Change is here. Marketing leaders must take real actions to show diversity matters, or risk brand erosion

Kevin Johnson / November 2020

The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a spotlight on diversity in Canada’s advertising industry and the need for more inclusive marketing. In this installment of Big Thinkers, MediaCom Canada CEO Kevin Johnson shares new research around how racialized consumers are responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, and ways marketing leaders can take action now.

Brands are used to being reactive. As the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved these past few months, many were quick to announce they’ll be part of the change. But too often, these declarations go nowhere. People want to do the right thing, but they’re also afraid of doing the wrong thing.

Change is here, it’s intentional and it cannot be ignored.

We’ve had many senior marketing leaders reach out for advice on the best ways to take action. They’ve said “What should I do? What’s the best way to help right now?” The answer we give them isn’t what they expect.

Don’t start by making a plan — start by doing nothing. Actively listen and the actions will become clear. This way, you’ll react with purpose. Think of it as transitioning to a new role. You wouldn’t just jump in and start making decisions, you’d take a month to learn what’s required. However, if you do need a place to start, listen to what consumers are saying right now.

New research shows racialized consumers are changing their purchasing habits to support brands that show diversity matters. The trend was already on the rise — three years ago, MediaCom and Google collaborated on a 2017 research report examining ways to reach the growing number of culturally diverse consumers in Canada.

Recently, our MediaCom head of business insights recommended we continue that research. Studies have been taking a general look at the Black Lives Matter movement, but we wanted to understand the impact in Canada, how racialized consumers were responding, and what actions brands were taking. We spoke with more than one thousand people and the results are clear: Change is here, it’s intentional and it cannot be ignored.

People want companies that take a stand or they’ll move on. Brands that fail to respond with real action risk massive erosion.

The Black Lives Matter movement has already impacted purchase behaviour, with 40% of individuals within the racialized community saying they’ve changed brands to support the movement. Almost all say they would fully stand behind brands that do, too.1 It matters deeply to them because racism is prevelant here — 78% of visible minority Canadians have experienced racial discrimination.2 Canada’s racialized population is expected to grow to 14 million people within the next decade3 — that’s a lot of spending power.

People want companies that take a stand or they’ll move on. Brands that fail to respond with real action risk massive erosion. Here are some ways to understand where your brand stands, and where to go from here.

Assess your organization from the inside

Go into discovery mode and assess your organization’s diversity from within. How diverse is your team? Your vendors and suppliers? Your company culture? What is the messaging from leadership? Ask hard questions that will help you gain new insights and information, from people you’ve never heard from before. You’ll hear things that are positive and negative, and some of it will be hard to hear, but you’ll be better for it.

Analyze your reputation from the outside

Take a look at how Black and racialized people are depicted in your advertising. Find out what racialized consumers think about your brand and look at where your organization stands within the industry. Read what people are saying about you on social media and beyond, and think about why. Understanding the “why” will allow you to lay the groundwork to be able to move into action.

Leaders need to educate themselves, not just their teams.

Educate yourself and your teams

Leaders need to educate themselves, not just their teams. Do the work to learn as much as you can about the realities of Canadian consumers. Read news stories, reach out to networks and organizations, and deepen your education and learnings from the Black community. Organize bias training for yourself and for your teams, including people working on the front lines with customers.

Make real investments in diversity

Invest in initiatives that will drive change. The obvious step is to actively recruit, hire and retain Black talent. However, companies can also fund and support Black-owned businesses, diverse suppliers and community initiatives.

Speak out through actions

Make sure brand messaging shows your stance and more importantly, shows the actions you’re taking. People are clearly calling out brands that aren’t authentic. Make sure your products, content and advertising make it clear that diversity matters. Refuse to work with suppliers and vendors that are racist or do not support the Black Lives Matter movement, and ensure your advertising and product offerings are inclusive.

This will not be a short journey — it’s an ongoing journey. By listening, learning and responding with purpose, brands can shift from reaction, to action. True allyship is experienced and speaks for itself. Our research shows consumers have spoken. Now it’s your turn.

Are your inclusion efforts excluding the transgender and gender nonconforming community?