How to Market to a Diverse Audience

Brand inclusivity is more than a trend. It has rapidly gone from something extraordinary to something expected. And the numbers bear this out. Brands with the highest diversity scores see an 83% higher customer preference than other businesses. Clearly, brands need to adapt to changing times or risk being left behind. But how do you start or accelerate this process?

Brands could pay more attention to what your people are talking about. Their interests, preferences and demographics. The way they see their world. To be truly inclusive to your customer base and avoid misrepresenting or alienating them, you need to know them inside and out.

Social media lets people tell their own stories. It allows us to see people at their most authentic, spontaneous, normal. Brands should stop and listen. Hearing a wide range of voices gives deeper insight into the needs of different consumer groups as well as how to best connect with them. So how well do you know your audience? The honest answer for many brands, as it turns out, is a blush and a lowly murmured ‘not well enough’.

So, what are we doing to alienate our customers? Here are the three most common mistakes we see brands make when marketing to a diverse audience.

1. Brands failing to represent a cross-section of their audience

Some consumer segments are effectively snubbed by marketers. A study of advertising by Lloyds Bank found that people with disabilities represent 0.06% of people in marketing campaigns – despite making up 22% of the British population. Other overlooked groups include trans people, older women and the UK’s BAME communities.

Indeed, only one in three people from an ethnic minority feel represented in marketing only according to a survey by the marketing agency GottaBe! Ethnic. The rapport informed Sainsbury’s marketing campaign to celebrate black history month. Tomasz Dyl, The Managing Director of GottaBe! Ethnic and the commissioner of the rapport, commented that most brands are aware of the oversight but that few are taking action, unsure where to even begin:

“The biggest problem is that they don’t have the right insights to genuinely engage, and they also don’t understand what impact it could create.”

There’s an opportunity to begin with solid audience targeting and market landscaping. When considering diversity, brands can begin by thinking about:

  • Age
  • Ethnicity, race, nationality
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Disability
  • Language
  • Religion
  • Socioeconomic status

That way, all customers’ stories and lived experiences are represented and no one is left behind.

2. Brands actively misrepresenting parts of their audience

Out of the audiences who do appear in marketing, many feel actively misrepresented. There seems to be a disconnect between how marketers think about diversity and what consumers want to see.

The portrayal of women may be the oldest battleground. “Sexualisation of women” was, for example, by far the most common answer as to why respondents disliked adverts in a recent UCL study, with 68% of participants saying that women were displayed in unnecessarily revealing clothing. Sex no longer sells – but it seems some marketers haven’t caught up to this. It took the UK’s advertising regulator to step in to ban gender stereotypes from British ads.

And yet sexist advertising is not the sole culprit. The LGBTQ+ community also reports being misrepresented in advertising. 72% of LGBTQ+ respondents say their portrayal is tokenistic. Many others note that the diverse community is reduced to a very fraction of the spectrum in advertising, as transgender and non-binary people are usually left on the sidelines.

So clearly, “diverse” doesn’t always mean “inclusive.” Marketers can strengthen their brands by appreciating the difference and representing consumers in the way they themselves want to be portrayed.

3. Brands merely paying lip service to diversity and inclusion

Consumers are excellent at calling a brand’s bluff. Most see through inauthentic marketing and anything that slaps of inclusion and diversity box-ticking. As the Harvard Business Review notes in a recent article on the subject:

“This is not a time for companies to share generic, hollow, or hypocritical sentiments. Doing so can ring inauthentic and like a publicity stunt instead of a genuine attempt at contributing to the conversation.”

Indeed, social justice movements have made today’s consumers more politically and socially conscious than ever before. Companies are under pressure to publicly denounce and fight discrimination in the face of an increasingly hypercritical audience. Many brands have been accused of virtue signalling when expressing their support and social solidarity with marginalised audiences.

So it’s a good idea for brands to stop focusing their efforts on saying the ‘right thing’ and start to process the feedback of their audience more critically. Apologise without caveats or explanations when you make a mistake. Your humility and authenticity will be rewarded by consumers: studies show that companies that practice corporate social responsibility can attribute 40% of their public reputation to that CSR work. So there’s lots to be gained by backing up your words with action, and simply too much for brands to lose if they don’t.

Gone are the days when brands used exclusivity and elitism to market themselves, usually centred around the thin, white, cis-gendered and non-disabled. Now inclusion sells. The public wants advertising that reflects the diversity they see in their communities. For brands to truly capture the hearts and minds of their wide range of customers, be careful with merely paying lip service to diversity, misrepresenting your audience or failing to portray a wide cross-section of your customers.

By getting closer to your people, you can inspire change and make an impact.


By Louise Alestam


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