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Appropriate or Appropriation? 5 Questions to Ask About Your CPG’s Inclusive Marketing Efforts

Sep 15, 2021

Written By

Esther Sully & Danielle Muller

People around the world have been — or should be — faced with the harsh realities of systemic racism and the oppression of people of color. As a part of this reckoning, consumers are boldly holding brands in all industries accountable for their lack of appropriate, meaningful representation in their marketing initiatives.

Even so, many brands continue to miss the mark. Big time.

This inaction reflects how the undeniable need for diversity, equity, and inclusion is relegated to a trending topic rather than a point of reflection and opportunity for positive impact. The hard truth? Brands, CPG brands very much included, are wrongly exploiting–perhaps inadvertently–our current moment in history and appropriating other cultures to sell products and services to BIPOC communities.

How Your Food and Bev Brand Can Be a Part of the Solution

Your large food and beverage company has the opportunity and resources to create this change while still ensuring a loyal customer base. You can start by developing marketing strategies that authentically incorporate the views and insights of BIPOC communities. The goal is to strive for more than empty Black History Month celebrations on Instagram and diversity hires for your ads.

But it’s vital not to misstep and further contribute to the problem, even if you’re well-intentioned.

As one of only a few black-owned agencies in this space, we’re committed to brand activations and marketing campaigns that center the right voices, have an impactful point of view, and genuinely make a difference for people of color.

It’s in this spirit that we pose these five questions. Answering them truthfully will help in your efforts to market to communities of color in a respectful, responsible way and be a part of the larger movement toward a more equitable society.

Question 1: Is Your CPG Company Diverse Internally?

Let’s be real. No one will believe your brand cares about diversity, equity, and inclusion if your internal teams don’t reflect these principles and you’re doing nothing to make changes. Your marketing efforts — however inclusive — simply won’t matter.

That’s why you have to start by making sure the diversity you’re pursuing is first represented on your teams. Strive to examine the undetected bias that may be present in your hiring practices. There are BIPOC candidates that are equally as qualified as their white counterparts. Seek out job platforms, online communities, and organizations that attract BIPOC candidates and broaden your hiring field. Your teams should reflect the market or markets you’re catering to.

But it doesn’t stop once you have a diverse internal team. Make sure the work environment is equitable and respectful. You’ll also need to educate yourself and your team members on what it means to be a responsible ally to people of color. That way, your marketing initiatives won’t originate from an unaware — or, bluntly, ignorant — place.

Question 2: Are You Asking BIPOC Communities What They Need from Your Brand and Are You Serving Those Needs?

Researching and understanding your target audience is always an important step toward getting your branding and marketing to resonate. But it matters even more when you’re trying to reach historically marginalized communities of color.

Instead of assuming you know what your customers want and need, ask them! Have open dialogues with diverse consumers. Listen to what they tell you about how your brand can better serve their communities as well as how you can respectfully represent diversity in your marketing. Prove that you are listening. Incorporate their feedback about your brand’s shortcomings to develop new brand activations and company policies.

Question 3: Are You Using Your Platform to Elevate and Center BIPOC Voices?

After listening and internalizing what your BIPOC customers, partners, and employees have to say, you can use your platform to elevate their voices. Resist the urge to say things about communities of color that ring true to you and instead let members of those communities say it themselves. This will help you create an authentic connection with existing and potential consumers of color.

What do we really mean by elevate and center BIPOC voices? Quite literally share their views on your social media platforms, in your ad campaigns… everywhere!

Question 4: Do Your Brand Visuals Have Equal and Proper Representation?

You want to ensure BIPOC voices are heard through your messaging. But you also want to reaffirm that all of your brand’s visuals have equal and appropriate representation.

This means evaluating your website, advertising, social media imagery, etc. to check that it not only includes visuals of people of color, but that these visuals aren’t watered down.

So what does it mean to water down images of Black people? Simply put, brands may be more likely to choose visuals of Black people with lighter skin and a more Eurocentric look, while avoiding visuals of dark-skinned Black people with Afrocentric hairstyles like afros and braids. Selecting a “type” of Black people, who within a system of racial bias are closer in proximity to whiteness, as opposed to depicting a diverse body of Black people is watering down the visuals. It perpetuates the influence of systemic racism, and it’s decidedly not an accurate representation of our world. Instead, celebrate true diversity in your CPG brand’s imagery. Becoming aware of the ways in which our perceptions have been influenced by a system of racial bias, is a good step toward creating change.

The effects of systemic racism are so ingrained that for white marketers–no matter how well intentioned or experienced–to become effective allies to the BIPOC community it requires anti-racism education and thoughtful self reflection. Just look at Pepsi’s famous ad featuring Kendall Jenner. Pepsi took something incredibly complex and important — the Black Lives Matter movement — and trivialized it, implying the problem could be “fixed” by a white woman sharing a soda with the police. Placing a white woman at the center of a black movement sent the wrong message on many levels. Nothing serves as a better example of what not to do.

Question 5: Marketing Aside, How Does Your Company Support People of Color?

You have to walk the walk. To what causes does your company contribute? Is your company actively investing time and resources, do you leverage your brand’s platform, or are you supplying monetary support?

It doesn’t matter if you’ve done all of the other work above to make your ad campaign or brand activation inclusive if you don’t support people of color behind the scenes as well.

At the end of the day, ask yourself this about your brand: Are you participating in the equity, diversity, and inclusion conversation in the way you would if your life and the health of your community depended on it? Imagining yourself in the shoes of those calling for equal and appropriate representation may be a compelling way to understand why it’s absolutely essential, and possible, to use your brand to effect change.

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