Natural bias: if we are entrenched in stereotypes, how can brands become inclusive?

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Psychologists have long understood that many of our most problematic biases are deeply rooted; some say they are natural ways of coping with a confusing world. What does this mean for brands trying to be more inclusive? For our in-depth study on marketing and the marginalized, Naomi Macphail and Alicia Newman of The Drum Network member agency Frog investigate.

Inclusiveness is not new. All marketers understand the importance of reaching everyone, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race or religion. Yet a recent investigation by Facebook found that most consumers (54%) do not feel fully represented in online advertising.

Why do brands still struggle to be inclusive?

Some brands worry about negative repercussions. A Glaad study found that 61% of advertisers “fear audience backlash for including minority audiences such as LGBTQ+ people in advertising.”

If a brand doesn’t properly present its audience, it can face negativity, which damages its reputation. This can become a serious and potentially long-lasting problem, such as when BrewDog released a pink IPA beer using the slogan “beer for girls” in an effort to tackle gender inequality. Critics found the stereotypical remark offensive and outdated, sparking an outpouring of negativity towards the brand.

Another reason why brands struggle to authentically represent their customers could be natural bias. Natural biases occur unconsciously in all of us, when we automatically categorize people into groups based on characteristics such as age, gender, and race.

Our brains are wired to group people based on their physical appearance to help us navigate the social world. Humans are constantly bombarded with information; categorizing this information creates a sense of order. But it also leads us to form stereotypes.

The biggest mistake brands make when trying to be inclusive is portraying minority audiences unrealistically, placing them in stereotypical roles or scenarios. Being aware of our natural biases and their effects allows us to make better decisions and avoid stereotypes, which leads to a more inclusive approach.

So how can brands avoid natural biases and become more inclusive?

1. Practice what you preach

Before you think about advertising, make sure your teams are as inclusive and diverse as possible. The natural diversity within teams will help break down stereotypes or stigma. Coca Cola is a great example of a company that has built teams and developed values ​​to reflect the diversity of the communities it sells to.

2. Be real

Remove stereotypes from your communications by looking for the truth in what you say. Basing your advertising around real stories told by real people will make your advertising authentic and build a realistic representation of the world we live in. Gillette in 2019 used everyday people in its “Handle with Care” campaign. An ad championed LGBT+ equality by showing a father helping his transgender son shave. He has received multiple accolades for his inclusiveness and meaningful portrayals of people’s lives.

3. Be specific

Often, when brands include minority audiences in their communications, they highlight what makes them different. Brands rarely depict people with disabilities in everyday scenarios, such as work, chores, or parenthood. But inclusivity means including someone regardless of disability, gender, race, or age. Minority audiences should be represented more often and accurately represented when they are.

Maltesers’ “Look in the Light” campaign featured people with disabilities in everyday scenarios discussing awkward encounters. The ads were inspired by real stories and used to break taboos and challenge perceptions. They captured an honest, real understanding of people with disabilities that was truly inclusive.

4. Plan for longevity

Being inclusive is not a one-time action. Inclusiveness should be built into everything you do, from the people you hire, to the advertising you create, and the products or services you offer. Brands must strive for inclusion that lasts.

Ikea was the first brand to show gay couple on tv in 1994 and his inclusion for the LGBT+ community hasn’t stopped. She has worked hard to embed inclusivity into all of her business, with a focus in 2021 on helping everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, feel at home.

To quote Verna Myers, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Netflix: “Prejudices are stories we make up about people before we know them.” Being inclusive does not come naturally; brands need to think about removing bias and avoiding the use of stereotypes to ensure they portray a true representation of society.

Inclusiveness is not a checkbox. It is an ongoing process, requiring constant self-assessment and focus.

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