Inclusive marketing: With great data comes great responsibility

Here’s a question: If your company was a person, would you be friends with them?

That’s a question I brought up in a panel discussion focused on how to build customer trust with inclusive marketing​. I think marketers all too often forget that brand affinity is built just like interpersonal affinity: via trust. Friendships are built on trust, and trust is built by, among other things, respecting someone else’s truth.

Friends know things about each other; they remember things the other person likes and might bring them up in conversation or choose gifts based on what they know about the person. Likewise, modern marketing capabilities make it possible to know more about our customers than ever before. Data and AI-driven tools allow us to build strong relationships with customers, just as we build strong relationships in our personal lives by not interacting with everyone in the same way. This is how we honor the truth of diversity in our everyday lives: acknowledging everyone as unique individuals so they feel respected, seen and heard. Marketers can do this with data.

However, when it comes to the progression of diversity and inclusion within marketing—both internally with your employees and externally with your advertising—it’s of paramount importance to leverage data very carefully. I think of the famous Spider-Man quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Just as you’re careful with information you know about your friends, you need to be careful with the data you have on your customers and employees, and not fall into any traps of stereotyping or manipulation. We’ve seen examples of these bad behaviors in the past, and it’s worth noting what you shouldn’t be doing as you work to advance diversity and inclusion within your own marketing organizations.

Let’s look at trust when it comes to data storage and marketing use in a time of focus on inclusive marketing.

How to leverage data for inclusive marketing

Inclusive marketing means, among other things, diversity of subjects within advertising. A Cambridge University study found that audiences deemed marketing content more compelling when they shared traits like skin color, size and age with the models. One of the lead researchers said: “It’s not necessarily enough to show one component which is similar. People really wanted to see someone who represents them in all three factors.”

This kind of mirroring for audiences can be accomplished in many ways, one of which we discussed in our most recent issue of CORE: featuring a broad array of different people, like Dove did in their 2004 Real Beauty campaign. This hugely successful campaign focused on the celebration of body types not traditionally represented in advertising.

You likely remember seeing the advertisements, which showed lineups of smiling, female-presenting people of all shapes, colors and sizes. Dove knew that its audience was multifaceted in so many ways and appealed to a broad range of people, so the brand marketed accordingly. If you look at your customers and prospects, you can see who you’re talking to. 

This is where, however, the matter of power and responsibility comes in, because there are certainly cautionary tales of brands misusing data when it comes to diversity. Let’s take a look at perhaps the most famous one. 

How not to leverage data for inclusive marketing

Last year, Facebook moved to prevent advertisers from choosing the race of the people who would see their ads. The move—which got rid of ad targeting categories like “African-American multicultural affinity”—followed years of criticism lodged at the company for not preventing such categories from being misused to discriminate.

This kind of check-the-box targeted advertising can lead to stereotyping. As Toccara Baker said on the Adobe Blog, “It’s important to remember that the audiences are neither all part of one ethnic or racial group nor interested in the same products, movies and experiences.” Everyone is a unique individual who wants to feel seen, heard and respected.

Don’t cast a wide net—connect with individuals

It’s crucial to not use your data to further stereotypes. Buying into preconceived notions of what a group of people will or will not like runs directly counter to our aim of making marketing inclusive. Use your data to understand an individual’s past purchases, browsing behavior and interests so you can say with your marketing, “I see you. Not just your skin tone, not just your gender, but you.”

One way to do this is, of course, by building an inclusive business internally. This means, yes, hiring people that come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives. But it also—and perhaps more crucially—means diving into the “inclusive” side of D&I. Do not just use your employee roster as a way to check off the diversity representation box, and certainly do not only consult them on diversity-related initiatives and campaigns.

If you’re only connecting and listening to your diverse employees when you gather them all together for your D&I efforts, that is the opposite of making someone feel seen.

Inclusive marketing is people-centered: It prioritizes seeing each person in your organization and outside of it as individuals. Many organizations aren’t there yet, but progress starts by acknowledging room for growth.

After reading through this, I wonder if you’ve thought about my initial question: Would you be friends with your company? The answer might surprise you, and I hope it helps to foster change from the inside out.

This article was originally published on Adweek, October 2021.