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Why Authenticity and Inclusivity Must Go Hand-in-Hand

In North America, demographic changes are creating a more diverse customer base. This means brand strategy and marketing needs to become more inclusive quickly. But some marketers are nervous about making mistakes trying to speak to audiences with different experiences.

Today our guest is Puja Prakash, a graduate student at OCAD, completing her Master’s in Strategic Foresight. And we’re going to talk about why this is so important to take on and how to put yourself in the best possible position to be authentic and inclusive.

Transcript

Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda and you’re listening to Think Retail.

In North America, demographic changes are creating a more diverse customer base. This means brand strategy and marketing needs to become more inclusive quickly. But some marketers are nervous about making mistakes trying to speak to audiences with different experiences. Today my guest is Puja Prakash, a graduate student at OCAD, completing her Master’s in Strategic Foresight. And we’re going to talk about why this is so important to take on and how to put yourself in the best possible position to be authentic and inclusive.

Hi, Puja. Welcome.

Puja: Hi, Melinda. It’s nice to be here.

Melinda: Can you just start us off? Tell us a little bit about you.

Puja: Yeah, of course. So, my name is Puja, I am currently doing my Master’s of Strategic Foresight and Innovation at OCAD. My background before coming into the master’s has been pretty mixed. I’ve worked in communications and marketing, as well as user experience design where I primarily looked at customer journeys and designed meaningful personal experiences about customers for different brands. And honestly, my background in marketing has helped me look at customer journeys a bit more holistically. And I’m excited to get into influencer marketing with you in this conversation.

Melinda: As I mentioned, North America is seeing enormous demographic changes. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about what those changes are?

Puja: Yeah, so in Canada, immigration has always been a trend. But that’s been growing in the past few years. Today, one in five Canadians are foreign-born. And that number is going to go up to one in three Canadians by 2036. And the 36 percent of the new immigrants that are coming into the country are either Indian, Chinese, or Filipino. So you can see that the demographic is shifting, there’s more immigrants of color, and the population of marginalized communities and non-dominant culture is going in Canada.

Melinda: Great. And so in Canada, one of the things that is maybe a little different than the U.S. is that because of the way our immigration policies work, is that we are attracting a more affluent and more highly educated immigrant. Can you talk a little bit about this and the difference between Canada and the U.S.?

Puja: Yeah, absolutely. So Canada has hundreds of what they call economic immigration streams. And they are attracting immigrants from other countries primarily to these streams. So what that means is immigrants come pre-qualified to work in Canada. And they also have really high education rates among Canadian-born population. So when they come in, they settle pretty easily because they have the means to find the jobs that they need to earn the money and be economically stable.

Melinda: Right. And so obviously attractive to brands in terms of having disposable income?

Puja: That is correct. Yes.

Melinda: Right. So I alluded a bit in the intro about marketers, maybe being a bit nervous about speaking authentically to minority groups. And I think we can probably all think of some examples where brands have gone wrong in the past trying to be diverse. Can you tell me about the most common mistakes that brand marketers make when they’re trying to market to a diverse audience?

Puja: Yeah, so there’s a few ways that brands go wrong when it comes to addressing marginalized communities. And one big way is cultural appropriation, and we see that’s common across different marketing messages.

Another way is the stereotype communities and do not acknowledge that different communities also have their unique complexities and start painting them to work what is commonly known about them.

Tokenism is another common way, which is just to symbolically include a person of color in marketing messages. And a brand like Victoria’s Secret has been called out for engaging in such sort of messaging.

So yeah, it does make sense why brands are a little nervous when it comes to engaging with visible minorities because some brands have definitely gotten it wrong. And one of the best ways, or the easiest ways to sort of overcome some of these glaring issues is to just have a diverse team, and not just have a diverse team, but offer decision-making authority and autonomy to visible minorities within the team. So they have the power to sort of have checks and balances within the team before the message sort of leaves and goes into the public.

