Sonia Thompson is a recognized expert on inclusive marketing. In this encore episode, Sonia shares her experiences as a Black woman that led her to notice how brands and retailers struggled to engage people who didn’t fit into what has been considered mainstream. Sonia discusses the success of Rihanna’s Fenty brand and Target’s focus on co-creating with Black employees and suppliers. Sonia also addresses common misconceptions about the Black community and representation in ads
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:
Sonia Thompson: Representation matters. But representation isn’t only about the photography or the talent that you’re using. It permeates through every part of your organization and that includes where your brand spends money.
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer at Bigeye. Thank you for joining us. Black History Month, celebrated annually in February, is a time to recognize the significant contributions that African Americans have made throughout history. It’s also an opportunity to acknowledge the unique challenges and experiences faced by Black Americans both past and present. As consumers, according to the University of Georgia, in 2020, cumulative Black buying power totaled $1.6 trillion. Black Americans are highly influential in shaping cultural trends and preferences, particularly in areas such as music, fashion, and entertainment. So understanding the needs and preferences of this consumer group is essential for businesses seeking to reach a diverse audience and build long-lasting relationships with customers. Today’s episode is another chance to hear a conversation with Sonia Thompson, an expert in inclusive marketing, a customer experience strategist, and a consultant with international experience. As CEO of Thompson Media Group, Sonia helps brands deliver inclusive and remarkable experiences that win customers. Previously, Sonia spent almost a decade as a marketer with Johnson and Johnson, growing billion-dollar brands worldwide. Sonia is also a regular contributor to Forbes and Inc. Sonia joined us from her office in Wesley Chapel, Florida for this interview, which we recorded last February.
Adrian Tennant: Sonia, welcome back to IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Sonia Thompson: Thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure. It’s an honor to be asked to come back.
Adrian Tennant: What’s your definition of inclusive marketing?
Sonia Thompson: So inclusive marketing is all about acknowledging all the many ways in which people are different. And then intentionally choosing which of those differences you are going to serve as a brand, and then incorporating the ones that you’ve selected throughout all parts of your marketing mix.
Adrian Tennant: Today, you’re a recognized expert in inclusive marketing. So Sonia, what led you to focus on this particular area?
Sonia Thompson: I would say it came a lot from frustration. I’m somebody with a lot of differences. So I’m a marketer, that’s been my background, my experience for my entire career. I focus a lot on customer experience, but as I started talking more about my frustrations, and maybe if you’re a marketer, I feel like you’re always viewing the world through the lens of a marketer. I just kept running into challenges where I felt like brands struggled whenever trying to figure out how to engage people who had quote, unquote differences that made them not so cleanly fit into what was considered mainstream. So I’m a Black woman. I follow a gluten-free diet. I saw things, especially change whenever I started gluten-free, because I just realized how many brands struggled to cater to that. I lived outside the US for a little while. I’m left-handed, so that, you know, my adjustments started early on with scissors back in school. So the more I started talking about that and just exploring it within my columns – and, I went to a bootcamp that was all about public speaking to help prepare me and give me assets to get on the stage. And I did a talk on inclusive marketing and I started to see the responses that people were having to it. I started to receive the responses that people were having to my articles because people talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Very few people talk about it from a marketing standpoint. So thinking about things from an inclusivity standpoint, because even whatever people are talking about, diversity and marketing or multicultural marketing, they’re focusing it more so on ethnicity and race rather than all the different types of dimensions of diversity that exist. So if we think about that, that’s where we get the definition of inclusive marketing, because it’s not just multicultural or ethnic marketing, it’s thinking more broadly about all the ways that we’re different. So I got started in it because there was hunger in the market. People were latching onto the information because there wasn’t a ton out there. There’s a little bit more now than there was previously. But, yeah, I just started leaning in heavily where people were clamoring for information.
Adrian Tennant: Which brands do you think do a really good job of engaging with Black American consumers?
Sonia Thompson: I think Target consistently does a good job. Every year, I have people sending me photos of their Black History Month display, that they generally start showcasing in January. Because people are excited about it. And that’s the cool thing about celebrations that you’re doing for Black History Month or any other cultural group, or, just a specific group of people who are underrepresented and underserved. Anytime they see something that you’ve done to celebrate and honor them, and they’re excited about it, I generally feel like that’s a good sign that you’ve done a good job. How did Target get to the point where they were able to consistently deliver good experiences for Black History Month? One: they spend a lot of time getting to know their customer. They co-create with their internal teams. They have employee resource groups. They work a lot with their employee resource group for Black people and they help them curate the different merchandise that they’re going to be using, they help them find Black-owned suppliers that they’re going to be featuring. So because they spend so much time connecting with the community that they’re looking to serve and partnering with them, and co-creating with them, they’re generally able to deliver experiences and celebrations that make people feel seen.
