How can brands better approach representation in marketing?

By Adrian Wong, Head of Insight, MG OMD

At our annual Golf & Spa day, Katie Jackson (Managing Director at 4creative at Channel4) hosted a panel discussion with Stephanie Milward MBE (Paralympian), Ade Adepitan (Paralympian and Broadcaster) and Jane English (Head of Inclusion at Channel4). The panellists shared their thoughts on how brands can approach representation in marketing in an absorbing discussion that was deeply personal, candid, and hugely thought-provoking.

For many of us, the idea of tackling representation in media and advertising is a daunting task. It’s both far-reaching and complicated. So, a reasonable question is “Where do we begin?”

The panel was in unanimous agreement: It all starts with empathy. Once we have a better understanding of what people’s lives are like, what their experiences have been and that we are all individuals, not homogenous groups, the action of speaking or acting on behalf of others becomes much easier and more comfortable. “Be curious and stay curious” says Stephanie. “Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. Try to look deeper” adds Ade.

The panel lamented how disability in mainstream society is viewed through a one-dimensional lens yet has an infinite amount of nuance and diversity within tribes and individuals. Ade and Stephanie shared their own experiences of discrimination, whilst accepting that their lives as elite athletes are not representative of the struggles of the typical disabled population in the UK.

From a comms standpoint, Jane’s view on how brands should approach representation has been crystallised from her work at Channel 4 and particularly the Paralympic games: Be intentional. Have a strategy. Make small conscious decisions that can create a difference. Inclusion is, by definition, an all-encompassing topic, so be focused on what you want to talk about, rather than adopting a scattergun approach that achieves very little.

There was a question asked to the panel on whether we, as marketers, have the power to bring about positive societal change. In addition to being a Paralympian and a broadcaster, Ade is also an author who has written a series of kids’ books. Ade views his stories as ‘mirrors’ in which you can see yourself reflected and ‘windows’ through which you can see other people’s lives. Not only were the panel united in their agreement that we marketers and advertisers can affect societal change (for better or worse) but went further to assert that our job includes a responsibility to tell a diverse range of stories. To make sure people are seen and heard, but also to ensure we see and hear others.

Fittingly, Stephanie closed the panel with perhaps the most poignant statement of the morning, one that sums up how important and powerful genuine representation is for both consumers and brands: “For anybody, the two most important words in the world are…” I am”.


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