Marketing’s diversity problem

Brands are failing to represent society and lack diversity in their marketing teams, exclusive research finds.


Most consumers believe the marketing industry is failing to represent the diversity of life in 21st century Britain, according to a major new study conducted for Marketing Week.

The two-part research also shows that a significant proportion of marketers believe their departments are not representative of minority groups, including different ethnicities, sexualities and disabilities. As a result, their marketing output is not reflective of society.

Our survey of 2,000 consumers, carried out by One Poll in October 2015, finds that 65% of those surveyed feel British marketing and advertising fails to recognise the full range of lives and experiences of people across the country. A further 38% disagree that brands represent the realities of modern-day Britain through their marketing messages and the people portrayed in their advertising. Less than 5% strongly agree that brands succeed in doing so. One in six people, meanwhile, say they are less likely to buy from a brand.

A separate poll of 754 marketing professionals conducted by Marketing Week in parallel with One Poll’s consumer survey reveals severe misgivings about the industry’s record on diversity. It shows that 42% of marketers believe the brands they work for are failing to reflect contemporary society in their marketing and advertising.

Challenging prejudice

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, founder of meat and poultry brand The Black Farmer, was unequivocal at the Festival of Marketing this month when asked during a panel debate whether he felt minority groups still face discrimination. He said: “If you’re a woman, or you’re a person of colour, or you have a sexuality that is not considered mainstream, it will have an impact on you. Those of us [who are in those groups] will know that.”

Emmanuel-Jones, who was born in Jamaica but moved with his family to the UK in the 1950s, explained that he decided to call his company The Black Farmer in order to be provocative and to challenge latent prejudices about the fact he is a black businessman operating in Devon – a predominantly white area. In his first TV advert for The Black Farmer, which launches at the start of next year, he celebrates his complex identity and British heritage.

“It says something about our society that the name The Black Farmer has an edge to it,” he added. “There’s almost a double-take moment where people are not too sure whether it’s politically correct and there’s still confusion about the sort of language that you should use when referring to people of colour. I’m trying to help people overcome that.”

Channel 4 was commended for its ‘meet the superhumans’ campaign in 2012

Marketing Week’s research shows that 45% of marketers believe ethnic minorities are well represented in the output of marketing and advertising. However, only 29% of consumers share the same view, while 10% of people feel that ethnicity is the most pressing diversity issue that brands need to address in their marketing today.

Around half of marketers feel their brand has become more diverse and reflective of society over the past 10 years, but more than a third believe it has made no progress during that period. Gender relations is the area where marketers feel the industry has improved most, with just over a quarter (27%) of them feeling this is the case. Sexual orientation (24%) and ethnicity (22%) are rated the next best areas for progress.

By contrast, marketers feel there has been little change in how the industry communicates to people with mental health issues. Over a fifth of marketers (21%) select this as the area where the profession has made the least amount of progress over the past decade.

This suggests many brands are failing to adequately represent and cater for people with mental health issues in their marketing – and may not even be acknowledging their place within society. Gender identity (for example, transgender, transsexual, transvestite) and physical disability also score highly among marketers as being areas where the industry has made the least progress (14% and 11%, respectively).

These challenges appear to tally with a lack of diversity within marketing teams. For example, 51% of marketers report that there are no people with physical or mental disabilities within their department. In addition, 27% of marketers say there are no lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people and 26% report the same for ethnic minorities.

However, marketers generally doubt that their companies are discriminating against minority groups in their employment practices. More than two-thirds of marketers agree with the statement ‘people from different backgrounds are treated equally by my company’, versus just 14% who disagree. Two-thirds of marketers also agree that ‘people from different backgrounds have an equal chance of being employed by my company’, compared to 17% who disagree.

Jan Gooding, group brand director at Aviva and chair of LGBT charity Stonewall, says many businesses lack a clear understanding of the experience of minority groups within their organisations. Speaking at the Festival of Marketing she suggested that many marketers choose not to come out as gay for fear that it will negatively impact their careers.

Of the marketers surveyed, 83% say they are heterosexual, 8% are homosexual and 3% are bisexual, while 6% would rather not say. “There’s a big number of people who don’t feel able to be out,” said Gooding.

“It’s an utter disgrace where the marketing industry is. If you don’t even know how many people are not out at work, how can you say whether there’s a problem? I’ve seen lots of extraordinary declarations from straight CEOs saying ‘there’s no homophobia in my agency’. How do they know? They have absolutely no idea.”

Neglecting valuable markets

There is evidence that brands will miss out on sales if they fail to communicate with specific groups. For example, research by Stonewall claims the gay market is worth between £70bn and £81bn in consumer spend in Britain alone.

Disability charity Scope has also published research claiming that businesses could be missing out on a share of £420m a week by failing to meet the needs of disabled people. It reports that three-quarters of disabled people have left a shop or business at some point because of poor customer service or a lack of disability awareness.

Lisa Quinlan-Rahman, director of external affairs at Scope, argues that disabled people rarely see their lives reflected in mainstream advertising (see Q&A, below). Brands are consequently failing to tap a powerful and lucrative market, she suggests. Only 22% of consumers surveyed by Marketing Week believe that people with physical disabilities are well represented in British marketing, while even fewer people (8%) feel this way about people with mental disabilities.

“The nature of advertising and marketing is to sell the concept of an aspirational or recognisable lifestyle that aligns brands with consumers, and I think the lack of that representation of disabled people in that everyday, aspirational way is quite alienating,” says Quinlan-Rahman.

Most marketers agree that making their brands and marketing more reflective of society can have a positive effect on sales. Over half (54%) agree that if their brand tackled diversity challenges, it would make a potential customer more likely to buy their products and services, compared to 30% who say it would have no effect on their purchase decision. Most consumers say improving diversity would not influence them, but by definition most are not part of an underserved minority.