Adrian Tennant: Sonia, what are some of the most common misconceptions you find marketers and brand managers have about the Black community?
Sonia Thompson: This is a pet peeve of mine: whenever people assume that the Black community doesn’t have any money – so whenever they feel like they want to reach out and engage the community, sometimes the default is what types of programs do we need to do to offer some type of financial assistance or scholarships or other types of things that have an economic solution to them. There are groups of the population that may struggle economically, but that exists with all groups, all racial and cultural, ethnic groups, across the US. And I think that while there are systemic challenges that have impacted the Black community in particular, that hasn’t allowed us consistently, collectively to advance in as many areas, the assumption shouldn’t be that we’re all poor and economically starved. I remember I was having a conversation with some girlfriends and there was something that came out that had kind of had that air of it. And she was, “Am I poor?” Right? Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but we just don’t think of ourselves in that way. That’s not our lived experience. And it feels insulting that’s what people immediately equate with people who are from this community.
Adrian Tennant: Last time we spoke, you shared some of the ways that you typically help brands get to know customer groups with whom they may have no connection in terms of their cultural identity or ethnicity. Sonia, what have been some of your most interesting projects in the past year?
Sonia Thompson: I worked with two healthcare brands and did something similar where I helped them develop a deeper degree of customer intimacy for the people that they served and that included doing some in-depth interviews, one-on-one interviews where I was the moderator. And that was significant because in the process of seeing me, and someone who looked like them, we were able to develop a very clear rapport very quickly, which allowed me to dig in deep on some of the topics that we were exploring. And they shared things with me that they probably wouldn’t have shared with somebody else who didn’t look like them. So that was interesting in particular because we explored the role race played in their decision-making and their perceptions and how they felt they were treated. And ultimately that was going to impact their experience with the brand later on. Now we’re exploring the role of race, not just with the brand, but just overall within healthcare, but knowing what role race played, and exploring what role it did play gave the team a deeper degree of customer intimacy and cultural intelligence that would allow them to better tailor their programming and their support for this community because they had a much deeper understanding of who they were. So that was one thing. And another project that is newer, that I’m excited about, is I’m helping another client also in the world of healthcare – I do work with companies outside of healthcare, but because my background is in healthcare, I think sometimes that’s where people reach out – and we are helping them with their Spanish engagement strategy in particular, from a customer experience standpoint. So that includes helping them with their translations, of course, but beyond that, engaging Spanish speakers isn’t just about translating content that already exists. It’s about how can you develop a full-on experience with them in mind that makes them feel seen and they belong and that delivers a stellar customer experience that isn’t diminished because they speak or prefer a different language from English.
Adrian Tennant: Sonia, you and I talked about a bias towards lighter-skinned Black models in advertising last year. So I’m curious, are you seeing more beauty and skincare brands representing a wider range of skin tones and ethnicities and their marketing?
Sonia Thompson: A little bit, right? So there’s a Fenty effect that’s happening from a beauty standpoint, from makeup. Rihanna’s brand Fenty Beauty launched with 40 shades of foundation, they kind of rocked the industry because they were super inclusive and took into account people who had a broad variety of skin complexions all over the world. As a result, 40 shades of foundation became the gold standard. It became the barrier to entry for other makeup brands. So other makeup brands have started to showcase that they’ve got all these different shades and that has then translated into a broader degree of representation and showcasing models of those different shades. Outside of that, there are more high fashion brands and brands that tend to have more well-known models that have in the past had a range of colors. Victoria’s Secret is one that they generally tended to have a good range of skin tones and complexions with their models. There is still work to be done for more brands that aren’t high fashion, that aren’t specifically connected to makeup to do a better job with that representation, particularly of darker-skinned people. This happens because I think that people feel like when it comes to representation, if they’re putting a person of color that seems to be racially ambiguous, they feel like they’re, for lack of a better term, killing two birds with one stone, right? They’re feeling like they’re checking a couple of boxes or covering a broader base of people by having racially ambiguous people. However, because in many cases they don’t have the cultural intelligence to know that skin color and skin complexion has long been a topic of conversation, and one that causes a lot of dispute and communities, particularly communities of color, whereas Black and darker-skinned has often been viewed as less than those who have lighter skin. So the idea is that people think, and people feel that only showing racially ambiguous people of color is harmful. So more brands can lean more heavily into this of both men and women and showcase a broader range. But knowing that it’s not just about putting a Black person or a Brown person or a Person of Color, you definitely have to think about the layers and the dimensions of the skin colors and that representation isn’t just about an ethnic group. There are a number of other factors that are important to consider like skin color and complexion. When Amazon Alexa did a commercial last year for the Super Bowl and they had that dark-skinned woman with natural hair, I still love it. I still have a visceral reaction thinking about it and how much that meant for people, including me, to see someone like that featured in an ad.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Sonia Thompson, CEO of Thompson Media Group, an expert in inclusive marketing. A 2021 survey by McKinsey and Company found that more than 60% of Black Americans have experienced racial discrimination inside a retail store. So Sonia, could you explain what the phrase “shopping while Black” means?
