To successfully engage with ethnic minorities, brands need to step away from stereotypes and demonstrate authentic representation, both within their workplaces and marketing campaigns.
Every major brand is well aware that it needs to do ‘something’ about diversity and inclusion. It’s plain to see the business benefits of tapping into new markets, attracting new audiences, and creating a future-proof brand that progresses with society.
In reality, it’s a quite big step to take your business from wanting to do ‘something’ to knowing exactly what to do, and actually executing a plan that will gain the business and long-term loyalty of women, ethnic minority, LGBTQ+ and other diverse audiences.
This piece explores what ethnic minority consumers in the UK expect from global brands (as opposed to micro, small or medium-sized local businesses). It is based on research the Versiti team have conducted in this field.
Don’t assume that all ethnic minority people care about is diversity & inclusion
The first thing to say is that getting the core products and services right remains the absolute priority. In other words, ‘diversity and inclusion’ is not the only, or even the main, priority for diverse consumers… but it does matter disproportionately. Indeed, in today’s ‘cancel culture’ on social media, getting it wrong can damage a reputation beyond repair.
People from minority groups (especially those who are born in the UK) typically have a sensitive radar for stereotypes and subtle signs of exclusion. They quickly pick up on reductive archetypes and tropes of exclusion. Some can be prone to ‘oppositional’ readings: they detect a message that is very different from, and not quite as rosy as, the interpretation intended by a marketing and communications team.
This stems from having somewhat distinct expectations of global brands. Indeed, most second and third-generation ethnic minority people expect that ‘inclusion’ should be an integral and valued part of corporate culture in all global companies, not a ‘nice to have’. It should be in a business’ DNA.
Focus on your corporate culture and workforce first
At the most basic level, this means having a diverse workforce, equal opportunities for career progression, and no substantial pay gap between employees based on their ethnicity. This is a far cry from the current state of affairs. This matters to ethnic minority consumers - much like it matters to women. Workplace equality makes wider social, economic and political participation possible and achievable. Ethnic minority people believe that global corporations not only have the means to achieve equality and inclusion, they also have the moral duty to do so. Perhaps unknowingly referencing Voltaire (via Spider-Man), they too argue that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.
Avoid stereotypical portrayals
Ethnic minority consumers also expect that advertising, marketing and communications from globals brands should always - at a bare minimum - represent the full diversity of consumers. Again, this is not achieved yet, as only 7% of lead roles in advertising include people who are not white. They also expect that portrayals of diversity in all public communications should be authentic. Lazy and damaging stereotyping are sure to turn these consumers away. Why, in the UK, does ethnicity always get portrayed by black people and not Indian, Pakistani, Chinese or Polish? Why are disabled people - when they figure at all - so frequently wheelchair users or amputees? Why are LGBT people almost always attractive gay men or, more recently, male-to-female trans?
Move beyond CSR ‘initiatives’ to consider a wider positive impact
Perhaps the tougher challenge is that when ethnic minority people discuss inclusion in the context of global companies, they do so within a larger rationale. For many ethnic minority groups, inclusion stands for having a positive impact on society in general - and on the most vulnerable members of society in particular. It goes beyond having a range of discrete corporate social responsibility initiatives and includes wider considerations around environmental impact or tax avoidance, for instance. People from minority groups tend to share a common view that those who rise - as successful global corporations undoubtedly do - have a duty to help lift others. All of this is part of what ethnic minority people mean when they talk about the need for global brands to be ‘authentic’.
Making your workplace truly inclusive and representative, and connecting with minority consumers in a way that demonstrates real and consistent knowledge, respect and care, is challenging. However, the rewards are huge. Research shows that as much as ethnic minority people turn away from companies that exclude them, they are also deeply loyal to (and will spread positive word of mouth for) companies that truly include them. Importantly, companies that get diversity and inclusion right almost always attract many more ‘mainstream’ customers. This is partly why, as the mounting business case shows, inclusive companies outperform those that, somehow, have not yet got the message.