In a rapidly changing world, representing diversity in advertising and marketing is a never-ending challenge. Diversity and inclusion should not stand as buzzwords alone; but should be treated as a reflection point where marketers strive for approaches that avoid reductive stereotypes and unintentional perpetuation of classism, racism, sexism, tokenism or ignorance.

There’s no doubt that Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick will be the marketing case study of the year for diversity and inclusion.

Brand managers and content creators delving into diversity and inclusion in marketing will find teachable moments, marketing gems, and lessons dared in Nike’s campaign.

As consumers become more diverse and global, companies creating products that address the needs of global consumers may also need to show how they authentically empathize with and understand diverse views.

Long gone are the days when an impressionable kid like me would be excited about seeing someone Asian in a commercial the way I did when I first saw Coca-Cola’s Hilltop ad. One of the most beloved ads, the 1971 commercial panned across an array of people from around the globe wearing native garb, singing: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company…”

When I saw the ad, I jumped up and pointed to our family’s TV screen and shouted: “She’s Indian! He’s Indonesian! She’s Japanese!” To see someone who looked like me on TV stoked my heartstrings. To this day, I still prefer Coke to other sodas. Admittedly, such ‘Mad Men’ Don-Draperesque ads would seem a little hokey today.

So, what to make of how to represent diverse people in the new age of branding and marketing? Let’s take a dabble into that Nike case study, shall we, and see what we can learn?

Nike and diversity in advertising landscape.

Nike’s big risk results in a game-changing tact in today’s advertising landscape.

Analysts and advertising gurus are calling Nike’s campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick a game-changer, one where companies are taking stances on formerly no-go territories, such as politics and social justice.

The risks seem high in a world where brands try to stick with mainstream narratives. Initially, Nike appeared to “take a knee,” and alienated a segment of their customers who took offense to the sports apparel behemoth’s seemingly “political” stance and called for a boycott.

However, data numbers after Nike released the ad show interesting results.

  • Within 24 hours of the Colin Kaepernick ad airing, Nike gained $43 million dollars in free media exposure.
  • A segment of Nike’s customers reacted by burning their Nike socks and shoes and sharing protest videos on social media, resulting in Nike’s stock stumbling.
  • Yet shortly after the immediate negative reactions, Nike’s stock has risen steadily back — rising to its highest stock prices ever, and stimulated a rise in direct digital sales by 36% overall during the quarter.
  • This calculated risk was based on Nike knowing its market: People who purchase Nike are mostly under 35, and who are ethnically and racially diverse.

What can brand managers derive from Nike’s Kaepernick ad stats and apply these learnings to their own efforts?

  • Lesson 1: Know your niche. Nike knew their core consumers were 18- to 29-year-old males, who would naturally fall into a group of Gen Z and millennials who were raised with consumer-activist attitudes.
  • Lesson 2: Track your data. A company can only know who buys their shoes by collecting laser-sharp data on their consumers. Nike, like Netflix, knows what their consumers value by the data they gather.
  • Lesson 3: Controversy equals free air time and social media exposure. Nike wins if everyone has Nike on their mind for a long segment of the media cycle.
  • Lesson 4: Be on the right side of controversy. If you’re a company taking a calculated risk, a stance is likely to pay off if you show that you share values with your consumers. (This is tricky, and sticky: Some camps say Nike has only taken this stance to make money, and reports have shown that their political contributions actually skew toward the GOP.)
  • Lesson 5: The Kaepernick ad tagline is American exceptionalism at its best: “Believe in something, even if it means you have to sacrifice everything.” Embedded in the ad’s message is among the strongest of American myths: that of, American exceptionalism. All the athletes highlighted come from very diverse backgrounds, each struggling against all odds to be the best. Diverse Americans also see themselves as part of this exceptionalism and they themselves are as American as apple pie, the stars-and-stripes and “one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Nike’s Kaepernick case study should be something brand managers and content creators dig into more deeply, because diversity and inclusion are major themes in media right now (whether it’s the box-office success of rom-com ‘Crazy, Rich Asians’ featuring an all-Asian cast backed by a Hollywood studio or your everyday content marketing).

Diversity and inclusion should not stand as buzzwords alone; but treated as a reflection point where brand managers and content creators strive for approaches that avoid reductive stereotypes and unintentional perpetuation of classism, racism and sexism.

To help you navigate this space, we examine six more studies, surveys and reports, and highlight key points for how diversity and inclusion make for better marketing.

Studies, surveys and reports on diversity in advertising and marketing.

Diverse images help a brand’s reputation.

As reported in Adweek, a Shutterstock study surveyed 1,500 marketers in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and found that 80% of marketers agree that using images showing nontraditional families and nonprofessional models reflecting modern society helps a brand’s reputation.

Portraying same-sex couples, people with disabilities, and mixed-race families make brands more relatable, and demonstrate the influence of social media, where consumers prefer images that accurately show the world around them rather than a perfected version.

But let me to go back to the hilltop Coca-Cola ad and add a few things that this study doesn’t examine. Images say a lot about inclusion, when there is every race represented in a picture.

However, at times it can be seen and considered as pandering when kids of every race are lined up in a 1990s United Colors of Benetton ad. This is not to say that Benetton’s ads miss the mark (they revolutionized people of color in their images), but it’s even more important to reflect authentic interactions between people of different races without playing to stereotypes or using them as props to make a statement. The demand from diverse consumers these days is to see themselves reflected for all their complexity.

Gen Zers and millennials favor ads and product lines that highlight diversity.

In four different surveys by Barkley and Futurecast, eMarketer, and The Harris Poll, coveted demographic groups, Gen Zers (aged 15 to19) and millennials (aged 20 to 35), reported that they are most receptive to ads showcasing diverse families and are more accepting of nontraditional gender roles compared to baby boomers.

Findings showed that 18- to 34-year-olds preferred consuming movies and television featuring multicultural casts and were more likely to buy from retailers that offered a wider range of multicultural products.

Not only that, young consumers also are demanding more nontraditional representation in their ads, feeling less uneasy about the intersection of politics, identity and advertising.

Given the current marketing landscape, advertisers may be pushed to take stronger political stances, and be should be prepared to face backlash. Yet if Gen Z and millennial audiences are their core market, the risk might be worth it.

70% of black millennials say they are more likely to buy from a brand that takes a stand on race-related issues.

Relatability through representation

When Google interviewed YouTube black millennial creators to find what they want from advertisers, creators gave insightful advice:

  • 70% of black millennials say they are more likely to buy from a brand that takes a stand on race-related issues. Their motto: Don’t just reflect society – push it forward.
  • A key driver of high engagement is diverse creators. (Other studies also suggest that advertising creatives, focus groups, production studios and boardrooms need to be more diverse). If anything, check your ad copy with a creator who lives in that world.
  • Niche channels mean crafting ad stories that relate, represent, and reflect diversity within diverse communities. What does that mean in real terms? Capturing the intersectionality, where social identities of race, class, gender and sexuality within real life experiences become visible and respected in advertising.

A growing body of studies show how demographics of ad audiences have outpaced the diversity within the advertising industry in ways where representation on screen and off matters. For a deeper dive, check out selections from the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.

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