Not an Option: Cultural Sensitivity in Advertising
Written byFrancesca BonisAccount Executive
Today, many companies are selling to global culturally-diverse audiences, and certainly not just one demographic.
Expanding into new markets is becoming a priority for businesses oriented toward growth. Therefore, most successful companies now reach out to new customers and advertise to minority groups.
To stand out from the competition, brands must learn how to market to a more progressive and diverse population and adapt their marketing strategies to suit different cultures.
"Cultural sensitivity has always been important. What's changed is the impact that coming to that realisation has.
"The increasing buying power of minority groups globally, alongside the rapid growth of an ethically-aware consumer base, demands that businesses tune into diverse cultures' languages, customs, values, and beliefs.
"It is, of course, crucial for so many reasons that we adapt practices to better align with these needs. And when it happens, we see positive outcomes for the customer as well as employees." - Nick Livermore, Senior Marketing Manager
Adhering to a homogeneous business structure that minimises cultural differences could be ineffective nowadays. The buying power in minority groups is growing, and consumers feel more favourable about brands that promote diversity.
We now have to approach advertising and marketing with cultural sensitivity, and companies must consider cultural differences to create adverts that resonate with their target audience.
“Being aware that cultural differences and similarities between people exist without assigning them a value – positive or negative, better or worse, right or wrong.”
Essentially, cultural sensitivity is a set of skills that allows you to understand people whose cultural background is not the same as your own and accept that your culture is fundamentally no better than any other culture.
Cultural diversity is a complex and broad term that can be described as a wide range of interests, backgrounds, and life experiences. It can be measured across many variables such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political leanings, and professional and personal backgrounds.
We live in diverse times, and asking questions and developing understanding will help us become closer as individuals and as a society.
Why Is Cultural Sensitivity Important in Advertising?
Cultural sensitivity in advertising means learning to appreciate the cultural differences and similarities between the new market and the brand’s home market.
Understanding how to reach new audiences is the key to scaling businesses around the globe. In particular, adopting cultural sensitivity in advertising and adapting messaging plays a big part in meeting local needs and expectations.
Marketing to minority groups is important today because they are a huge part of the global population and economy. In the U.S. alone, multicultural consumers make up almost 40% of the population, but multicultural media spending equates to only 5.2% of total ad and marketing spend.
This small percentage can be extremely costly, as you fail to target many potential customers. And it’s not just the lack of ad spend that is a cause for concern...
The lack of or misrepresentation of minority groups is also a problem. According to IMPACT, ethnic minorities are 2x less likely than white characters to be shown as a member of a family.
Marketing has now entered the age of diversity, and those that embrace this are the ones that will gain and retain more customers. 59% of people say they are more loyal to brands that stand for diversity and inclusion in online advertising than those that don’t.
The Problem of Cultural Appropriation in Marketing
Among the most common issues of cultural sensitivity in marketing and advertising is cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation, also called cultural colonialism, is the taking of objects or elements from a non-dominant culture, often to profit from them, in a way that fails to recognise their origin or true meaning and value.
"Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g., sacred objects.”
Common and noted examples of cultural appropriation include the passing off of black music as white "Rock and Roll" with Elvis Presley as its king. The use of Native American imagery and names in, primarily, North American sports teams - for instance, The Washington Commanders, previously The Washington Redskins. And, in fashion, the infamous Gucci Turban was widely criticised as insensitive to the Sikh religion.
Of course, the particular problem for marketers and advertisers is that cultural appropriation often goes hand in hand with profit. Therefore, our industry needs to be particularly alert, not just because it's ethically correct, but because our customers today are far more sensitive to culturally inappropriate missteps.
Cultural appropriation takes many forms, so educating yourself on what constitutes a problem is a good idea. As The Atlantic notes, borrowing from other cultures is "potentially positive". In other words, we shouldn't shy away from diversity for fear of being labelled offensive, but it does need to be approached carefully and thoughtfully.
Examples of Culturally Sensitive Advertising
According to research conducted by Adobe, brands such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Dove, and Google are using an advertising strategy that embraces diversity by including minority groups that might be under or misrepresented.
Nike was named as the brand paving the way for diverse advertising. One of its latest online ads features diverse athletes and showcases inclusive products, such as the Nike Pro Hijab for Muslim female athletes and adaptive activewear for people with disabilities.
Those accurate representations allow their target consumers to feel seen, heard, and understood. Their campaigns help consumers connect with the brand, allowing people to personally identify with the branding and their products.
Nowadays, companies that embrace diversity are more likely to gain customers’ trust and see success as people feel closer to brands that take a stance on cultural issues.
For example, Google nailed inclusive marketing in their latest ad: “the more we learn, the closer we get”, which encourages users to ask tough questions about race, religion, and mental health.
Google’s campaign is the perfect example of showing a stance on cultural issues and offering a more culturally relevant connection with the audience. The ad points out why asking questions about things we do not understand can lead to greater unity.
59% of consumers are more trusting of brands if they are represented in their ads, as it helps them create a stronger connection between themselves and the brand. Customers who see themselves within your branding are more likely to buy from you.
Four Ways to Create Culturally Sensitive Advertising
Creating representative advertising may at first appear daunting, as the thoughts of getting it wrong can outweigh the thoughts of getting it right. So, to make this process easier, here are four tips to help you create culturally sensitive and successful advertising.
1. Research & Test
Make sure to conduct detailed research when creating your ads. Before making any cultural or ethnic references, it is vital to know your history.
Today, fewer than one in 10 brands review for inclusion as part of product design and marketing campaigns. So, once you have created your ads, show them to a test group and get approval from community members before releasing any marketing that uses them or their culture.
For example, if you’re featuring people wearing religious or cultural clothing, ensure they are worn appropriately. If you are creating ads in different languages, transcreate the text used to ensure you are portraying the correct message.
Ignorance is not always intentional, but it is avoidable.
2. Consider Slang & Idioms
It’s always important to pay close attention to words and phrases solely associated with your culture.
Idioms may work well in engaging a particular audience in your own country. Still, these phrases across cultures may not elicit the same response, as they could be very offensive or misinterpreted.
Slang can also be troublesome as they are unique to individual cultures and difficult to interpret in other languages.
If uncertain, keep idioms and slang to a minimum or avoid using them.
3. Pick Imagery Carefully
Similar to the previous point, photos, images, icons, and logos can convey meanings you may not have intended and could damage your brand’s reputation and credibility.
As a rule of thumb, flags, religious symbols, and certain political imagery should be off-limits, as they can represent negative moments in history for many customers. You want to represent your brand and its people in a positive, uplifting light.
4. Representation Matters
For your adverts to be diverse, you need to ensure a representation of all genders, ages, ethnicities, abilities, and sexual orientations in your ads and marketing campaigns.
Including a variety of people in the creative will allow more people to relate to the ads and the brand.
To give some perspective on the financial potential of representative advertising, brands with the most representative ads saw an average stock gain of 44% in a seven-quarter period ending in 2020. And brands with the highest diversity scores showed an 83% higher consumer preference.
Becoming more culturally sensible starts with educating ourselves. It is okay not to know and to ask. We live in a time where being culturally aware will allow your brand to build a real connection with your target audience and increase customers’ trust.
The world is diverse, and our ads should reflect this. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to cultural sensitivities. Now is the time to move past the old advertising models and enter the new age of diverse marketing.