Back in the '50s (and '60s, and '70s, and '80s, and '90s and '00s), when a brand's primary vehicle for audience engagement was advertising, it was understood that the networks were tightly controlled, ruthlessly scrutinized and extremely expensive. If the subject -- and subject matter -- of a commercial spot didn't adhere rigidly to the standards (and practices) of network television prime time programmers, it simply would not be aired.
Marketers had their hands tied -- and their imaginations limited -- by frightfully cautious abridgers of taste and decorum. We all had to paint with the same palette. There may have been opportunity for a sprinkle of color here and there, but mostly we worked with nearly identical cookie cutter men, women and families -- propping up a bland fantasy version of an audience that never really existed in the first place. To which some brands today -- in a calculated ploy for positioning that plays on conservative sentiments -- fiercely, even angrily, cling.
But that is ok. There is room for all in this dialogue. I like it when there are lots of voices being heard -- when debate is vibrant, boisterous and even rowdy. And I will passionately defend your right to loudly, publicly disagree with me.
From a certain standpoint, there is no denying -- as any number of headlines and controversies, ginned up or legitimate, will attest -- that scapegoating and excluding some segments of our society can occasionally pay off. But as Asta Philpot, the Englishman with arthrogryposis who advocates for the sexual rights of the disabled might say -- or even better, sing, "You can kiss my ass."
In the brilliant spot "Beyond Appearances," produced by the Paris-based agency Being, a diverse cast of men and women of all ages, races and disabilities sing the sweet, funny, bawdy, show-stopping "Diversity Song." The spot and the song both end with Philpot himself bringing it home -- but it is a tune that many brands are now whistling.
From Apple's powerful "Pride" ad, to Honey Maid's creative repurposing of the hate mail they received about a spot that featured a gay couple, to Coca-Cola's sweet multilingual rendition of "America the Beautiful," to ads featuring central characters with mental and physical disabilities, wounded veterans and biracial families: Leading brands are now actually leading on social issues, from YouTube to Super Bowl spots, with progressive, inclusive, nuanced and vivid depictions of consumers.
As the crossroads where the public and powerful companies meet, brands and businesses have always played a volatile and valuable role in the march towards equality and social justice. From the Woolworth's lunch counter desegregation sit-ins of the early 1960s to the 2012 LGBT boycotts of Chick-Fil-A, brands have provided a context for some of the most fiercely fought social issues of our time.
But never before have creative communications and marketing professionals been more free to cast their engagement with characters who so accurately and compassionately resemble people in the world in which we actually live. Brands can now speak for, about -- and most importantly, directly to -- all members of society with respect and understanding. In many cases, brands have moved from reflecting society in an ideal state (i.e. one size fits all) to become catalysts for dialogue and engagement. In short -- democracy at work.
There are many, complicated reasons why this is happening -- the rise of digital and mobile as outlets for communications and branding, the diversification of the population, the rising purchasing power of multicultural and multilingual audience segments, and the progressive embrace of diversity by Millennials, to name just a few.
But the most important, and most inspiring, reason why brands are using this strategy is also the simplest. Because it works.
An inclusive tone inspires stronger emotional connection and deeper engagement. It is just better branding -- and business.
As the sophistication and creativity of marketing communications increases, a message of inclusion resonates with tremendous impact and deep emotional connection. And as it does, it creates a powerful loop. As consumers grow more open-minded and less judgmental, they form stronger connections to the brands that speak to these beliefs. And as more and more brands speak to these beliefs, more and more consumers become more open-minded and tolerant of differences.
Not all consumers, of course. There is no shortage of examples of brands capitalizing on exclusion, veiled bigotry and even hate -- and receiving sales boosts as the controversies they embrace and enflame rage. But brands that resort to these tactics -- emboldened though they may be by recent events -- may find themselves winning small battles in a larger war that they are bound to lose. Arguably, their fight should be about including a humanized version of themselves, rather than exclusion of others.
As we all become more and more connected -- through digital, mobile and social as well as greater cultural and demographic diversity -- that greater degree of connectivity will naturally, holistically bring with it more inclusion. Every day, the communications and advertising agencies that serve brands are attracting more diverse staffs, and giving them more freedom to execute great ideas. And when they do, consumers, many of whom have long been ignored and marginalized by major brands, cheer with support.
As we can see almost everywhere, the smart brands are listening.