Melinda: Absolutely. I think there’s been many examples where, in retrospect, when you look at the campaign, you think, how did this ever make it out there into the public? And I think that’s one of the biggest factors is that there wasn’t somebody in the room who was either empowered to say, “Hang on, this is a big mistake,” or there wasn’t anybody who even knew that it would be interpreted that way. So the HR component is so important. Something else that I’ve seen, and I’m sure you’ve seen as well, is that sometimes, if you don’t have a super diverse team, you may be tempted to pull someone from another department and run something by them, because they come from a particular community, and you’re asking them to validate what you’re doing, but if they’re not marketers, that can really go awry. And the example that I always use is the IT team is not going to pull somebody from marketing in to solve their IT problems. So why would you pull someone from accounting or IT to come and validate your marketing campaign?

So, what would you suggest that if you don’t, say you don’t have a big, big team, say you don’t have a lot of people from different communities to speak to those types of mistakes that you could make within your team, how can you overcome that?

Puja: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I do understand that brands don’t have the capacity internally when it comes to representation so they can have a pretty solid marketing campaign. But there’s different ways that brands can understand what they’re doing before they actually go live with their marketing.

A couple of things come to mind. One is, there’s lots of community organizations and immigrant settlement services, they have a lot of insights about immigrant communities and people of color. So brands can definitely go to them and get some insights, get to know the communities that they are trying to embrace through their marketing messages. And brands need to look at it as a conversation with visible minorities, not just as like, a one-way street where they are marketing to them, but rather look at it as a way to have conversation with them. So, sure, a brand may not have the internal capacity to engage in inclusive marketing, but there’s lots of other ways in the community that they can leverage in order to get it right.

Melinda: Right. And there are a lot of consulting firms that will do a lot of that background research for you and to help you understand…give you a good solid baseline.

Puja: Absolutely. And one thing to note here is when brands do engage community experts, consultants or even organizations, nonprofit organizations that deal with immigrants, it’s important for brands to consider how they compensate these experts for their insights in their time. And providing just an honorarium may not necessarily be the best way to do this. So really think about how you are engaging with them, and how you’re compensating them for the insights that they are giving you.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there are sometimes misunderstandings or this idea that this is something that you can get for free. And that’s certainly not appropriate to ask people to share their expertise for free.

Okay, so in spite of these challenges, why is it still so important for brands to embrace inclusive marketing?

Puja: Yeah. So, we talked about this a little earlier about how immigrants coming into Canada are generally more fluent, generally a bit more economically stable as well, because Canada is encouraging immigration through the economic stream. It’s important for brands to realize that although today, people of color may be considered a visible minority, they may soon become a majority in Canada. So look at inclusive marketing as a way to create a connection with a growing sort of influential group of people. They have a lot of influence, so it’s important to look at them that way. And another thing to note is that visible minorities, they earn…and we talked about this earlier too, Melinda, that they have higher levels of disposable income, and they have higher purchasing power than they’ve ever had before. And not only first-generation immigrants, but also second and third-generation immigrants earn way more than their parents did when they first moved. So it’s important to look at them as powerful, with a high buying capacity, and also just becoming the new majority. So for all these reasons, I think brands need to look at inclusive marketing as a viable business strategy.

Melinda: Yeah, I mean, really, it’s just marketing. Because if you’re saying by 2036, one in three Canadians will have been born somewhere else, or will be a person of color, that’s your consumer base. So it’s really just marketing at that point. And also, you know, immigration is one thing, but then there’s also people marrying someone who is from a different cultural background, or different racial backgrounds, and having children and having that become another demographic as well.

Puja: That’s a really interesting point you bring up. I was recently reading a report that was published by Stats Canada, about the portrait of a young Canadian, people who are young, particularly youth like from 18 to 35. And 75 percent of that population consider themselves multicultural, either because they have mixed heritage themselves, or they are so closely associated with friends and family who do have a multicultural background. So that’s another thing. And these are young people, they are the future of the country, too. So it’s important to look at multiculturalism as the very fabric of the country that we are in and not consider it a separate category of marketing, but instead, like you said, a part of overall marketing strategy.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, my children are mixed race, and they’re 12 and 14. And in their public-school, classrooms have been so incredibly diverse. And it’s not just people from different cultural backgrounds, but people who are multicultural individuals who have multiple racial and cultural identities. I definitely see that in my own life.

