Diversity has long been a buzzword for brands; a core value that represents who they are, a target they want to hit, or a tick-box to check off. We continue to see brands lauded for diverse representation, that reflects the multidimensional diversity we see around us every day.
And yet, in culture the conversation around diversity and representation is changing and progressing. New voices from BAME backgrounds are standing up to challenge assumptions, and calling out where diversity feels shallow and tokenistic. When culture is advancing the meaning of authentic diversity today, it is vital for brands to keep up with the changing conversation or risk being left behind.
Diversity in culture in recent years has often meant drawing attention to the lived experiences of BAME people, to inform and educate those who are ignorant or unaware of how different these experiences may be. Essay collections such as The Things I Would Tell You and The Good Immigrant have given platforms to people of colour and those from minority communities to tell their own stories in their own words. Other writers such as Afua Hirsch have called out whiteness as the default and highlighted that white people are often exempt from having to comprehend their own race.
Whilst these works have often spoken to white people to educate them, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s seismic blog post and subsequent book – Why I’m No Longer Speaking To White People About Race – marked a turning point in changing the conversation between those (white) people with power and privilege, and those whose entire lives have been determined by their race.
By drawing attention to the problems inherent with always having to educate and inform others, Eddo-Lodge has allowed other BAME cultural figures to speak directly to those who share their experiences. It is these cultural figures who are creating content specifically for BAME audiences that is of most interest and is changing what we think of as diversity today.
New works such as Slay In Your Lane and What A Time To Be Alone create content that is specifically for people of colour, and targets them as the key audience. These books are not about educating and informing white people of what they don’t understand, rather they are speaking directly to an audience whose experience is often ignored.
When Netflix announced their Strong Black Lead initiative in June, with a recreation of the iconic A Great Day in Harlem photo, featuring 57 of their best black creators and talents, it felt like a stake in the ground. As Caleb McLoughlin voiced over ‘We’re not a genre, because there’s no one way to be black. We’re writing while black – nuanced and complex, resilient and strong.’ With this Netflix made a commitment to giving black creators a seat at the table, and to creating authentic content that speaks to audiences that are often ignored by the mainstream.
And this is the biggest learning for brands. Where they have failed previously is in showcasing diversity in communications to appear to be forward thinking, without truly trying to target a diverse audience with their offer by understanding their experiences.
For BAME people there is an increasing need to see people like themselves not only represented, but represented authentically. Without true acknowledgement from brands, Instagram is becoming a place where women of colour are taking it upon themselves to represent their own personal brand. Women such as the Slumflower are using their platforms to advocate for their own work, as well as create a community of likeminded women – whilst speaking to an authentic experience of being a young black woman in the UK.
It is only when people from diverse backgrounds are given a seat at the table, and are able to truly have a voice, that diversity can become more than just a tick box to check off – it can reflect and speak to experiences shared by many, rather than by the few.
So what should brands do to keep up?
- Push further
It’s never been more crucial for brands to push the boundaries of visual representation beyond racially ambiguous girls and athletic black men. Dark-skinned women are still not featured in most mainstream advertising. Consumers are absorbing so many different visions of beauty through their own channels. POC influencers on Instagram have helped to create a space for “looks” traditionally kept out of the mainstream. As Rihanna’s Fenty line continues to achieve success in the difficult beauty market by creating products that truly target a diverse audience, brands will have to start recognising how popular perceptions of beauty are shifting in relation to race.
- Go deeper
With representation comes responsibility. Brands that visually represent people of colour without platforming their voices or responding to their needs are perceived as inauthentic. Choosing to champion social causes requires taking action. A brand shouldn’t claim it’s committed to diversity unless it’s actually investing in equalising opportunities for people of colour, both within its own business and the world at large.
- Hire more people of colour
Tone of voice matters. There are elements of culture which still elude mainstream marketers. Black Twitter, for example, is a language that many marketing agencies don’t speak. Ultimately, being plugged in requires true insight into the experiences, desires and social causes that are important to consumers of colour. Brands that don’t attract talent outside of traditionally white networks will increasingly be at a disadvantage.
Hannah Robbins with contributions from Lydia Stephens and Lucy Davies-Kumadiro