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How to Steer Clear of Stereotypes in Marketing

Credit: istockphoto.com/martin-dm

Marketing mistakes can be costly. After fitness juggernaut Peloton released an ad last year widely criticized as tone-deaf, its stock price plummeted more than 10% in just three days. In 2015, Anheuser-Busch made a similar flub when it released Bud Light labels that suggested drinkers delete the word “no” from their vocabularies for the night.

In an age when companies can go viral mere minutes after committing an offense, the stakes are high. Here, top marketing and communication experts share survival strategies for today’s quick-to-punish digital jungle. The goal? Don’t become a meme.

Go beyond diversity training

Anti-bias training is necessary, but it’s not enough. Researchers analyzed the impact of one-off diversity training on a sample of over 3,000 multinational employees for a 2019 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While the study found the training contributed to some attitude and behavioral change, it may not change attitudes long-term.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion training is an important first step to gaining buy-in from your team,” says Hilary Wickes, marketing and communication specialist at America Outdoors. “But the work doesn’t stop there.” To encourage a deeper culture shift, America Outdoors facilitates ongoing discussions around these topics with employees of member companies. “We’re all learning together. The goal is to promote lasting change, with empathetic leadership and thoughtful discussions in a safe environment.”

Do your homework

Never, ever assume you know how the world will react. In its “Choose Beautiful” campaign, the usually in-tune Dove brand blundered by labeling two doors “average” and “beautiful” and filming women as they chose a door to walk through. Many women picked “average” and then expressed regret to the film crew, sparking a consumer backlash.

“Research always matters,” says Cam Brown, founder and CEO of King Fish Media. “Taking anything for granted in communications is an unforced error. Be thoughtful, assume nothing, and take the time upfront to confirm or unearth new target audience nuance.” Without this step, marketing will reek of ignorance. “Incorporate the audience’s language, and quote from their perspectives to make content credible.”

Offer language support when needed    

Go the extra mile with employees and customers who aren’t native speakers of your audience’s primary language—even if they speak that language well. “It’s vital that I build on the expertise and market knowledge of global team members,” says Steve Greene, vice president of global marketing operations at Wacom. “Their voices need to be heard, and even those who appear fluent can fall prey to word-choice barriers.”

To minimize issues, Greene provides detailed notes of his verbal comms before and after meetings, and he reviews key points by phone. “I think the follow up helps them start their day feeling connected, confident, cared for and valued by management.”

Institute a social media policy

Even the social media companies themselves can go astray, as Snapchat learned in 2018. Snapchat’s share price fell 4% after an insensitive digital ad went viral—resulting in a loss of $800 million. “Having a social media policy in place is as important today as having a crisis management plan,” says Greene. “In fact, the two go hand in hand. Pushing the limits of creativity requires brands to consider potential marketing workflows that they can use to solicit feedback in advance.”

Before releasing marketing and comms, vet messaging through focus groups of social media influencers under embargo. “Also, have a plan for how you’ll respond to different reactions to your campaigns,” Greene says.

Keep it simple    

When we’re not clear, we court disaster. In Steve Krug’s web marketing book, Don’t Make Me Think, he cautions that simplicity is central to engaging audiences. “The risk of being misunderstood is one of the top fears for a marketer,” says Brown. “While you will get a do-over, people today pounce first and delight in your anguish while you prep your mea culpa. Strive for specific language that doesn’t leave room for interpretation.”

Don’t freeze

With all the scrutiny on external comms, it’s hard to dodge analysis paralysis. But over-reliance on focus groups and second-guessing ad nauseam can scuttle innovation. When Airbnb waited to address scammers targeting its customers last year, it faced a backlash. “You need confidence in your subject matter and your perspective,” says Brown. “Withdrawing from the conversation brings nothing to your brand and desired community.” Set drop-dead launch dates, and once you’ve worked to mitigate the risk, embrace it. “You have to put yourself out there with a point of view.”

By learning from the mistakes other businesses have made and listening to the experts, you can protect your company from the stereotypes, faux pas and cringe-worthy mishaps that can derail your brand.

Tom Gerencer

Tom Gerencer is a freelance content writer.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article, great ideas here. I would add an essential component to this list and that is to hire diverse teams. The impact of welcoming diverse people and points of views at the table from the onset is invaluable and everlasting. Inviting POCs, LGBTQ+, and other underrepresented groups to the table have proven to bring increase in profits, enhance work culture, add to brand equity and more importantly, it brings representation of historical underrepresented people to the masses, and that is powerful on a number of levels. It’s just not enough to consult or research anymore. We as an industry need to do better.

    1. Lynda,
      You took the words right out of my mouth. Thanks for your comment. Adding diversity to the marketing team should be at the top of the list. As a person of color in a predominately white profession, I’ve had so many conversations about why it’s a mistake to simply use stock photos with “diverse” images for marketing campaigns. I’m still a little surprised that companies continue to think that training can bring the same value that creating a diverse team can bring.

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