Diversity and inclusivity marketing? Advice from a sustainability veteran.

Diversity and inclusivity are very much in the marketing news.

For a start, the UK just 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).

But it’s not just a UK thing. The recent Cannes ad festival was a diversity-and-inclusivity-apalooza. Nearly every Grand Prix went to work that embodied some element of ‘purpose’, from racism to freedom of the press to environmentalism to accessibility.  And no Grand Prix for Good could be awarded in the Health categories this year, since all the Golds in the categories went to brands, and no non-profit clients ended up being eligible.

marc stoiber brand strategy

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.

dollars rule

Companies do ads to make money. If the ad doesn’t make money, they pull it.

With that in mind, I’d like you to check out this piece of research. The authors described how ‘straight’ consumers responded to same-sex couples in ads from major brands. If the consumers saw the ads unprompted, they responded less favourably to male-male couples and female-female couples than they did to male-female couples. If, however, they were prompted by researchers who reminded them that being open-minded was a good thing, they responded better to the gay couples in the ads.

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

In simple english: a majority of straight people didn’t respond that well to same-sex couples in ads, unless they were reminded that being open-minded was a good thing.

When they’re watching a screen, nobody is there to remind them. Ergo, they don’t respond so well. Ergo, ad campaigns get dropped.


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.

Sustainability was being embraced by big companies 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 me.

That said, small clients – those with sustainability cred built in – were more than happy to work with me. Unfortunately, these 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.

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.

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 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 cred 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 this year, Unilever’s new 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.”

If there’s a lesson in here for companies looking to build their diversity and inclusivity credentials, Jope’s advice from Cannes was 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, less 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? I dunno. Haven’t seen it done yet. But I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

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