There are signs that some diversity-driven marketing efforts are resonating with the public. The study shows that consumers regard broadcaster Channel 4 as the most successful British brand at communicating diversity in its marketing and advertising, selected by 16% of respondents, followed by the BBC (14%) and Marks & Spencer (12%).

Channel 4 received widespread acclaim in 2012 for its ‘Meet the Superhumans’ campaign to promote the London Paralympic Games. The broadcaster also lampooned homophobic laws in Russia before the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics with its ‘Gay Mountain’ TV ad (above). The channel seeks to represent diverse groups of people in both its programming and marketing, so its selection as the most diverse brand suggests this strategy is having an effect on consumers.

The need for leadership

So what steps should brands take to ensure their organisations are more diverse? Maggie Semple, founder of the Semple fashion brand and a non-executive director on several company boards, believes businesses should hire the best people for a job rather than attempt to fill “quotas” of different minorities. However, she adds that business leaders should examine their own attitudes towards diversity and look to incorporate different backgrounds and perspectives into their companies.

As a black woman who has worked in multiple industries, Semple confirms she has encountered many different challenges in her career. “I work a lot with major corporates and with their senior leaders, and they pay me to hold a mirror up to them – to be honest with them and get them to be honest too. For me, the agenda has to shift from just the compliance side of it to actually achieving diversity of thought,” she told the Festival of Marketing audience this month.

Creative Access helps youth from ethnic minorities into the creative sector by partnering with organisations like the NT

Investing in young people

For some brands, achieving this cultural shift involves investing in young people with diverse experiences. The National Theatre, for example, is one of several companies to partner with Creative Access, a charity that places young people from under-represented black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in the creative industries into paid internships. It says that since 2012 it has placed more than 430 graduate interns in six-month or year-long internships at companies including Channel 4, the Daily Mail and Harper Collins.

Alison Forbes, marketing manager at the National Theatre, says Creative Access plays an important role in providing it with “bright, switched-on young people” – particularly as the company lacks its own graduate training scheme. The focus on diversity also helps the National Theatre “to be truly national and reflect the landscape of the country”, she says. The theatre appoints interns to a range of different departments, including marketing, with the possibility of a permanent role at the end of the placement.

“Marketing is about trying to tell a story to the right people in the right way, so having a range of skills, knowledge, expertise and backgrounds only makes you a stronger team and more successful at doing that,” says Forbes.

Regardless of how brands harness diversity, all marketers can take action to ensure they have a positive impact on the working culture around them. This week, University College London and Datatech Analytics are hosting Women in Data 2015, an event that aims to provide role models for women in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) professions.

The organisers note that there is a rising demand from brands for people who understand ‘big data’ at a time when Britain faces a major shortfall of qualified people. Only 13% of people in STEM professions are female, according to the Office for National Statistics, which suggests there are opportunities for women to forge careers in these male-dominated industries.

Payal Jain, managing director for strategic analytics at Barclaycard, is among the speakers due to present at the event. Although she does not believe she has encountered barriers related to her gender during her career, she believes it is important to provide guidance to fellow professionals and set a strong example about the importance of diversity within organisations. This open approach to learning and understanding is a good place to start for all brands seeking to tackle their diversity challenges.

“Up until recently, there’s been a lack of role models to say to women ‘I can go and do this’,” says Jain. “That’s why I’m speaking about it – I have that power to inspire people to think that because I’ve done it, they can go and do the same.”

Q. Is marketing failing to represent disabled people?

At Scope, we would definitely agree that advertisers could be doing more to represent the lives of disabled people. There are around 11.9 million disabled people in Britain and we feel they rarely see their lives reflected in mainstream marketing and in the media. There’s a really big role that marketing can play to make disabled people more visible in society.

At Scope we did some research that found that not many people know a disabled person or know enough about disability. That means that when we asked them, two-thirds of people said they felt uncomfortable or awkward around disabled people.

That led us to launch our ‘End the awkward’ campaign (video above), which was about breaking those barriers down. We know that when you make disabled people and disability more visible and start to build those bridges it has a really powerful impact.

Q. How are you encouraging brands to improve their engagement with disabled people?

Our research has shown that businesses could be missing out on a share of £420m a week by failing to meet the needs of disabled people, or by not providing products that feel attractive to disabled people. Also, 75% of disabled people have told us that they or their families have left a shop or a business because of poor customer service or a lack of disability awareness.

So there’s a whole circle of awareness that can mean that not only are we improving attitudes towards disabled people, but businesses themselves can tap into an enormous share of a very powerful market.

Q. Do you think that disabled people struggle to get jobs in creative industries such as marketing?

Possibly – diversity is very important for all departments. At Scope, we’re about making this country a place where disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else. For too long there has been a big gap between the employment rate of disabled people and the rest of the population.

We know, for example, that attitudes continue to be a barrier. Around 74% of disabled adults feel they have lost out on a job opportunity because of their impairment or their health condition – so sometimes disabled people are seen as risky hires and actually getting into work can be an issue.

But then also when you’re in work, it’s about having the right support in the workplace – whether that’s support with accessibility or flexible working. That can be equally important to disabled people staying in work.



There is one comment at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. David Ward 4 Dec 2015

    “However, marketers generally doubt that their companies are discriminating against minority groups in their employment practices.” This is a staggering statement, given the reality demonstrated in this report. The industry needs to make a much bigger effort to recruit and retain people from all sections of society. Only then will brands start to reach the whole population, and develop communications strategies and products and services that meet the needs of their customers.

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