8 Principles for Applying Authentically Inclusive Marketing

Marketers have always had to have their fingers on the pulse of the ever-fluctuating consumer market

March 20, 2024

Marketers have always had to have their fingers on the pulse of the ever-fluctuating consumer market. It’s part of the job description. What do consumers like? What do they dislike? Which types of messaging resonate emotionally with them? And, of course, what turns them away?

In recent years, what many brands, media, and marketing professionals have realized is this: Consumers are looking for – and expecting – diverse, socially responsible, and inclusive marketing. Failure to meet these expectations puts your brand at risk of becoming the protagonist of the next Pepsi-and-Kendall-Jenner scandal and negatively affecting your bottom line.

And most importantly, it’s the right thing to do. The world is becoming increasingly diverse, and our marketing and media should reflect that. Marketing doesn’t exist in a void. It impacts societal biases, and vice versa. As marketers, we have the opportunity and responsibility to authentically represent those who are often sidelined from and/or stereotyped in society’s public narratives.

You’re likely already aware of this. But figuring out what Inclusive Marketing looks like and how you can implement it effectively and mindfully can be overwhelming. To help you, here are 8 principles that are crucial for applying authentically Inclusive Marketing, adapted from AndHumanity Inclusive Marketing Agency’s foundational training (created by Tammy Tsang, with contributions from Ness Murby and Sydney McNeill).

1. Reflect the Truth of Intersectionality

We’re all complete and complex human beings. You know this. I know this. And perhaps most importantly, the people to whom we’re directing our marketing efforts know this.

So why do some marketing campaigns attempt to sort us into a single category of identity?

Maybe the only universal truth is that there is no universal truth – at least when it comes to our experiences and who we are and can be as human beings living in complex and constantly shifting societies. So, if this is the case (and it is), how can our marketing efforts reflect those complexities?

The answer: By digging into the details. Telling a deep story with nuance is always more inclusive than leaning into stereotypes or generalizations.

We might not share certain aspects of identity with other people, but what ends up resonating is the complexity of human experience. We empathize regardless of surface-level differences. And as we all know, your marketing efforts are at their most effective when your audience experiences that emotional connection.

2. Nothing About Us Without Us

The process of accurately reflecting those nuances also requires involving those with lived experience. Lived experience is experience gained as a direct result of moving through the world as your complete and complex self, which is shaped by the intersections of all the different aspects of your identity (e.g., gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, etc.).

Related to that, the phrase “Nothing about us without us” in a marketing context refers to the involvement of people with lived experience in marketing efforts, particularly those who are often excluded from these opportunities.

As such, living by this principle means moving beyond “representation” – which can so easily come across as tokenization. It means actively providing opportunities to those with lived experience to be in leadership and decision-making roles, and not just in front of the camera.

3. Foster Inclusive Spaces

Inclusive work happens in inclusive environments. Having people with lived experience in leadership and decision-making roles won’t mean much if they don’t feel safe to share their opinions (even when invited) or face repercussions for being critically honest.

Power dynamics exist in the workplace regardless of anyone’s intentions. To foster an inclusive space, then, we should prioritize learning and growth over perfectionism and defensiveness.

Diverse opinions shouldn’t be merely tolerated – they should be celebrated and acted on. For years, the marketing space has been all about “creating the dialogue” for diversity. But dialogue without tangible action is performative at best. It’s diversity without the inclusion.

4. Challenge the Dominant Lens

Many of us unintentionally default to dominant norms and assumptions. That’s because these can be invisible. Our subconscious is influenced by the dominant culture we live in, which, in turn, can influence how we see others. And our perceptions often inform the actions that follow, despite our best intentions.

Challenging the dominant lens, then, involves proactively unpacking and challenging our assumptions.

Another crucial part is acknowledging diversity within dimensions of identity. Your brand ambassador isn’t simply “Asian” – she’s South Korean. The Director of Operations your business recently hired isn’t just “Hispanic” – he’s Puerto Rican.

