When I worked at BT 10 years ago, someone from the CSR team wanted to know what percentage of our ads showed people with disabilities, and I inwardly groaned at the naïvety of this approach. At the time it was considered a ‘quick win’ to show diversity in the casting of our advertising to project the brand as inclusive.
Of course, I accepted that the way in which we marketed our brands acted as a barometer of the values and attitudes of the people who worked for the company. The representation of any minority group in the media matters because it helps shape our society and culture. And advertising is all the more important because its messaging is conscious and deliberate.
But the reason I groaned then, and remain frustrated by the focus on advertising instead of the customer experience, remains the same. It is to start at the wrong end of the telescope. What I have come to understand is that the reason so many brands pay lip service to the subject of diversity and inclusion is because we in the marketing industry have not taken the topic seriously enough.
Lack of insight
Our own neglect has prevented us having proper insight and understanding of the issues, with the inevitable consequence that there has been no natural flow through into the marketing of so many brands.
One piece of evidence for this is that there is currently no data on the diversity of the UK marketing sector that includes the number of LGBT employees or their experience at work.
This is pretty shocking in an industry that prides itself on understanding attitudes and behaviour. Without good data, we cannot evaluate where we are now, let alone decide what, if anything, we want to do about it.
If we in marketing are not curious about a big chunk of our own workforce, how can we profess to understand the same part of our brand’s customer base?
The industry has not taken diversity and inclusion seriously enough.
No doubt many people will be as surprised as I was by a recent study by professional network OUTstanding, which identified that 62% of Generation Y’s LGBT graduates (millennials) go back into the closet when they start their first job. Another study, from equality charity Stonewall, shows that 25% of lesbian, gay and bisexual people are not open to colleagues about their orientation.
So, yes, while there has been massive positive change in UK law and society, there is still a long way to go in relation to culture, attitudes and behaviour. It’s evident that many gay people still perceive there to be significant risk in being ‘out’ and themselves at work.
I would argue that one reason is because there is still bullying and discrimination against children and teachers in our schools, where "gay" is casually used as an adjective for anything uncool. A 2014 report from Stonewall found that 86% of secondary school teachers said pupils in their schools experienced homophobic bullying.
School is the one workplace all children experience during their formative years. If their experience of being out, or even just different, at school is difficult, it’s not unreasonable for them to assume that being out at work will be just as challenging.
Interestingly, it would seem that if LGBT employees feel it is safe to be out at work, that will set the tone for other minority groups. As one of the more difficult areas to get right, it is often seen to be a lead indicator of positive attitudes to gender, race, religion and disability.
It is to start at the wrong end of the telescope
Business leaders are increasingly accepting that it makes sound business sense to take this topic seriously. It is about more than the dignity of co-workers. It is because of the ever-growing body of evidence that companies that succeed on diversity and inclusion perform better and gain competitive advantage.
There is an additional prize in marketing. If we achieve an inclusive culture with our team at work, we will have people working for us who have a more educated and empathetic attitude to each other and can help us get it right for customers.
We all know that what a brand does is more important than what a brand says. Recently a customer wrote to us at Aviva to tell us about their experience, after having called to change their gender on their car insurance policy.
They reported that the person they spoke to didn’t bat an eyelid at the request, and, even better, our process didn’t require proof that gender re-assignment had taken place; unlike the other 30 or so companies the customer had to call. That is how to win. In the experience – not just the ads.