After "purpose," the new marketing concept of the day is "brand inclusivity." It is not a hype, but a trend that brands would be wise to embrace. The question is, how? We asked Kult & Ace owner Melanie Bosveld and brand strategist, writer and inclusivity expert Nadine Ridder.
To get right down to it, a study performed by communication agency Kult & Ace shows that 89% of the urban Gen Z population is more likely to buy products from inclusive brands. Melanie Bosveld, who has been running Kult & Ace since 2012, explains: "We are going through a transitional period; from thinking in boxes and stereotypes to a broader and more inclusive brand landscape. Good things are coming. Even if brands are not embracing this development of their own accord, they will likely be pushed to do so by increasingly critical consumers."
Savage x Fenty
What brands are leading by example in this regard? Bosveld: "Personally, I am a big fan of Fenty, Rihanna's umbrella brand that includes multiple product lines. Savage x Fenty, for example, is a lingerie line that offers a wide range of sizes and skin tones. This is very different from the classic Victoria's Secret Angels who have been strutting up and down the fashion runway for years. That diversity is also part of the make-up line Fenty Beauty, which offers the perfect make-up products for people of many different skin tones."
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Bosveld is therefore thrilled that they got to work on PUMA x Fenty projects for their client PUMA. "It was a fashion line created by PUMA and Rihanna. Brand inclusivity forms part of all our other projects as well; it is a core element for us. For brands that still have some work to do in this regard, we offer consultancy in the field of DE&I (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion). Start with the basics!"
An important side note: if you advocate brand inclusivity, you truly have to feel it and practice what you preach. "You've got to put your money where your mouth is. I think it is important to be inclusive and act like it, instead of just talking about it. It is a shame that showing inclusivity is sometimes used as little more than a trick, e.g. by pushing an inclusivity campaign just to attract attention. I have more respect for brands that, instead of loudly advocating their inclusivity, share real stories from a broad perspective. Those are the brands that are truly inclusive at their core," says Bosveld.
Brand inclusivity expert and strategist Nadine Ridder has worked for such brands as Tony's Chocolonely. Brands commonly ask her to help them improve their brand inclusivity. She wrote the trend report "How can brands contribute to equality?" for PIM (Platform Innovation in Marketing).Besides tips, the report also includes some wonderful case studies. "One of the cases I really like is Daily Paper, the company founded by Hussein Suleiman, Abderrahmane Trabsini and Jefferson Osei.They are Dutch men with roots in Somalia, Morocco and Ghana, whose designs are based on the clothing that their parents and grandparents wore. That brand has been inclusive from the start. Their products are made by bringing their individual perspectives together and creating something new with them. The brand combines elements from the cultures that the founders were born in and the one they grew up in. The result is something that could not have been made any other way."
In addition to having an inclusive corporate culture, brands should also dare to innovate, Ridder remarks. "Inclusivity is also very much about imagining what something could be, even though it has not been tried before. Many brands play it safe and resort to copying each other. Daily Paper simply began creating the products they envisioned. The focus is on their own experiences and their originality is what attracts buyers. Their target group does not necessarily share their cultural background; instead, it is the experiences that resonate with them."
Lush's afro line
Ridder cites Lush as another good example. "With their afro line, they demonstrate that a brand can also be inclusive by creating a product line for an underrepresented niche market. In doing so, the brand contributes to greater equality. The abundant positive feedback is a clear signal that people like and appreciate the products." This afro line was created in collaboration with Sarah Sango, R&D stylist at Lush Hair Lab and a specialist in Black haircare. Sarah was inspired by family recipes to create five new products.
Starbucks and Mermaid
More and more brands want to collaborate with various organisations and foundations. A good example of this is Starbucks, which made a commercial in 2019 together with Mermaid, an organisation for transgender people and their loved ones. This commercial tells the story of a transgender boy who is constantly addressed with his birth name. It then shows how much it means to him when the Starbucks employee writes his chosen name on his cup and addresses him by that name as well.
Ridder: "This commercial demonstrates how important their chosen name is to transgender people. Of course, the name written on a cup is a major element of Starbuck's brand essence. This is a great example, because the brand was not afraid to tell a powerful story and challenge the norm." There are various benefits to such partnerships with organisations and foundations with their own field of expertise, Ridder continues. "They already possess all the knowledge and can therefore provide content that looks right and ties into the needs of a specific audience. They are experts in their field. If that overlaps with a brand, they can work together to help spread the message."
Not a quick fix
If you want to go about improving your brand inclusivity the right way, there is one thing you absolutely should not do: "You should not look at it as a quick fix. I am often approached by brands who want to launch an inclusive campaign or product. That is the end result of the process; it all begins with an organisation's corporate culture. What you do internally automatically affects how inclusive your product or campaign is, along with everything else you do as a brand. Doing this right will only affect your organisational structure. That is not something many people will get overly excited about. However, if you want inclusivity to be more than a hype and become part of your organisation's identity, you will soon realise that this is the only way," Ridder says.
The inclusivity expert is quick to say that it is okay to make mistakes. "Everyone wants to be successful. Making mistakes is part of the process. It is about what you do to move past your mistakes and learn from them. Nikkie Plessen took the wrong approach when she launched her new make-up line and turned off the comments in response to people's criticism. That make-up line was presented as the most inclusive there had ever been, yet it only consisted of five colours. It wasn't long before the negative comments came flooding in. Instead of silencing your critics, you should engage with them and look for ways to do better."
Likewise, it won't do to spend an afternoon exploring a culture or to dump everything on your intern's desk, Ridder says. "Culture means understanding why you approve or disapprove of a certain concept. It is all about what you know and have experienced. That is not something you can fake or buy."
It all begins with an inclusive corporate culture, Bosveld agrees. "If you fail to create a safe environment as a brand, yet you pretend to be inclusive in your communication, you are totally missing the mark. Research is also key; you cannot launch an inclusive brand without a thorough understanding of the consumer and the market. What kind of people are they, what needs do they have, what is happening in society, what trends loom on the horizon? You should strive to recognise and acknowledge the diversity in your 'target groups,' even if they are new or marginalised groups outside your primary frame of reference."
The times are changing fast and today's consumers are not like tomorrow's, Bosveld knows. "The simple fact is that many brands don't have time to keep track of everything that is happening around them. At Kult & Ace, we help brands with this and we have been working with our own panel since 2015. This recently became its own label, PACT. It produces truly valuable insights that our brands really benefit from. From there, brands can work on inclusive products and communication, for which e.g. the right tone, language, representation and context are important.
Via this label, we also put brands in touch with creative people from a wide variety of backgrounds. 'We cannot find them' is no longer a valid excuse."
Lastly, Bosveld once again emphasises just how important it is for brands to add value to consumers, communities and - ideally - the whole world. "It is important that anyone who might buy a product or service feels comfortable with the brand. Consumers are an extremely diverse group and it would be a shame to miss out on certain opportunities because there are blind spots in your target group. It has also been shown that diversity makes brands stronger and more sustainable. A focus on DE&I makes your brand future-proof."