Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive won a Silver Lion in Design for its accessible apparel line and campaign, in partnership with Wunderman Thompson New York. In bringing the global campaign to life, they exhibited people of different ability with a variety of backgrounds, perspective of need, and insights for the brand. Picture: SUPPLIED
Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive won a Silver Lion in Design for its accessible apparel line and campaign, in partnership with Wunderman Thompson New York. In bringing the global campaign to life, they exhibited people of different ability with a variety of backgrounds, perspective of need, and insights for the brand. Picture: SUPPLIED

SA isn’t alone in its quest to transform the creative communications industry. Diversity, inclusion, and accessibility were three themes which resonated throughout this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

The festival focused on reimagining a better future for our industry and reviewing where and how to bring transformation, from evolving core values and diversifying business objectives and marketing efforts to rightsizing historic inequality and underrepresentation.

It seems that we’re looking at the end of an era when we sought ways to disrupt how we worked in isolation. Now, we can and will work to embrace our differences and properly value the unique perspectives, experiences, and lifestyles that people from all walks of life can bring to the table.

The importance of representation

One of the monumental shifts taking place right now is the role of representation. Where it was formerly used as a background element, representation is now a front-and-centre element to the decisions that brands make as they embrace ideas and policies about diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility. More positively, this isn’t just something that a few opportunistic brands and agencies have recognised and capitalised on, because we’re at the start of a wave of seeing brands that have begun swapping cheap tokenism and opportunistic campaigns for the more authentic power of true representation.

What we’re seeing now is brands investing in representation over the long term as part of their purpose and vision, instead of using representation as a standalone aspect. What this means is that by colouring outside the lines and bringing in more diversity in creative communications, brands are diverging from the clichéd stereotypes and tropes that the industry and the world in general have for too long endorsed, and are setting new precedents for the industry. These examples of how to do things better and differently are becoming a catalyst for ongoing change, and that’s an exciting future to be a part of.

Intersectionality: remaining relevant in an ever-changing world

The world is filled with people who are disadvantaged through multiple sources of oppression, including race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion and other identity markers. They are people who are significantly underrepresented in the media – people who fail to see themselves in the world of brands.

Intersectionality represents the multiple ways populations can be marginalised based on multitudes of identities. In the past, advertisers, brands, and creatives have viewed intersectionality as a challenge or a limitation. For too long, brands have mirrored the identities or behaviours of their key target audiences, featuring only as much diversity as was absolutely necessary to do the job. However, this means that these brands have been irrelevant to the rest of the world.

But that’s changing, as brands take a closer look at people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of the prejudices they face. And in so doing, they’re bringing greater value, relevance, and cultural nuance to their marketing, which invites those marginalised individuals to buy into brands that understand them and speak to their needs.

The big take-out

Brands need to become fully inclusive in order to stay relevant

 Intrinsic inclusion

There’s a difference between applying diversity – which is a somewhat superficial investment – and taking a more concerted approach to building inclusivity into the very fabric of a brand as an ingrained element. In the context of SA marketing, we’re all too familiar with the classic pass at “diversity”, usually seen in the minor and somewhat phony presence of different individuals in the work. However, with the focus on inclusivity as the next step of diversity, brands are listening to diverse communities and using this data to inform their every action and take visibly meaningful steps to acknowledge underrepresented and underserved communities consistently.

This evolution of brands needs to take place in order for them to be relevant, authentic and successful. It is something that is evident in US-based online retailer Target, which has invested wholeheartedly in marrying diversity and inclusivity in its brand purpose. It is best demonstrated in its hugely innovative concept “design for all”. According to the company’s COO, Todd Waterbury, the concept manifests the brand’s expression of inclusivity and access and ties it strongly to its belief in “great shopping, anytime, anywhere”. 

Talk is cheap and consumers know it

As Unilever’s CEO, Alan Jope, expressed to a packed house during his talk, brands will absolutely undermine any purposeful engagement when their talk is different to their walk. It’s a case of being all in, all the time – or nothing at all.

The time has come for brands to step up to the plate and be part of the solution. They can no longer just talk about it. As the saying goes, talk is cheap, or to put it another way, ‘you are what you do, not what you say you’ll do’. What’s more, by not embracing inclusivity as part of their future, brands will not only lose relevance in a fast-changing, consumer-driven world but will also be leaving money on the table for others to snatch up. Because there are brands willing to speak truth and meaning – and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be your brand.

Leigh-Anne Acquisto is founder & CEO of Liquorish Ink.