Beyond ticking the box: gender advancement needs sustained and systemic effort
The odd advertising campaign paying lip service to gender is not enough to address fairness and equity by brands, says GLENDA NEVILL. To really commit to a transformative mindset in marketing strategies requires companies to put their own houses in order inside and out.
Recent advertising and marketing missteps have highlighted how brands and their agencies can get messaging so terribly wrong when it comes to advancing gender and race in marketing campaigns.
“The time for brands to turn a blind eye to race and gender equity is long past. Consumers and employees demand change, while knee-jerk responses and mollifying words offer cold comfort,” writes Dipanjan Chatterjee in the opening paragraph of a recent Forrester Report, Design a Programme to Advance Race and Gender Fairness and Equity.
Chatterjee contends that brands have pretty much steered clear of social issues for the past two decades. But that all changed when in 2016, US quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to sing the national anthem at the opening of the National Football League season, choosing instead to take the knee in protest against police brutality and racism. He was not signed again after his contract wasn’t renewed. In 2018, sponsor Nike, instead of booting him out in the face of then President Donald Trump’s outrage, instead crafted a new ad campaign around Kaepernick. Out went the legendary ‘Just do it’ slogan, and in came ‘Believe in something. Even if it means losing everything’.
“… In 2020, the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement triggered a universal reckoning for brands,” Chatterjee wrote. “Now, we’ve had almost a year to let the dust settle. In this time, many brands have realised that news-cycle-induced sporadic responses do scant justice to the underlying crisis. Addressing fairness and equity, not only in race but also in gender, requires sustained and systematic effort.”
Sustained and systematic effort goes way beyond simply crafting a campaign. For it to be authentic, it has to emanate from a business that is making a concerted effort to put its own house in order, as Chatterjee says. Forrester calls this the ‘4C Framework’.
- Company (putting your own house in order)
- Customer (including market audiences)
- Community (the context in which your business operates)
- Core competence (what your company does best)
Rayhana Erasmus is the Head of Global Marketing for Old Mutual Alternative Investments, and Nino Naidoo is the CEO of Duchess, a company within the DUKE Group that recently launched a 100% black female-owned, Level 1 BBBEE-compliant, full-service production facilitator. They share insights into how companies and brands in South Africa are advancing gender to create a more equitable environment.
“Gender equality has been a top priority of transformative strategies in most corporates for the longest while. In my recent comparative analysis to gauge the commitment to impact by Africa’s leading private markets investors, I’ve ascertained that there is an aggressive movement towards active stewardship of responsible investments,” says Erasmus.
“At the forefront of this shift lies transformative strategies such as gender equality, diversity and inclusion as well as job creation, linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Like Old Mutual Alternative Investments (OMAI), brands like Harith and Investec have active gender equality strategies evidenced in published articles, public relations initiatives as well as various communications practices,” she adds.
Naidoo, who works closely with various brands in the advertising production space, says there is still a lot of work to do, but the conversations are happening to a greater degree than they ever have done before.
“There are a couple of forward-thinking brands and companies that have taken the time and trouble to listen to their audience and conduct extensive research around race and gender in our country and who also have sufficient representation within their staff structure to provide informed input into their branding activities. But there still remain those that are simply copying and pasting generic content obtained from international parent companies, without any thought to relevance and those who think a tweak here and there is sufficient to ‘tick the race/gender box’,” she says.
Naidoo believes the current climate has made clients extremely aware of and open to the need to be inclusive in all their communications “… I think there is also a genuine fear of the repercussions of getting it wrong. Very few clients believe there’s a ‘quick fix’ approach to this and our clients are all very receptive to input and guidance around these sensitive issues,” she adds.
Erasmus says senior professionals “can directly influence certain aspects of gender equality and diversity by driving the empowerment of women in our own business and our portfolio companies”. At OMAI, environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices ensure gender and diversity discussions are held at the highest levels.
“As a woman in leadership I am well placed to directly influence the outcomes across the key diversity metrics through recruitment and advancement of professional marketing talent within the business,” she says. “Furthermore, partnership with creative agencies and suppliers with strong BEE ratings particularly aimed at empowering women also play a major role in the progress we make to close the gap.”
