representative outlooks for content, marketing strategies, communications, and social media campaigns.
Additionally, social listening can help marketers mirror the way these complex subjects are discussed by target audiences on social media platforms. Track the hashtags, campaigns, and topics your audience is following to gauge their interests. A lack of social listening can lead to outlandish mistakes like Burger King’s New Zealand Vietnamese ad mocking the use of chopsticks.
By engaging the right people in the beginning of the campaign development process, brands can mitigate the risk of making a mistake further down the line.
Case study | Gucci
Gucci recently encountered anger for their distasteful fashion items that appeared to have blackface incorporated into the design. While the products were not intended to appear that way, the chairman and CEO of Kering which owns Gucci, François-Henri Pinault told The Wall Street Journal that they do not have teams to review products and marketing materials for the African-American community “and that’s a mistake.”
Realize the mistake, listen to complaints, and take action - once the damage is done, that’s all a brand can do to mend it.
#2 - Spread positivity.
As a marketer, you should continually ask yourself: Is this wrong? Could this offend someone?
People associate with brands in which they can relate, so why make the consumer feel inferior, sad, or any negativity?
To pursue positivity, avoid speculating about how the audience feels, isolating people, involving taboo topics like religion, and having a negative brand voice. Think about the message and its potential effects on the audience.
In PETA’s “Save the Whales” campaign (first picture), the billboard referred to consumers as “blubber” in the tagline for eating meat - an unpleasant and unnecessary call-out to some audiences. Also, in 2009, in an attempt to target more women, this Bacardi “Ugly Girlfriend” ad campaign (second picture) excluded women, coming off as insensitive and insulting. Labeling one set of consumers as desirable, while the other ones as “ugly” does not highlight the good qualities of the product - it just offends people…and that’s not the goal.
Case study | Burberry
Although these examples seem ancient, offensive actions are still occurring ten years later. The fashion company Burberry recently received backlash for having an outfit that resembled a noose for London Fashion Week. The outfit shocked and caused deep concern among the crowd, those affected by suicide, and the model.
Since the incident, the company has taken several proactive initiatives including educating and diversifying their staff and supporting outside organizations to ensure that they increase their “consciousness and understanding of social issues.”
Burberry made an announcement on their Instagram:
These steps to promote diversity and inclusion include:
1. Increase our understanding to a range of perspectives to help us live the values we hold. To be truly inclusive we will add training for all employees, including senior management; establish employee councils focused on diversity and inclusion; and assemble an advisory board of external experts.
2. Diversify the pipeline of talent to better reflect our world by ensuring diverse representation in our employee base, expanding our creative arts scholarship internationally and providing full-time employment for 50 graduates from the program over the next five years, and extending our in-school arts and culture program internationally.
3. Champion those who help others by supporting organizations that promote diversity and inclusion.
Liz Kennedy, the Burberry model, called out the design on her Instagram:
“Suicide is not fashion. It is not glamorous nor edgy and since this show is dedicated to the youth expressing their voice, here I go. Riccardo Tisci and everyone at Burberry it is beyond me how you could let a look resembling a noose hanging from a neck out on the runway. How could anyone overlook this and think it would be okay to do this especially in a line dedicated to young girls and youth. The impressionable youth. Not to mention the rising suicide rates world wide. Let’s not forget about the horrifying history of lynching either. There are hundreds of ways to tie a rope and they chose to tie it like a noose completely ignoring the fact that it was hanging around a neck. A massive brand like Burberry who is typically considered commercial and classy should not have overlooked such an obvious resemblance. I left my fitting extremely triggered after seeing this look (even though I did not wear it myself). Feeling as though I was right back where I was when I was going through an experience with suicide in my family. Also to add in they briefly hung one from the ceiling (trying to figure out the knot) and were laughing about it in the dressing room. I had asked to speak to someone about it but the only thing I was told to do was to write a letter. I had a brief conversation with someone but all that it entailed was “it’s fashion. Nobody cares about what’s going on in your personal life so just keep it to yourself” well I’m sorry but this is an issue bigger than myself. A look so ignorantly put together and a situation so poorly handled. I am ashamed to have been apart of the show.”
#3 - Research, research, research your audience!
Everyone is prone to blind spots - and that’s why it’s important to consult with your team and your target audiences.
Let research and facts drive the strategy instead of passion. If brands conduct adequate research on the audience, the ads are far more likely to resonate with consumer wants, needs, and interests.
New market research companies like Gauge conduct rapid focus groups for brand marketers by surveying diverse influencer communities to help brands avoid racially insensitive advertising.
Be empathetic - Think about a campaign’s emotional effectiveness on the audience.
Research - Conduct constant and adequate research on the audience.
And when you do make a mistake, make it right - Recognize the mistake, listen to complaints, and take action to make it right.
To help you prepare for all of the moving parts of your next marketing campaign, download our free marketing brief template. If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to our monthly newsletter to get the latest information and resources on the marketing industry.