In doing so, you reduce the chances of homogenizing diverse cultural groups. Different dimensions of identity experience different stereotypes and have their own rich, complex histories. They should be recognized as such.

5. Build Self-Awareness

Challenging the dominant lens begins with looking into yourself and identifying your biases. Understandably, this can be difficult. Nobody wants to think they might have been hurting others, even unintentionally. It’s easy to feel shame.

But on the path to Inclusive Marketing, it’s important to push through that shame and acknowledge your biases, both conscious and subconscious. Then question them. Confront them in the knowledge that you’re growing as a person.

Committing to a learning mindset starts from a place of humility. You don’t know everything, and you likely never will. But you’ll be comforted to know that the same applies to everybody else living on this planet.

So ask respectful questions. Frame constructive feedback as opportunities for growth and a sign of trust from the other party. And resist the urge to explain yourself. Turning your learning into actionable steps for improvement will speak for itself.

6. Prioritize Authenticity and Reciprocation

This might not come as a surprise to you, but authentically Inclusive Marketing requires – you guessed it – authenticity. And not only authenticity but also reciprocation.

That’s because authentically Inclusive Marketing is not transactional or extractive by nature. Your brand needs to build genuine relationships with the people you want to reach and collaborate with.

Genuine relationships are built on the foundation of trust. Trust is fostered when you put genuine effort into making sure your brand’s marketing and communications align with how you’re perceived and experienced.
Dr. Monica Cox, a professor of engineering at Ohio State University and authenticity coach, speaks to this point: “Instead of showing me your diversity statement, show me your hiring data, your salary tables, your retention numbers, your diversity policies, and your leaders’ public actions against racism. End performative allyship.”

7. Action is Good. Checkboxes Aren’t.

You may be tempted to act right away – to tick off a list of inclusion-related “checkboxes” to feel like you’re already making a tangible impact on the world and also have your audience recognize that.

But learning how to be authentically inclusive takes time. It’s a long-term commitment. And long-term commitments require a sustainable, ongoing approach.

The Inclusive Marketing space is always shifting and expanding. Subsequently, a static list of checkboxes will become outdated and irrelevant very quickly. Instead, inclusivity should be built from the ground up.

8. Process Matters

You want inclusive outcomes? Then you need inclusive processes.

Authentically Inclusive Marketing doesn’t begin at the production stage. Or the creative stage – or even strategy! Inclusivity is an intentional process, so it’s pivotal that it’s embedded into every practice and process throughout the business cycle, from start to finish.

Ask yourself at every stage: “For what purpose are we working to make certain processes more inclusive? With what impact?” You may have the best intentions in the world, but that matters very little if they don’t translate into truly inclusive outcomes for the equity-deserving communities you engage with.

Like most things you want to get better at, incorporating Inclusive Marketing can (and should) be a process of trial and error. After all, we aren’t all-knowing entities. But we can learn how to learn, and use our failures and mistakes to grow as inclusive marketers. By following these eight principles, you’ll be well equipped to move past any hurdles you come across in your Inclusive Marketing journey.

However, translating these principles from the conceptual to the actionable can be daunting – maybe even intimidating. Where do you even begin?

That’s where Authentically Inclusive Marketing: Diverse Lenses, Emerging Approaches comes in. Published by AndHumanity, a Vancouver-based Inclusive Marketing agency, this book is a valuable resource for marketers of all experience levels, skillsets, and specializations.

Accessible, approachable, and easy to understand, this guide brings together the personal stories and journeys of its six authors, all leaders and experts in marketing or JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion): Tammy Tsang, Adeline Huynh, Sonia Thompson, Majid Khoury, Sabre Pictou Lee; and editors, Sydney McNeill and Sana Khaliq.

Combined with a wealth of case studies, reports, and trends, Authentically Inclusive Marketing: Diverse Lenses, Emerging Approaches sets the foundation for any modern marketer looking to learn about the practical application of Inclusive Marketing.

You can order your copy today on Amazon.