Inclusive Brand Marketing Strategy

Launching season 7, brand marketing strategy expert Sonia Thompson joins us to discuss inclusive marketing. Widespread support for the Black Lives Matter movement signaled changes in consumers’ expectations of brands’ values. As the demographic makeup of the US continues to evolve, Sonia explains how brands can develop cultural intelligence, avoid making performative statements, and suggests ways to approach inclusive marketing strategies thoughtfully and authentically.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. Coming up in this first episode of our new season:

Sonia Thompson: There’s a lot more emphasis on body positivity, focusing on being more inclusive from a body type standpoint. These are actual customers telling their story, their experiences, that people are able to see themselves reflected not just in some stock photography, but in the actual imagery and the people behind the stories.  

Adrian Tennant: Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. Earlier this year, Facebook teamed up with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to survey consumers about their attitudes towards representation in online advertising. Ipsos conducted the survey with 1,200 respondents aged 18 and older, who use Facebook regularly in Brazil, the UK, and the US. Using over 1,000 global Facebook video ads, the study looked at how people were depicted in those campaigns. The study found that many campaigns are still portraying people in stereotypical ways. For example, women were 14 times more likely than men to be shown in revealing clothing and seven times more likely to be visually or verbally objectified. Men were two-and-a-half times more likely than women to be presented as angry, and one-and-a-half times less likely to be shown as happy. People with disabilities were severely underrepresented in online ads appearing only in 1% of those studied. And just 0.3% of the ads depicted members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The study also found over one-half of all respondents did not feel culturally represented in online advertising. Sixty percent of those who responded said that they were more loyal to brands that stood for diversity and inclusion in online advertising. And the same percentage said that they prefer to buy brands that did so. And over 70 percent expected brands to promote diversity in that online advertising. Non-white respondents were twice as likely as others to say they saw negative stereotypical representation in online ads. Our guest this week, Sonia Thompson, is an expert in inclusive marketing, a customer experience strategist, and a consultant with international experience. As CEO of Thompson Media Group, Sonia helps companies deliver inclusive and remarkable experiences that win customers. Previously, Sonia spent almost a decade as a marketer with Johnson and Johnson, growing multi-million and billion-dollar healthcare brands around the world, and spent five years as a diversity and inclusion champion and employee resource group leader. Sonia is also a regular contributor to magazines, including Forbes and Inc. Today. Sonia is joining us from her home office in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Sonia, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Sonia Thompson: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited about our chat today.

Adrian Tennant: Sonia, what’s your definition of inclusive marketing?

Sonia Thompson: My definition is that inclusive marketing is all about being intentional about who you are going to include and who you are going to exclude when it comes to your marketing. It’s not about including everybody. It’s about being very intentional and that’s where a lot of brands get into trouble because they don’t choose.

Adrian Tennant: What are the most common misconceptions you find business owners and brand managers have about inclusive marketing?

Sonia Thompson: Feeling like inclusive marketing means that they have to go all-in and serve everybody and their mom and their cousin. That’s not true. We want to make sure that when it comes from an inclusivity standpoint, we have to think about the resources that you have and there are very few brands who have the ability to serve everybody well. You have to make choices and you have to think about who you are best suited to serve, and to create an experience that will make them want to come back and again and again. The idea is that you will go through as you’re working through your buyer personas and figure out who are the people who have the problem that your brand solves – and that you have the ability to effectively serve at this point in time or you will have the ability to effectively serve them once you make the decision that you will – and then going from there.  So The biggest misperception is that the people feel like they have to serve everybody and that thought becomes overwhelming for them, so it sort of paralyzes them and their ability to move forward.

Adrian Tennant: Sonia, what led you to focus your career on inclusive marketing?