Sonia Thompson: Yeah. There are a number of things that people say in the Black community that feels like a bit of a tax – that we don’t start from equal footing because we’re treated differently without people even knowing anything about you, aside from your skin color and they make negative assumptions about you. So sometimes that may mean being followed in the store. We saw that happened in a Nordstrom Rack a couple of years ago with some young kids. They were followed, police were called, things like that. There are other times when there are people who assume the worst. There was a situation with Arlo hotels, where there was a consumer who accused a 14-year-old child of stealing her phone and was allowed to accuse him, talk down to him and even try to attack him. There are times when the store does it or in the retail situation where they are keeping their eyes on people. They’re following them. They’re assuming that they don’t have the money. Sometimes it’s that. Other times it’s not even having the products that will meet the needs of Black consumers. I remember going into a makeup store when I was traveling and going into three stores. The first two stores didn’t have anything that matched my complexion. So finally, undeterred because I needed the makeup, I got to the third store and they had something. That’s another instance of it just not having the products that we need or that cater to our specific needs. And then one other is just how other people relate, besides the employees, sometimes it is the consumers who are there shopping and experiencing the same store or retail environment and they behave badly. They behave negatively because of their preconceived notions about Black people that have an impact on the way people are treated as well. So, it would be lovely if we were all treated the same and that these biases didn’t exist, but there is, unfortunately, a bit of operating while Black, right? Living while Black. Shopping while Black. There are additional hoops or additional burdens that exist. I read something yesterday about a couple who was in California and they went to get their house appraised and it appraised lower than the value than they thought it would. They were able to go to their bank and get another appraisal. This time they took down any photos of them, of their family, they moved any hair products that were in the home. They tried to strip it down so that no one could possibly know that there was a Black family living there. And the second appraisal, after them doing that, came out $500,000 more. So that’s an example of shopping while Black. That was in real estate, but it’s just, you see the impact of different things that exist, unfortunately, still.
Adrian Tennant: Also in 2021, the beauty retailer Sephora commissioned a study to examine the scope of racial bias in retail. A majority of BIPOC shoppers who participated in the study believed skin color and ethnicity were the primary lenses through which sales associates judged them. Studies like these suggest that racial bias is entrenched in the shopping experience. Sonia, it’s a big topic, but what are some of the key implications for retailers and marketers, do you think?
Sonia Thompson: Some of the implications here are that you cannot assume that these biases and disparities and how people are treated don’t exist. You won’t know if these disparities exist and to what extent, unless you start asking the question. So going back to the research that I had done with a few clients last year, where we were doing some voice of the customer, particularly with Black consumers and we asked race-based questions. So I think a lot of times brands will do research and they’ll try to learn, but they don’t necessarily ask race-based questions to understand: are there differences in the experiences that some people have versus others? So, from what you just mentioned, and some of these studies, and from what came out of the Sephora study, is that every industry needs to spend some time figuring out how people are feeling because the feedback doesn’t always come, right? We hear every now and then – we hear anecdotal things, we hear stories – but you don’t know what is actually happening until you go and specifically try to find out what’s going on. Not to say that you’re actively looking for it and you’re expecting to find it, but if you go and you find out that, “Hey, we’ve been performing really well across the board”. Wonderful. But if you go and you do the research and you find out that there are some disparities, then you know that you have the opportunity to evaluate how to begin to close those gaps. Also, it’s a reminder that brands are made up of people, and people, by the nature of people, are flawed, and everybody is on a different journey with regards to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, systemic racism, anti-racism. Everybody is on their own path and their own journey. And just because a brand establishes existing values that support and uphold these principles doesn’t mean that everybody on the team automatically does. Sometimes they do it unconsciously. They’ve got unconscious biases that caused them to treat people differently and they don’t even know that they’re doing so. But it’s incumbent upon the organization, not to just say, “Hey, these are our values. We don’t tolerate discrimination. We don’t tolerate these things that cause people to be treated differently and in a negative way.” The organization needs to figure out how we can train people to make sure that they are on an ongoing basis, because one training doesn’t do it, right? How can we train and equip people on an ongoing basis, so that they are delivering a uniform experience to the customers that they’re serving so that they can give people what they need and identify? Old Navy last year introduced their BODEQUALITY initiative, which was all about size inclusivity. And they did a number of changes in their stores and online, collapsing plus size from regular size quote unquote and you know, merchandising all the sizes together. But they also were planning on implementing extensive training for their in-store employees, to then ensure that they’re delivering a remarkable experience for everybody, no matter what their size, because they identified that sometimes those experiences were different. So don’t just assume that people will get it right. Don’t just assume that people are all on board. Find a way to bring everybody along with you through very specific and intentional training and programs.
