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How To Avoid Tokenism in Marketing

June 24, 2021

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I get the question often. “How do I make my creative more diverse?” And lots of companies are trying, but not always getting it right.  At 9thWonder we celebrate the power of difference and feel that diversity is the new norm and something that should be ingrained in your everyday way of thinking and acting.  Not looking for how you translate a piece or two. Because when you do that, it is easy to fall into the trap of not really embracing diversity, but more falling into the trap of tokenism.

If you look around at what is happening, it is increasingly apparent that showing allyship with a particular subset is often all talk and little action. What they do is show allyship during certain months of the year where they are told to do it, or by placing specific members of different culture groups strategically in their communications. This is called tokenism, and chances are you’ve recently heard this word and seen a brand or ten that has done it.

There is no time of the year that is more evident than during Pride Month every June.  Brands rainbow-wash—when an organization uses the pride movement and colors to claim support of the LGBTQ+ community—providing a clear example of the tokenism. Sadly, the only thing most brands do for the LGBTQ+ community is dropping a rainbow theme on the corporate Instagram logo for a month. This isn’t even a start to true allyship, it’s a step backward and completely inauthentic. We want you to avoid that and we can help. But for now, here are a few simple rules to keep in mind as you start to move forward:

1. Celebrate pride all year-round

Covering your content with a Pride-themed filter for June while ignoring the community the other 11 months of the year is as bad as ignoring the LGBTQ+ community altogether. Many subsets celebrate a heritage month because they do not otherwise get the recognition they deserve.

It is not that cultural heritage months should not exist; every culture should be recognized because people’s differences are worth celebrating. And there is no shame in joining the celebration. But we need to normalize including all kinds of people into our creative content, branding and advertising all the time, not just when it looks good on paper.

Every business has the potential for a wildly diverse customer base. The ‘‘average consumer’’ is no longer average, nor are demographics the defining characteristic of who buys what. Cross-cultural is here, and people are more defined by their mix of interests and mindset than their demographics. This mix is what we call “ConsumerX.” They’re the consumer that fits no stereotype—the person that could be any American citizen. Because the citizen may fit in and identify with many cultural groups, it’s important to connect with them year-round. Show allyship with everyone in your customer base all the time, in addition to the focused periods throughout the year.

It’s just as important to have this diversity inside your organization. Without a wide variety of backgrounds and opinions on your team, it’s easy for the creative content the agency produces to lack authenticity.

2. Embrace our differences

Even though I’ve referred to the LGBTQ+ community as its own culture group, such groups aren’t mutually exclusive. A member of the LGBTQ+ community may overlap with a member of the Black, Asian, or LatinX community—and with a member of the diabetic community. To avoid tokenism, we can’t categorize human beings into neat little boxes.

This segmentation is a result of the desire for more. Yes, many consumers want more. But much of that comes from brands offering more choices, features or pricing options. In this push to reach each and every consumer, brands unwittingly classify customers into racist boxes.

Categorizing the differences between us has fueled avoidance, division and stereotyping. Tokenism comes into play here, too: when we categorize people too much, we tend to use these differences in the wrong ways. With this mindset, agencies and their brands place customers in stereotypical and culturally insensitive positions. When people realize their identity is a tool rather than a virtue, it’s off-putting.

3. Showcase a variety of people in everything you do

The best thing about avoiding tokenism and showing allyship with consumers is that it doesn’t require more money or resources. Once brands realize how different and diverse the average consumer really is, they realize diversity is all around them. It’s not hard to find.

Filling creative content with all kinds of different people, therefore, isn’t difficult. You just must showcase a variety of different people in everything you do. For this to work effectively, it can’t just be when a heritage month suggests it, but all the time. Put a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the Native American community or the disabled community in your ads as the average consumer. After all, they are the average consumer already.

Put diversity in every corner of your creative content so it never gets the chance to become tokenism. Allow individuals to express themselves authentically, and the creative will shine in a truly genuine manner.

It’s easy to use culture in the wrong ways. But, it’s also easy to use diversity and individuality in positive ways that avoid tokenism altogether. In the end, it’s up to brands and agencies to see which easy path they’ll take. Given how different we all are, there’s only one option that moves us forward.

Marcus Wesson

Marcus Wesson is the Chief Creative Officer at 9thWonder. He leads the fantastic ideators and creatives across the 9thWonder network.

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