Sonia Thompson: Frustration! I’ve got a lot of differences. I’m a black woman. I speak Spanish. Up until two months ago, I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’ve got an Argentine husband who doesn’t speak English at the moment. We’ve got a mixed-race daughter who is learning to speak both English and Spanish. I’m left-handed. I follow a gluten-free diet for health reasons. I’ve got a lot of differences! And over the years I’ve gotten very comfortable with my own differences. You know, even though there are plenty of things about your differences, sometimes that can be very hard. But when it came to interacting with brands, people that you’re spending your money with, there were just a lot of experiences that left a lot to be desired because they didn’t consider people who didn’t neatly fit into what’s considered quote-unquote “mainstream.” And it became much more pronounced to me whenever I started following a gluten-free diet because there were just so many restaurants, so many places, not just restaurants that I felt excluded because I wasn’t considered in advance. So I started talking about it from that sense and then started to see so many parallels of where this existed and where this happened in other parts of my life. And as a marketer, who spends a lot of time talking about customer experience, I was having a terrible customer experience. So because I spent time already writing a lot about customer experience, I started infusing this element into it, and started to see that it was something that was resonating a lot with people – because there weren’t a lot of people talking about it. And whenever I’m talking about this and explaining and teaching how to use a lot of very practical examples for people to understand. So I think people were digesting what can sometimes feel like a very heavy topic and getting it and having a light bulb moment and connecting the dots where they might’ve experienced as well. So I started getting more requests to speak, and to talk about this more deeply. And then with the murder of George Floyd, this became front and center for a lot more brands. And because I had already been talking about it, more people wanted me to talk about it, so I doubled down on writing, consulting, and just kind of digging into this field.

Adrian Tennant: Sonia, which brands do you think are doing a really good job of engaging with multicultural consumers and why?

Sonia Thompson: There are a couple that come to mind first off. So the first would be Rhianna’s brands, Fenty Beauty, and her lingerie line, Savage X Fenty. And they both are ultra inclusive brands because that is her mantra, that’s her philosophy that’s been at sway from the very beginning. So the brands haven’t had to become inclusive, so these are brands in particular that they describe are for everyone. You know, I spent a lot of time studying Savage X Fenty, and they are very clear that their lingerie line is for everyone to the point where they have lingerie for men. If you look at their fashion shows, they’ve got women of all shapes and sizes. They’ve got people with disabilities. They’ve had pregnant women. They’ve had people who are transgender. They’ve had men. They’ve had the gamut in terms of people who are different for a variety of reasons. And even supermodels that people are normally used to seeing model lingerie. And they lean very heavily and are very serious about their mission of wanting everybody to feel sexy. And they’re very clear about saying that’s everybody, right? And so that means there’s a great diversity in our bodies, and what we need to feel sexy. The same thing happened whenever they launched Fenty Beauty. They launched with 40 shades of foundation because there are women or people who wear makeup, who have different complexions. So they did it to accommodate people with different complexions all over the world. Another brand that does a good job with inclusive marketing is David’s Bridal. If you think about wedding dresses and wedding accessories, there are a ton of people who need that. And if you were to go to David’s Bridal’s website, or if you were to go to their social media, you will see white women, black women, mixed-race couples, same-sex couples, people in wheelchairs, people who were tall, who were short, all over the world, all in different types of wedding dresses and accessories. And telling their stories. So it’s not just about the advertising in the visual imagery. These are actual customers telling their story, their experiences, that people are able to see themselves reflected not just in some stock photography, but in the actual imagery and the people behind the stories. And I also think that Nike does a good job as well. In particular, because if you go back to their mission, it’s to inspire every athlete. And they define an athlete as anybody with a body. So they have done a very good job as of late. In particular, if you go to their social media, you’ll see all different kinds of people reflected, individual imagery that they put forth. But even with the products that they have been releasing over the past couple of years. It is really starting to think about inclusivity more so. So, an example of that is whenever they launched the Pro Hijab line of sportswear that women who were Muslim and who wear a hijab could still participate in sports. And a hijab that is designed for sports, not these makeshift ones that they were having to make out of necessity. And they also recently just launched a shoe that is good for people who have difficulty lacing up shoes. So there are no laces on it and it’s easy for someone to get in and out of it if they have mobility issues. So just starting to think about who are all the people who are athletes. And what are the types of challenges that some of them might have, and then they’re actually building products, co-creating them with those communities, to give them products that meet their needs.

Adrian Tennant: Sonia, what are some of the ways that you help brands get to know customer groups with whom they may have no connection in terms of either cultural identity or ethnicity?

