From Issue 4 of Arrival
Diversity and inclusion initiatives in hiring have been part of human resources (HR) agendas for several decades now. While companies are making more of an effort to increase the diversity of their workforces, there are still gaps when it comes to inclusion and true representation. Diversity should not be treated as a goal that can be checked off during the hiring process, but rather as a launching pad for innovation, creativity and ultimately, more profit. Companies that foster true inclusion know that diversity is a theme that touches every part of the business and that it is good business sense to have a wide variety of voices at the table.
A company’s public relations (PR), marketing and advertising programs are a very public-facing barometer for how fully that company embraces diversity and inclusion. As our world becomes more and more multicultural, it is natural that advertising should start to reflect a wide range of economic, political and cultural perspectives. But as with hiring, diversity in advertising is not a checklist item to be crossed off. Simply adding people of color to an ad and calling it a day doesn’t cut it, especially if the imagery and/or language used is not an appropriate representation. And diversity means so much more than skin color or gender; it includes other intersectional layers such as ability, sexual orientation, religion and socio-economic status.
Millennials (many of whom are now in their 30s) and their Gen Z successors are choosing to spend their dollars and their time with companies whose messaging resonates with them on a personal level. According to 2017 research from Google, almost two-thirds (64 percent) of YouTube viewers surveyed who self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) said they are more likely to buy from a brand that includes LGBT people and messages in their ads. (Source: Google Survey (U.S.) May 2017). Another Google survey found that nearly two-thirds of black millennial viewers say that YouTube is a place “where black people have a voice” and that 70 percent of black millennials say they are more likely to buy from a brand that takes a stand on race-related issues. (Source: Google/Ipsos Connect, U.S., Black Consumer Survey, Jan. 2017). More than ever, consumers are looking to do business with companies that understand their unique wants and needs and the rise of both Internet and social media is making it easier for them to connect.
When Companies Get It Wrong
While social media’s various platforms are excellent for targeting curated audiences and amplifying campaign messaging, social media also magnifies blunders when they occur. At the end of 2018, the designer brand Prada faced tremendous social media backlash when it released a product line that featured imagery of a monkey complete with oversized red lips, which for many evoked blackface caricature. This came after a similar controversy with clothing retailer H&M, who marketed images of a black child wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” Multicultural marketing failures seem to pop up like a game of whack-a-mole; just in the last two years, social media was quick to denounce campaigns such as:
- Heineken’s “Lighter is better” ad, in which a light version of their beer slides down a bar past people of color and lands in front of a lighter-skinned woman. (2018)
- Dolce & Gabbana’s ad in China featuring a Chinese model who struggles to eat “Western” food like pizza with chopsticks. (2018)
- Macy’s Christmas ad featuring a white family (a mom, a dad and three kids), an interracial gay couple and their two children and an African-American mother and three kids (notably with no father present). (2018)
- Nivea’s “White is Purity” Facebook ad on its Middle East page, which also drew attention from white supremacist groups, who praised the ad. (2017)
- Dove Body Wash’s Facebook ad that seemed to show a progression of a black woman turning white. (2017)
With ads like these, the public outcry predictably leads to corporate apologies. In many cases, the apologies indicate a lack of intended offense, such as Macy’s official statement on Twitter from November 18, 2018:
“We appreciate your feedback. These images were intended to celebrate families and togetherness, never to offend. It's important for us to know when we've missed the mark. We've shared your feedback w/our team and we apologize. Thank you.”
Prada’s Twitter apology on December 14, just a month later, said:
“#Prada Group abhors racist imagery. The Pradamalia are fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre. They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface.
#Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery. In this interest we will withdraw the characters in question from display and circulation.”
But whether or not any company’s ads are intentionally racist isn’t the point. The real question is: How do ads that are at best described as tone-deaf and culturally insensitive somehow get past multiple rounds of review and approval? And with all the controversies surrounding offensive ads, how are marketers not learning from their peers’ mistakes?
The vacation rental industry has not been immune to negative press over accusations of racial bias and discrimination, most notably in regard to host and guest communications on listing site platforms. Requiring photos and names in user profiles led to numerous guest complaints (across multiple platforms) that stay requests were rejected by owners because of their race or ethnicity. Make no mistake; even as the industry has grown, these headline-making cases have deterred untold numbers of potential guests from booking. Winning the trust of people who have felt at best underrepresented and at worst actively discriminated against leaves no room for cultural blunders.