So, when I think about what passed for inclusive marketing 10 or 15 years ago, there is a very big difference between that and what we’re seeing today. And we always come back to Fenty, we talked about Fenty a lot. We talked about inclusion, because they were really a huge catalyst for change throughout the entire beauty industry, which had been really criticized for many years for not being inclusive. But beyond showing different people with different skin tones, or different body types or different gender identities in your marketing campaigns, what are some of the opportunities that are being overlooked right now in your opinion?

Puja: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the first thing to note is people of color, immigrants of color, they also have like human complexities that often get overlooked, like you said, we tend to stereotype and we tend to tokenize in marketing. What I would recommend, and I see is a big opportunity for brands is to sort of consider the emotional nature of the immigrant’s journey. Immigration is not just physical relocation, it’s also an emotional journey. And there are so many emotions mixed into it, fear, aspiration, success. And just confusion sometimes and frustration, and I know this because I have lived experience as an immigrant coming in. So I think that I don’t see enough brands tapping into this emotional journey of an immigrant, especially an immigrant of color, and sort of meeting them where they are addressing their needs in their whole immigration journey. So I think that that’s a big opportunity, is to build trust with immigrants, especially when they’re most vulnerable.

And another opportunity that I see that is not being leveraged as much is to look at immigrants through a generational perspective too. We don’t have just first-generation immigrants. There’s a huge community of second and third generation immigrants of color too. So brands can and they have very different needs, and very different sort of expectations as well and experiences. So there’s an opportunity there for bands to tailor their messages to different groups that have different generational status. So I will say that these are two or three big opportunities that come to mind.

Melinda: Great. That’s really interesting to think about it as a path and a journey. And it’s very true when you’ve just arrived here, I can imagine everything must be, it’s just so different. And it’s a real opportunity for brands to make a good impression and to be really supportive of that journey. And that is something that we certainly don’t see very much of at all.

So, we talked a lot about immigration. What about other communities that brands are under-leveraging when it comes to speaking about inclusion?

Puja: Yes, I think that that’s a great segue into talking about how inclusive marketing is just not about racial and ethnic inclusion, but it’s also looking at the entire spectrum of identities that people hold today, whether that be body image, whether that be sexual and gender preferences, language, skin color. So there’s all of these other aspects of identity that people hold to. I think there’s another opportunity here for brands to go beyond individual racial identity and look at diversity of all forms. I think that that’s another big opportunity. And that’s the reality of everyone’s lived experiences. I’m not just Indian-Canadian, I am also a woman, I also am a student. So I have all of these other identities, you cannot just look at me for my racial background, or my ethnic background, I have all these other identities. So it’s important for brands to challenge themselves to look at multiculturalism and inclusion beyond just ethnicity, like you mentioned.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’re all complex people, none of us like to be seen as just one thing. So that’s a great point. And I think there’s a couple of other…and this is not necessarily speaking to multiculturalism, but you mentioned gender and sexual preference. There’s also ageism, ageism is one that’s really big for me, as I’m now in middle age. And I’ve seen such a severe drop off of brands that I find relevant, because they’re not speaking to me. And it’s something that is…we’re only really at the very beginning of that conversation.

I also look at Indigenous communities and see that I think brands are really not sure what to do when it comes to speaking to Indigenous communities as well. And especially here in Canada, this last year has been one that’s been really challenging for Indigenous Canadians and for the rest of us as well, waking up to some of the horrific realities that maybe we knew about, we didn’t really think about that much. Can you talk at all about that?

Puja: Absolutely. I think that that’s a really important point. I would say that for brands, building relationships with Indigenous communities is probably the most important thing they should consider doing right now. And an example of a brand that engaged with Indigenous communities lately comes to mind is Sephora, with the campaign that they did, the first ever campaign that they did for National Indigenous History Month. And it’s called We Belong to Something Beautiful, I believe. And it’s a great example of how a brand can celebrate Indigenous beauty, wisdom, and also resilience, but by offering them the stage, you know, as a big brand, it’s important to amplify the voices of people who have been silenced all this while. So I think that Sephora did a great job of starting that conversation, and sort of foregrounding that conversation and amplifying that voice. I think that there’s opportunity there for brands. But personally, I think that it’s more than an opportunity, I would say it is an obligation, because brands operate in this environment. So it’s an obligation for them to engage with Indigenous communities and learn from them as well.