Sonia Thompson: I spend a lot of time talking about customer intimacy. So whenever I’m consulting, sometimes that might mean doing research, voice of customer interviews, so that people and brand managers and brand leaders can get a very in-depth look and understanding of who this customer is, what their needs are, and how they might serve them better. A lot of times brands will be doing market research, but if you don’t know the right questions, you’re not going to get the right answers in terms of how you need to be reaching people, or what are the unique challenges that people are going to have, who are different from you. And oftentimes, that just comes because if you don’t have those differences or you don’t have people who are in your circle or orbit, then you’re not going to know what are the unique challenges that you need even need to ask them about. So doing some voice of the customer research, bringing some of the existing, cultural intelligence and cultural knowledge that I have about some of these groups that they want to reach is one way that I do that. But it’s always great to go out and get data specific for the brand for specific people who have the problems that they solve. Also, I have digital programs. Part of Belonging University, and within Belonging University, I teach brands to build an inclusive brand. And I also have an inclusivity membership hub, which is all about giving them practical skills and training in cultural intelligence information on topics that are important for inclusivity, that are important to helping them build inclusive brands. And develop a deep degree of intimacy for the customers that they want to serve. Because it’s on an ongoing basis, it’s something that you’re never going to be done with. You can’t do research one time or two times and expect that you will have it. It’s a long-term relationship and a never-ending process of learning. And so the idea with what I do with my clients and my students in the program is to give them the foundation that they need to continue learning and have what they need to be able to serve people and give them what they need so they can be successful and thrive.

Adrian Tennant: As I mentioned in the introduction in that facebook study, minority respondents were two times more likely than others to say that they saw negative, stereotypical representation in online ads. In your experience, what are the most common reasons why brands miss the mark when it comes to resonating with multicultural consumers?

Sonia Thompson: It’s a customer intimacy issue. That’s what we were just talking about. If you think about your customers like friends, or even close family members, people that you have a close relationship with, it’s not so often that you make these great mistakes in terms of what types of gifts to give them or how to serve them or how to accommodate different aspects of their lives and their needs. Because you know them. And not necessarily that they had to tell you, but just in terms of your proximity and your relationship, what you’ve observed, what you’ve seen, you get this idea of what it is that they need and how you can support them in that. When brands get stuck is because they often have people on their teams who are not part of the communities that they’re serving. And as a result, they don’t have the appropriate level of intimacy. So they’re going off of research reports. That can be helpful, but they don’t awfully tell the whole story in some instances, especially if you didn’t ask the right questions. And then also, there are a lot of cultural nuances that if you don’t take the time to figure out what those are and understand them, you’re going to make those missteps. So if you don’t have the degree of customer intimacy that you need, a lot of times, you’re going to take a very superficial approach to try to reach these customers who are different from you. And that often doesn’t bring the results that you like. People know whenever somebody sees them and they really get them and they understand, versus somebody who is just kind of doing the basics because they don’t really know enough to do anymore. You see a lot of this in particular with Pride campaigns. Pride month is coming up in a couple of months and you see a lot of brands doing things like putting rainbows up – and that’s it – and say they want to offer their support. And that is a superficial approach to showing support for the community. More and more, there’s been a lot of customers who have been complaining about it and pushing back about it because they’re like, “you don’t really support us. You’re just putting a rainbow up and it feels like you’re trying to capitalize off of this celebration. You don’t actually have a relationship with the community.” So the idea is that if you want to serve communities, diverse and niche consumers, multicultural communities, you have to really focus on customer intimacy so that you can go deep in whatever campaign it is that you’re putting forth in a way that makes them feel seen and like they belong with you.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.

Seth Segura: I’m Seth Segura, VP and Creative Director at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as creative professionals. At Bigeye, we always put audiences first. For every engagement, we commit to really understanding our clients’ prospects and customers. Through our own primary research, we capture valuable data about people’s attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. These insights inform our strategy and guide our creative briefs. Clients see them brought to life in inspiring, imaginative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns. If you’d like to put Bigeye’s audience-focused creative communications to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com. Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: How do you identify?

Voices: Female, male, genderfluid, cisgender, genderqueer, nonbinary, transfeminine.

Adrian Tennant: Society is constantly changing and evolving. To understand how Americans feel about gender identity and expression, Bigeye undertook a national study involving over 2000 adult consumers. Over half of those aged 18 to 39 believe that traditional binary labels of male and female are outdated and instead see gender as a spectrum. Our exclusive report, Gender: Beyond The Binary reveals how beliefs across different generations influence the purchase of toys, clothes, and consumer packaged goods. To download the full report, go to bigeye.agency/gender.  

Voices: Nonconforming, transgender, two-spirit, transmasculine, genderfluid.

Adrian Tennant: Gender: Beyond The Binary. 