Step One to Getting It Right
The need for diversity within the marketing team (and indeed, throughout your entire organization) is so incredibly important, it cannot be overstated. Having different perspectives at the table and including voices similar to those to whom you are marketing can help shape campaigns appropriately and reduce offensive missteps. Whether the marketing team is part of your company, or from a contracted agency, including people of a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities also makes it easier to generate new and innovative ideas.
Step Two: Do Your Research
A one-size-fits-all approach to marketing has the potential to leave a significant portion of your audience feeling ignored or alienated. A University of Florida publication, “Ethnic Marketing: A Strategy for Marketing Programs to Diverse Audiences” suggests that:
“The concept of the salad bowl is gradually replacing the concept of the melting pot in describing the social setting of America. In a "melting pot," all cultures and peoples blend together to become similar; in a "salad bowl," cultures and peoples are combined in one place but retain their individuality. Therefore, it is important to tailor your marketing message to appeal to the shared cultural norms, values, traditions, and beliefs of the group that you seek to reach.”
With this in mind, the second step to successful diversity marketing is to go back to marketing 101: know your customers. Consumers are better able to identify with and respond positively to messaging that is tailored to accurately reflect their race, gender, ethnicity and culture. Doing the research to understand not just your target segment’s demographics, but also attitudes, beliefs, buying habits, online and social media usage and other psychographic and behavioral data will help ensure that your messaging will resonate. Rely on your data, rather than assumptions, when marketing to diverse groups. Play close attention to tone, language and context and make sure you have the right people in place who can review your ads and flag any stereotypes, biases, appropriation or misrepresentations that may have crept in.
Be (Thoughtfully) Visible
As you plan your campaigns, consider carefully where they should be seen. Learn which publications, blogs, podcasts or radio/TV programs best reach your intended audience and also fit your budget. For listing properties, look into niche travel sites such as MisterBandB, GoLightly, Innclusive and WheelchairTraveling.
Partnering with local professional or social organizations is an opportunity to demonstrate allyship and sustained commitment to niche audiences. You can engage with and become a credible presence within various communities by:
- Sponsoring and attending local events, concerts, festivals and celebrations
- Establishing positive relationships with influencers who can help be ambassadors for your brand
- Advertising in your partner organization’s newsletter or online publication
- Making a corporate commitment to a human services charity that serves your target community
Before reaching out to the members of your target audience, take a moment to reflect on your goals. Is your interest in connecting authentic or merely a means to an end? Building relationships and trust have always been key business drivers for the vacation rental industry and insincerity is one of the fastest ways to lose trust – especially if it’s compounded by culturally insensitive mistakes.
Be aware, too, that the diversity and inclusiveness of your own company may fall under scrutiny. Does your staff reflect the communities you serve? Is diversity and inclusion reflected in your mission, vision and values statements? Is everyone in your organization trained to understand and respond appropriately to customers from varying ethnic, social and economic backgrounds?
Fostering and sustaining a culture of diversity and inclusion within your company is a win-win for the business as well as for your guests, owners and partners.
Inviting input and feedback from multiple perspectives and understanding the impacts of inclusivity will help you better represent and reflect the true diversity of your market, driving both positive ROI and social responsibility.
CAROLE LYNN SHAROFF is the president and owner of Atlantic Vacation Homes / AVH Realty, Inc., a woman-owned business which currently manages 90-100 vacation rentals. Her ﬁrm also handles long-term rentals, luxury rentals and sales and is known for its celebrity client base. Carole has worked in the industry for over 30 years, and she was a panelist at the Salem State University 12th Annual Women’s Symposium. She currently serves as secretary for the VRMA Board of Directors. She is past chair of VRMA’s Membership Committee, New England VRMA and was a member of VRMA’s Credentialing Committee. Her 27-year interracial marriage includes three grown children and four grandchildren.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS is the general manager of Atlantic Vacation Homes in Gloucester, Mass. She joined the vacation rental industry in 2015 after spending nearly two decades as a digital consultant, specializing in user experience strategy and design. Michelle is currently on the Vacation Rental Housekeeping Professionals Board of Directors and also sits on the board of Discover Gloucester, a regional destination marketing organization. Michelle holds a bachelor of arts degree in English from Yale University.