Melinda: Yeah, thinking about that Sephora ad, which I saw as well and thought it was really well done. It was really important for them to partner with Indigenous creatives where the crew and the creative team. It was led by Indigenous activists and artists, not the Sephora marketing team coming in and saying, “This is what we want to do.” They really gave the stage to those creators and to that community to allow them to do it their way. And I think that’s a really important message with any community is that if you want to do a campaign speaking to women in their 70s, if you want do a campaign speaking to Canadians from the Caribbean, you really do need to have that conversation because it gives you so much more legitimacy when the team who is creating the work has lived that experience.

Puja: Yeah. So brands like Sephora have also been promoting diversity even before this campaign. They’ve had in the past very successful Diwali and Lunar New Year campaigns as well. Well, they’ve challenged normative standards of beauty that we hold as a society. So that’s been pretty interesting to see. And I was reading lately that Sephora is also putting their money where their mouth is, they have come out with a statement that by 2026, they would dedicate 25 percent of their brand offering to BIPOC-owned brands. And not only that, on the CSR fronts, Sephora’s matching donations. I don’t remember up to how much but they’re matching donations to support the 2-Spirited People of the First Nations. So, they’re also engaging in other activities to sort of make the world a bit more equitable.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there are some brands out there that are doing a really excellent job of this. And another one that comes to mind for me, is Aerie. And Aerie if you are not familiar with the brand, it is a lingerie, sleepwear, swimwear brand. It’s generally targeted to younger women. And they have for a long time done a no airbrushing, no photoshopping, very diverse in terms of body type, including people with different abilities, and celebrating beauty in a way that is very authentic and very natural. And I think as a woman, if you look at someone who looks like you in a picture, it makes you feel good, it makes you feel like you’re good enough, and it’s not this sort of like 1980s where everything had to be so unrealistic and unachievable. has really been leading the way in terms of those types of conversations.

Another brand that I think of is ASOS, which is an online clothing brand coming out of the UK. They’ve got a really, really wide range of models that they use. And their clothing lines are just by default, if you’re shopping on their website, it includes all sizes. And I think that kind of thing is important when talking about inclusion, it’s got to be more than just one thing and to think about it in a holistic way. And Sephora has definitely been a leader in that way.

So, it’s a lot for brand marketers to think about. If you were on a brand team, marketing team, and you really wanted to up your game in terms of being more inclusive with your marketing, what would you suggest as a first step?

Puja: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and a practical one at that. From my perspective, I would say that brands need to listen to the people that they are marketing to, and engage with them, make it a two-way conversation. And in this day and age, I don’t think there’s an excuse, especially with platforms like social media, I think that it’s a great way to listen and to tune in to what people are speaking about, and what matters to them. And when brands do that, it will start to emerge, the best strategies for them will start to emerge. And frankly, to just look at how their values would help support people of color, really. So I would say begin by listening to what they have to say. And then the best ways to engage with them will become more apparent for your band. And I think the final thing I would say about this is to not also be biased when listening to people of color. Be open-minded, try to embrace their opinions, and also understand that they are complex people too with different lived experiences. And it’s important not to paint them with like one big brushstroke. So I think those would be my two things. Honor complexity and listen to people with an open mind.

Melinda: That’s great advice. We’ll have to do another episode about overcoming biases. Because when we talk about biases, we’re not just talking about what we always think of is, you know, racial bias or gender bias, but there’s other biases that come into play. But that’s another whole conversation that we’ll have to have another day. That’s really excellent advice. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today.

Puja: Yeah, it was great to have this conversation. Thanks, Melinda.

Melinda: Inclusive marketing is no longer about appealing to a niche audience as the demographic shift in North America continues to make our population more diverse, and an inclusive perspective will be a basic requirement for marketing. Brands that adopt a wait-and-see approach are running the risk of quickly becoming irrelevant. Gen Z is already beginning their lives as adults, and they expect inclusion.

If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into the key demographic groups that are on the rise, please reach out, SLT has expertise in multicultural and inclusive brand and marketing strategy, and we’d be more than happy to help.

Thanks for listening to Think Retail.

About

Puja Prakash is a strategist intern at SLD. She excels in strategic thinking, service and systems innovation, foresight, as well as design thinking.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email info@sld.com.