Naidoo’s company Duchess was incorporated to specifically address issues of gender in the advertising business. She began her career as a receptionist at Hunt Lascaris and worked her way up into production.
“In all that time there has always been a lack of female talent in our industry and Duchess has been created with the intention of changing the status quo. We are creating a space where skilled women in our industry can do what they do best in an environment that works for them, not against them, thus making it possible for transformative and lasting change,” she eplains. “Having women throughout the business and choosing to work with women not only throws a spotlight on highly skilled and talented women in our industry, but it will automatically give us a female-oriented perspective with which to view the work and hopefully help to change perceptions.”
Of course, this means working with businesses open and willing to change the way they operate. Erasmus says OMAI “partners with agencies that share its values and conduct business through the same philosophies as we do. It would be a rarity for an agency partner to be reluctant to follow suit in the quest for transformation in this respect”.
She says briefs into agencies are comprehensive to ensure OMAI’s philosophy is articulated in its marketing communications. “We certainly are a lot more mindful of the visual cues of our marketing communications and as the brand custodians, we are responsible for directing all visual touchpoints throughout client journeys,” she adds.
Erasmus believes the financial services industry itself is “consciously implementing transformative strategies in their marketing particularly as our audiences are more socially conscious. Whether we choose to use more women of colour in our visual imagery in our marketing communications, showcase new women in leadership positions, publish more female thought leadership pieces or elect more female participation as subject matter experts for industry body engagements, gender equality is always at the forefront of articulating our brand’s philosophy”.
It’s also vitally important to be consistent. A one-off campaign isn’t going to convince anyone a company has gender equity and advancement running through its DNA.
Naidoo says the proof is in the pudding. “… are female consumers and consumers of colour buying your product or using your service? Can they relate? First off, you need to be employing the right people – i.e. females and people of colour – so that your brand has an internal barometer and fundamental insights as to what your offering means to those groups. What type of research are you using for your campaigns that ensures you’re aligning with those audiences? Companies should be conducting in-depth research through a reputable company before trying to sell anything. There’s no such thing as a one-off campaign for a brand to be inclusive – this has to be part of who your brand is and what it is about,” she stresses.
Erasmus says gender equality and diversity is significant in our country where the legacy of exclusion remains prevalent. “While progress remains inadequate with many organisations, the key to unlocking progress is a demonstrative effort by direct influencers. This requires leadership to view gender equality and diversity with a different lens – as an investment opportunity that drives value beyond the prerequisite of compliance,” she says.
On a personal level, Erasmus says the corporate world can be brutal, and one has to have “grit to stick through it, take the challenges on the chin and keep the learnings in your back pocket”. She spent her formative years building her career as a young mother in a new city without support structures – and attending night school after working a full day.
“My work ethic has been cultivated over time, with the aim of expanding my depth and breadth of knowledge as a marketer. In fact, my friends would often criticize me and accuse me of being a serial academic, but I had one goal in mind and that was to be at the top of my game,” she says. “I wanted to know everything there was to know about marketing. I had to be tenacious in my pursuit as the environment I found myself in was male dominated where marketing was often disregarded.”
On that issue, she says it’s important to trust your intuition. “Take heed of your sixth sense, that feeling in the pit of your tummy, go with it. Too often we’re told to make decisions from our head space and not our heart space. The truth is, whether we’re making business decisions or personal decisions, allow your heart to lead you – it will never lead you astray. This is the power we hold as women – we’re innately intuitive beings.”
As for Naidoo, Duchess’s advantage is being able to offer real insights from a point of actual experience. “We generally find that our clients value the strategic input we offer them and try to incorporate the suggestions we make. But we also back up our approach with legitimate research findings – we’re not just offering our opinion,” she says. “A brand like Jive Cooldrinks for instance, has fully embraced race and culture in its communications and shows a true understanding of its target audience, instead of trying to make the consumer fit in with their own interpretation of where the brand should be.”
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