Advice on inclusive marketing from a sustainability veteran

Inclusive marketing has been in the news for some time now.

There have been bold measures: the UK implemented a ruling banning ads that portray gender stereotypes – something I was invited on talk radio to discuss (you can check out the recording here).

And as far back as 2019, diversity and inclusivity have been ‘hot’ at trendy ad-confabs like the Cannes Festival.

Brands around the world are tripping over themselves to embrace gender and cultural sensitivity. All of which is highly commendable. God only knows advertising has reinforced more than its fair share of nasty stereotypes in the past hundred years.

There’s just one problem.

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Dollars rule

Companies do ads to make money. If the ad doesn’t make money, it’s pulled out of circulation.

With that in mind, I’d like you to check out this piece of research. The authors describe how ‘straight’ consumers respond to same-sex couples in ads from major brands.

Cutting to the researchers’ conclusions: if consumers see the ads unprompted, they respond less favourably to male-male couples and female-female couples than they do to male-female couples. If, however, they’re prompted by researchers who reminded them that being open-minded was a good thing, consumers respond more favourably to gay couples in the ads.

Throughout, one thing remains unchanged: conservative consumers with a high social dominance orientation (that is, the desire to see others like themselves come out on top) view the same-sex couples negatively.

In simple English: most straight people don’t respond that well to same-sex couples in ads, unless they’re reminded that being open-minded was a good thing.

Here’s where reality kicks in: when you’re watching a screen, nobody is there to remind you to think inclusive. Ergo, consumers don’t respond so well. Ergo ergo, ad campaigns get dropped.

People say one thing, and do another

I left the big ad world in 2005 and started an agency dedicated to making sustainability sexy. Over the course of five years, I learned many valuable (and expensive) lessons on breaking new ground in brand psychology.

When I started my agency, I was roundly applauded by colleagues for being cutting edge and ahead of my time. All my big agency clients wanted to know more, too. Success seemed inevitable.

Except that it wasn’t.

Big companies embraced sustainability as an operations efficiency booster, and a way to keep stakeholders happy. However, trumpeting your cleaner / mouthwash / running shoe brand as green told consumers that it didn’t work as well as, and it cost more than, traditional products. Not surprisingly, my big former clients were hesitant to bet on green.

Sorry for the interruption, but if you’re interested in sustainability marketing, here’s another post you’ll like: Are sustainability-driven green giants taking over the world?

That said, small clients with a sustainability mission baked into their DNA were more than happy to work with me. Unfortunately, those clients were too small to support an ad agency.

After five years, I sold my company to an innovation agency, and walked out with my pride (and a bit of my wallet) intact.

Lessons in inclusive marketing

The biggest single thing I discovered in those five years? People will tell you one thing, and do another.

In the case of sustainability, that meant reams of research that told us ‘Given a choice, consumers will choose a product with green credentials over a traditional product.’


People will tell you what you want to hear, or what they think will portray them in a flattering light. If saying they’re green wins societal approval, they’ll say they’re green. But don’t believe for a minute that the majority will act on that green self-portrayal.

I’ve often said that a brand with soul and true ethics trumps all. Here’s how to go about building a brand like that

Now, fast forward a few years to today. If consumers believe that being portrayed as modern, liberal and empathetic means regarding same-sex couples in ads positively,  they’ll regard same-sex couples positively.

Until, that is, they hit the supermarket. Where self-serving human nature takes over, and they buy the product that offers the highest value (best performance for least money).

Beware of bolt-on purpose

Green gradually stopped being brand kryptonite. Consumers came to understand that products with green credentials could clean their floors or wipe their noses as effectively as their non-green competition.

Just as green grew into a positive brand differentiator, though, another phenom hit the market. Greenwashing. Brands with zero green credibility invented all manner of green attributes to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. It was a cynical move – but one that predictably followed my sentiment above: dollars rule.

At Cannes, Unilever’s CEO Alan Jope reflected on the latest cynical scourge following in the footsteps of greenwashing:

[Jope] warned against “woke-washing,” ads that are not backed up by any real action by the brand and undermine the credibility and trust consumers have in companies claiming to be doing good.

“Done properly, done responsibly, [purpose] will help us restore trust in our industry, unlock greater creativity in our work, and grow the brands we love,” Jope said, though he later added, “[‘Woke-washing’ is] putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply.”

Jope’s advice from Cannes is the same I used to offer clients looking for a way into the green fold: be transparent, back your words with actions, and choose a cause that aligns with your brand.

Innovation wins

Alright, time for one last thought.

Nobody buys a car because it’s green. They buy it because it offers them some selfish advantage. That could be better mileage, fewer repairs, or higher standing in their social circle. There’s no mystery why cab drivers became the earliest advocates of the Prius: gas prices were going through the roof.

The Prius uses innovation to get better mileage with less repairs. Oh, and it happens to be green.

When all is said and done, innovation makes your product stand out. If you run your innovation thinking through a green filter, you get innovative green products.

So what happens if you run your innovation through a diversity and inclusivity filter? Show me.

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This post about inclusive marketing was first published in 2019, but was updated in 2021 just for you. 


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