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Sonia Thompson, CEO of Thompson Media Group, an expert in inclusive marketing. At the end of May last year, which saw international protests over police killings of Black Americans, many fashion and beauty companies went online to post messages of support for the Black community, and of course, the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as to pledge their own commitments to change. Instagram was the preferred channel for the declarations, culminating in a temporary pause in marketing for what was known as Blackout Tuesday. To understand if these brands have actually increased the diversity of skin tone since the protests, Quartz recently analyzed 27,000 images from the feeds of 34 fashion and beauty brands. It found that while many have increased the diversity of skin tones in their Instagram images, they’ve often been marginal. Light-skin still dominates. However, the Quartz team did find some differences in the median skin tones in different segments. In the beauty category, L’Oreal – the world’s largest cosmetics company – had the lightest skin tones both before and after its June 1st, 2020 posts against racial injustice. But Sephora’s skin tone was darker than most other brands both before and after the protests. And it’s signed the 15% Pledge, an online campaign asking large retailers to commit to alotting 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. Sonia, why does Sephora stand out here?

Sonia Thompson: Sephora recently published the Racial Bias in Retail Study. They underwent a year-long study where they looked at the experiences of different consumers with retail, not just Sephora stores, but the retail industry as a whole. They enlisted the help of a number of researchers, professors, on a number of fronts, and they found that different people are treated differently, both in stores, before they get to the stores online, et cetera. As a result of that, as you mentioned, that pledge that they put into place to have more representation among their suppliers and they’re actually doing quite a bit of work both internally and externally, to change the experience and make it a more positive one where everybody feels like they belong. Not that they’re being shut down or treated badly or differently because of their skin color, or whatever differences that they have. They are able to be standouts in what they are doing and the representation of what that looks like in practice, because they started to do the work to peel back the layers, to see what was happening, what was going on. They went and they got the data and they asked some tough questions and then they continued with the progress to take action on what they can do to improve the experience. So what other people can learn from that is that it is helpful to get the data, and to really understand what is happening so that you can work on getting your house in order if needs be, and to understand if there are any biases that you don’t even recognize that you have. I wrote an article after the Super Bowl about some of the commercials that were standouts from an inclusive marketing standpoint. And one of the ones that came up was Amazon Alexa. And so it goes back to what you were saying. One of the reasons why, of course, is the Amazon Alexa commercial had Michael B Jordan. And as somebody who is a big fan of – I love Michael B. Jordan – but the lead character in this commercial was a Black woman. She wasn’t a light-skinned Black woman, she was a chocolate Black woman with natural hair. She was smart. She had a husband, a nice house. She seemed to be a very career woman. She was everything – I identified with her because she wasn’t the traditional fair-skinned Black woman that you see with the sort of mixed curly hair. She was a black woman fully. There was even a point in there she had an Afro and that isn’t something that you see so often. And I felt seen. There were a lot of people who felt seen because she was my friends, she was me. She was everybody that we see. And I felt like there was somebody at Amazon Alexa, their agency, who was very intentional about casting this woman, because it meant something to Black women in particular, who aren’t used to seeing somebody as dark as this one was depicted in such a beautiful way. And that is something that if, going back to what we were talking about from a customer intimacy standpoint, if you aren’t a person of color, you might not understand the impact of the range of colors that exists and why it’s so important for us to see darker images. because we’re so used to seeing lighter images, because lighter is often touted as being better. That’s a cultural intelligence topic that is not often explored but is very well known throughout communities of people of color. But if you’re not a person of color, for instance, you might not even know that this is an issue. So you might be like, “what’s the problem? I’m casting a Black woman?.” But yes, you are casting a Black woman, but the impact that this Black woman has versus the impact that this other Black woman has is going to be very different and so understand those nuances of why is good, is important.

Adrian Tennant: Sonia, you mentioned that your husband is from Argentina and of course you lived in Buenos Aires for many years. How do Latin American beauty ideals compare with here in the US?.

Sonia Thompson: In Latin America, I believe that women’s bodies and their curves are much more embraced than they are in the US. In the US – and that’s changing with certain brands and with the fashion industry and the beauty industry, trying to be more body inclusive – but I believe in Latin America, they have a much longer history of embracing different body types, in particular, women who have curves. And that has something that is a marked difference between what you see here in the US. In Latin America, there’s also a broad range of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. So body types are different. Hair is different. Textures are different. And there are a lot of people who are just leaning into what is natural to their body and embrace it and embrace the different cultures and the differences and the nuances. Whereas and sometimes in the US, because of the way things are depicted in terms of the type of imagery and what is considered normal or what is considered beautiful, sometimes there is an ideal that’s presented that a lot of people, even if they feel like they don’t fit into it, they work very hard to try to. Not saying that it doesn’t exist in Latin America, I find it more pronounced in the US.