Adrian Tennant: Following the international protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the 15% Pledge started as an online campaign that asked large retailers to commit to allotting 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. Now, it should be noted that Sephora was the first large retailer to sign onto the pledge. How do you think Black American consumers view retailers using their purchasing prowess and turning shopping into a form of activism?
Sonia Thompson: Positively, right! Representation matters. But representation isn’t only about the photography or the talent that you’re using. It permeates through every part of your organization and that includes where your brand spends money. So that can be with the talent that you hire. A wonderful sign or marker of how inclusive a brand is, is basically how representative their team is. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, we value the Black community or People of Color, or the LGBTQ+ community.” But if you don’t have any of the people from that community on your team, it doesn’t feel like you are as genuine about it, or you haven’t put your money where your mouth is, right? The same goes for supplier diversity. If you say you value diversity and you value other communities that are traditionally underrepresented and underserved, that isn’t just about reaching out to engaging people who can buy from you. It’s also about making sure that you are buying from people who are parts of these communities, you are investing in people who are parts of the communities, and you’re being very intentional about doing it. That is a sign of a company that is serious, and they are committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So there’s always going to be a positive, not only because it showcases the commitment of the company, but it should help these brands serve their customers better. So in the case of Sephora, having this 15% Pledge and investing in making sure that 15% of their suppliers be from the Black community makes a lot of sense if the Black community is, you know, just under 15%, right? So, it allows them to better have products and services, and resources that meet the needs of the customer. So it’s a win-win-win all around.
Adrian Tennant: Sonia, in practical terms, how can teams that design products or are responsible for crafting in-store experiences, ensure that they’re taking an inclusive approach?
Sonia Thompson: Bake inclusivity into the process from the very beginning. I think a lot of brands do what they’re going to do. They build their plans, they build their materials, they build their campaigns. And then the last 10% they start thinking about how they can make sure that it’s inclusive. It’s like they’re doing a check at the end and figuring out, “Okay, we might need to make some tweaks!” versus starting from the beginning of the process and baking inclusivity into it from the very beginning. For instance, my husband is from Argentina and he’s a new immigrant here to the US, and he still very much operates in Spanish. So whenever we moved, we had to get a new car. We had to get two new cars, of course. And so I have mine. He has his. His car operates – like, everything is in Spanish, right? The dashboard where you’ve got the radio, all the other controls and different things. The control panel, it’s all set up in Spanish. His cell phone whenever we got here, we had to get his cell phone. It’s all configured and set up in Spanish. Whenever we watch TV – if we’re watching Netflix, for instance, we watch it in English, but there are Spanish subtitles. These are all brands that didn’t think about inclusivity at the end, they baked it into their product development process. Each of them has done it in different degrees, but they thought about who are all the different types of people who have the problem that our brands solve. How might they be different? So how can we deliver products, services, and experiences that allows them to participate, that allows them to be successful, that allows them to solve the problem that we help them with, even with the differences that they have? And you have more leeway to figure out what are the right solutions to bring more people along when you plan for it at the beginning versus doing it at the end and figuring out how can you retrofit or even if you can retrofit it at the end.
Adrian Tennant: Sonia, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you, Thompson media group, and your articles, where can they find you?
Sonia Thompson: You can find me at InclusiveMarketing.co. There I’ve got articles if you want to get on the list, I share a lot of my articles from my columns there. I’ve got new podcasts, and coming very soon, new YouTube videos coming out on a variety of topics from inclusive marketing and building an inclusive brand.
Adrian Tennant: Sonia, thank you very much for being our guest again on IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Sonia Thompson: It’s been totally my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest, Sonia Thompson, CEO of Thompson Media Group, for this encore episode. As always, you’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed in this conversation on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under insights. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.