Diversity and Inclusion in Marketing


Posted on September 19, 2020 by Aaron Johnson

Current Events in Diversity and Inclusion in Marketing 

Diversity and inclusion in marketing have always been important. However, due to the current cultural climate and pandemic, these elements are even more of a focus for marketers than ever before. 

Why now?

Lily Zheng, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant explains it best, poignantly writing in the Harvard Business Review: “We are in two crises right now, an economic crisis and a people crisis, and organizations that acknowledge only one risk exacerbating the other. Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts can be a powerful solution to both challenges — but the nature of diversity work must evolve to meet that charge. We need to broaden our definition of DE&I work to capture the new challenges of working amid a pandemic and develop an approach that focuses on solving real problems, not maintaining appearances.”

Diego Tuya, Creative Leader at an Argentinian advertising agency, stated, “We are at a pivotal point in society where we have the opportunity to use images that reflect a world we want to be part of. Images where diversity is key, where subcultures are celebrated, and where expected gender and societal roles are smashed.”

Room for growth.

NewsCred Insights found that over 91% of U.S. marketers agree with the statement, “there is still room for growth in using more diverse images by marketers.” Clearly many American companies have a diversity blindspot that could impact business growth.

It’s become increasingly apparent that many companies, big and small, haven’t fully embraced diversity and inclusion in their marketing campaigns—and they’re being called out on it. With all this at the forefront, many businesses are scrambling to right their wrongs, embrace diversity and inclusion, and put their best foot forward.

You want to be truly representative of a varied audience when creating marketing materials, right? It’s crucial that your brand is inclusive in its imagery, themes, and language. If you’re struggling with identifying your target demographic and knowing if your marketing efforts are diverse in a variety of categories— age, race, gender, body size, disabilities, etc.—you’ve come to the right place.   

Let’s get started with some cold, hard facts. Who doesn’t love a good statistic?

These numbers make it impossible to deny how critical it is for companies to focus efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion marketing.

Definition of diversity and inclusion.

Diversity is defined as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements : variety especially.” One of the definitions of inclusion is “the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability).”

But what exactly do diversity and inclusion mean in relation to marketing? 

Zebra Strategies, a strategic marketing and research firm specializing in diversity and inclusion marketing, explained: “When applied to marketing, diversity, and inclusion are all about respecting and appreciating differences. It ensures that everyone’s voice gets heard, no matter what their racial, socioeconomic, gender, sexual orientation, age, or cultural background is.” 

Customers need to relate to your brand.

First things first: you must understand who your demographic is and connect with them.

If potential clients go onto your website or check out your marketing materials and don’t see themselves represented in any way, they aren’t going to be too apt to become actual customers. 

“If your customers are different than you and they feel unrecognized, you will begin to lose them,” stated author Michael P. Crone in his “Diversity Marketing & Cultural Awareness” paper.

“Truly diverse and inclusive content – the kind that resonates consciously and subconsciously with your audience – requires far more than an image,” said Ann Gynn, a writer for the Content Marketing Institute. “It requires thinking more deeply, from your audience research to your team structure, from your style guide to your user experience.”

Take a look at the man (or woman) in the mirror.

It’s imperative that organizations assess themselves and take a step back to reflect. “If you seek to enter diverse markets, your organization must become the market you seek,” said Del Johnson, a principal at Backstage Capital, a venture capital firm that has invested over $7 million in companies founded by underrepresented entrepreneurs. 

“The more distance there is culturally between your team and the market, the less ability you will have to execute. We all fall into particular biases. That’s why you need to have culturally competent people in the room who have the power to affect decisions. By bringing in the talents of those who have traditionally been overlooked, you unlock true creative expression — and build an organization able to check its biases.”

Authenticity is key.

Consumers can tell when a brand is coming from an authentic space versus regurgitating what they think they should be saying. Your business needs to truly walk the walk and “reinforce its value proposition from the inside out if [you] want to drive change,” according to Shelley Zalis, CEO of the Female Quotient, a women-owned business committed to advancing workplace equality. 

People want to see a reflection of themselves in advertising. Make it believable, relatable, and brand-appropriate. It shouldn’t come across as forced or unnatural. It needs to make sense and reflect your audience. Don’t go overboard. For example, if you’re looking for marketing images for your maternity clothing boutique, don’t pop in a photo of elderly woman just to seem inclusive. Grandma isn’t getting pregnant; we don’t need her on your website. (No offense to Nana, of course). 

All shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities.

Don’t forget that diversity is more than just color and gender. Audiences want to see people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities. A good example of a brand celebrating diversity is clothing company Aerie, which found great success with their #AerieReal marketing campaign. The ads feature diverse, non-airbrushed models with a wide range of body types and ethnicities wearing everything from T-shirts and workout outfits to bikinis and underwear. Their ads look more relatable and real than their competitors’ images. They also use models with disabilities, which is a huge win.  

Go beyond the rainbow.

When it comes to being diverse and inclusive for the LGBT community, “It is not enough to put a rainbow on a product and call it a marketing strategy,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, a nonprofit that advocates for the LGBTQ community. 

“Brands need to take the initiative to reflect the world we live in by showcasing the wide range of diverse identities within the LGBTQ community,” Ellis continued. “This includes transgender and non-binary people, as well as gay and lesbian parents with children. When a trans woman of color is represented in a commercial or ad, it builds understanding and sends a validating message to trans people everywhere.”

Casting call.

Don’t use models as props or a check mark for your diversity to-do list. If you’re casting actors or models for a campaign, popping one person of color into a sea of white isn’t enough, and you’ve clearly missed the point. It makes the multicultural person seem like a token you’ve used to fulfill some sort of quota, which is inauthentic and leaves viewers with a bad taste. 

Don’t create content that tries to shove a particular gender, race, or age in a stereotypical mold. It can be offensive and create a backlash, which is obviously the opposite of what you want. For example, you’re filming a commercial with an office scene. All the employees are played by male actors, with the exception of one female who plays a stereotypical secretary. That won’t bode too well for your ad. Push beyond the boundaries ingrained in your mind and brand.   

Stock photos galore.

Maybe you don’t have the marketing budget to create your own content from scratch. And that’s okay! There are lots of good options available at your fingertips. If you’re looking for diverse stock photos, explore the internet to find a whole range of potential images. Get creative with where and how you search for imagery. Some pros of using stock photos are it’s cost-effective, quick, and easy to find a variety of images that could work well with your brand. Cons? These photos won’t necessarily be unique to you, as other site users have access to them as well. You might not find exactly what you’re looking for, depending on how strict your parameters are; the more niche your marketing needs are, the harder it could be to find the perfect images.   

Here are some great stock photo options to get started:

  • PhotoAbility is a stock photography website specializing in pictures of people with disabilities in travel, leisure, and lifestyle settings. 
  • Death to Stock is an artist-owned co-op that provides users with the “freshest, authentic stock photos and videos with unlimited downloads and new work added every month.” 
  • TONL offers “culturally diverse stock photos that represent the true world we live in.”
  • Diversity Photos prides itself on being inclusive, authentic, and relevant, offering users a wide range of diverse photos.
  • Raw Pixel proudly states that they have design resources for everyone. 
  • Unsplash is a free (yay!) site powered by creatives around the world.
  • Stocksy has art-forward images showcasing a variety of races and cultures.

Think big.

When choosing imagery and graphics that reflect diversity, you don’t have to be literal—your brand doesn’t have to feature cheesy, trying-too-hard photos of people of multiple races and genders holding hands and singing Kumbaya. 

Diversity and inclusion marketing can be portrayed in a variety of ways, using everything from inanimate objects to color stories instead of faces, bodies, or hands. 

A diverse story can be told in a unique way with a wide variety of images if you think outside the box. 

More than marketing.

If your business needs to fix diversity and inclusion marketing problems outside of just the marketing department, Lily Zheng, the DE&I consultant mentioned earlier, has a few key tips. Lily suggests that leaders collect information on the opportunities that are most important, and then match problems with specialists as needed. Her recommendation is that businesses create a strong strategy at the top as well as allow individual leaders and managers to have the freedom to implement it within their own teams. She reminds organizations that diversity and inclusion marketing isn’t an issue with a one-size-fits-all solution. Flexibility is important.

Remember: it’s a journey.

This isn’t a one-and-done situation. Ensuring your marketing is diverse and inclusive is an ever-evolving process. It sounds dramatic to say that your diversity work is never done, but it’s true. There’s always room for growth, always room for improvement. 


Here are a variety of resources to guide you as you continue to navigate the waters of diversity and inclusion marketing.

Social Link is here to help.

If you’re looking for marketing help for your business, we’re here to help! From strategic planning and content creation to website design and development, Social Link has the marketing support you need. We’re your partner for progress and performance.

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