Adrian Tennant: You wrote a piece for Forbes about Unilever’s decision to remove the word “normal” from all their beauty and personal care packaging and advertising. What do you believe lies behind their decision?

Sonia Thompson: Well, business is about belonging, right? And whenever you label something normal, but you can’t use the normal, it intuitively makes you feel that if you’re not using what’s normal, you need a different product than you’re not normal, something might be wrong with you. And words have power, brands have power, and the beauty industry as a whole has had a lot of influence, like it or not, on the way people feel about themselves. So even the act of having to reach for a bottle of shampoo, or a bottle of lotion that is different from normal, might make somebody feel some type of way. And the brand doesn’t want the processing of this word to be so triggering for people. They want to focus on empowerment and expanding and broadening the view of what is considered to be beautiful. And by taking off this simple label, it will allow people to self-select better what it is that they need from the products will be arranged without having to feel like they aren’t “normal” – I’m using quotes here – if they can’t or if they need something besides what is labeled as normal. Because in reality, who decides what’s normal and what’s not? So instead of having to do that, they just decided to make this change globally. So there is a lot of logistics, as you might imagine, and money involved in making this change, but they felt like it was important. I believe they did a survey of more than 10,000 people. So going back to what we were talking about before, they went and got the data and found out that this word does impact people and it impacts too many people in a negative way. So they made the changes as a result.

Adrian Tennant: How do you see inclusive marketing practices evolving, say over the next two to three years?

Sonia Thompson: Brands are dabbling into it right now. I’m working with a client now. And so while working with a client, I was partnering with their brand agency, to do some research. And they were specifically targeting Black and Latinx consumers. So I  participated heavily in the discussion guide because again, are you asking the right questions? And I moderated the interviews for the Black consumers because where we can go, the trust that exists there happens much more instantly. And we can have a much more frank, open discussion. And if it was a white person, so to speak, doing the interviews, we wouldn’t have got the same result. And I don’t think that people recognize that that nuance exists. And even you can be doing the research, but you might not be getting the full value of the research without thinking about how people might be opening up. And I firmly believe that inclusive marketing is the future of marketing. And we’re only going to get deeper into the need for brands to be having an inclusive mindset. So that means one, of course, being representative, but digging into this whole topic of cultural intelligence that I said before. And it should be less performative as in, “I’m making a statement. I am including people of color or diverse voices, because this is what I should be doing.” Or else somebody will say something, I’ll get a lot of backlash from it. But they’re doing it because they see that, “Oh, this is the right thing to do, period, but also this is the right thing to do for our business. We have to make people feel like they belong.” And if you even just look at the data, the demographic makeup of the consumer is changing drastically. It’s not what it was five, 10 years ago. And it’s becoming more diverse in the differences that exist, even from a body size standpoint. The average size of a woman in the US is now between a 16 and 18. A couple of years ago, maybe less than that, that size was 14. And because the size is increasing, there’s a lot more emphasis on body positivity, and focusing on being more inclusive from a body type standpoint. And as a result, brands are going to have to adjust or risk losing the people who they want to serve.

Adrian Tennant: 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 everything at the hub at SoniaEThompson.com and you will find everything from there.

Adrian Tennant: Sonia, thank you very much for being our guest today on IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Sonia Thompson: Thanks so much for having me.

Adrian Tennant: Coming up next time on IN CLEAR FOCUS:

John Gusiff: When you think about experience design, it’s much more than the function of design. It’s a way of thinking as an organization, it’s a process, it’s a series of questions, and it typically takes multi-disciplined capabilities within the organization to execute on it.  It’s a co-creative process.Adrian Tennant: That’s John Gusiff, Chief experience officer at customer-centric solutions who joins us to discuss how brands can drive growth through differentiated customer experiences. That’s next week on IN CLEAR FOCUS. Thanks to my guest this week. Sonia Thompson, CEO of Thompson Media Group. You’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under Insights. Just click on the button marked Podcast. And if you’d like to ask about something you heard, have suggestions for a guest, or topic you’d like us to cover, please email us at inclearfocusatbigagency.com. We’d love to hear from you.If you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us on apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts, Amazon music, or audible, YouTube, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week. Goodbye.

Back to Podcasts