Marketing Still Has a Colorism Problem

Marketing Still Has a Colorism Problem

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Colorism — discrimination against those with darker skin — is a product of racism. As marketers scramble to have brands connect with and serve Black and brown communities, they first have to acknowledge that colorism not only still exists, but is systemic. We must break through our own collective biases, which inform who we choose to feature and whose stories get told in marketing. The author provides four ways marketers can fight colorism and ensure they’re on the path to building more inclusive brands. Consumers are waiting to see what rebranding and new advertising campaigns will look like from brands that made promises to stop propagating colorism and perpetuating racism. Belief-driven buyers are becoming the new normal; more consumers want their brands to represent their values and be advocates for societal change. Marketers can either risk being left behind or embrace the responsibility to uphold their promises and challenge the industry standards.

“She’s too dark,” the creative director snapped at me when I recommended the image of a dark-skinned Black woman washing her face for our hero campaign shot. “We can’t use that image for this global campaign.”

And we didn’t. In one of my first assignments as a marketer, colorism — discrimination against those with darker skin — hit me fast and furiously. At the organization I worked for, we didn’t feature dark-skinned individuals in our content, and we had very few people of color on our marketing teams.

Brands across industries have come under fire for colorism in recent years. For example, Nivea, Heineken, and Dove have faced criticism for propagating the assumption that being of a lighter skin tone is superior. As marketers scramble to have brands connect with and serve Black and brown communities, they first have to acknowledge that colorism not only still exists, but is systemic. We must break through our own collective biases, which inform who we choose to feature and whose stories get told in marketing. Here are four ways marketers can fight colorism and ensure they’re on the path to building more inclusive brands.

Create Awareness of and Education About Colorism

Colorism — which upholds and values white standards of beauty, including the preference for straight hair or thin lips and noses — is a product of racism. It continues to be pervasive, whether we’re aware of it or not.

In a CNN-commissioned study of skin-color bias among U.S. children, white children attributed positive traits to lighter skin and negative traits to darker skin and held onto these biases more strongly as they grew older. Professor Adam Alter of New York University, along with his three colleagues, conducted research highlighting the “bad is black effect,” which showed a link between skin tone and perceptions of whether a person had committed a criminal act. Finally, a recent study that tracked the earnings of more than 4,000 subjects found that those with the darkest skin were expected to earn over a half a million dollars less than lighter-skinned subjects over the course of their lifetimes.

Fighting colorism requires awareness and education. University marketing curriculum should include coverage of colorism. Companies should be upskilling their marketers to develop better cultural awareness, just as they do for social and digital skills, and include colorism as a key component of that training. Without a common understanding of the specific preference that exists for lighter skin and “Eurocentric” features, we’ll continue to make the mistakes other brands have made in how they show up in the marketplace.

Broaden Your Ecosystem of Agency Partnerships

Before launching marketing initiatives, ask yourself who’s sitting around the table. Are you hearing the insights and voices of the communities you want to serve? Are you collaborating with culturally competent agency partners who also have diversity of representation?

Supplier diversity initiatives are critical. Large organizations can use their dollars to support minority-owned businesses, which have struggled during the pandemic and are essential to the ecosystem. When you diversify your supplier base, you’ll in turn diversify the communities you serve with your brand, unlocking new opportunities for growth.

The Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) recent report indicated that while 75% of their members had an organization-wide supplier diversity initiative, only 40% had one specifically for marketing and advertising services. To broaden your ecosystem, seek out agencies with diversity and inclusion at the core of their purpose, like We Are Rosie, The Joy Collective, and Diverse & Engaged. Partner with ADCOLOR, which champions diversity and inclusion in creative industries, and invite organizations like the National Urban League and Color of Change to have a seat at your table and have co-ownership in what you’re creating.

Stop Only Casting “Racially Ambiguous” Models

The focus on racially ambiguous and ethnically neutral models emerged in the early 2000s. As demographics in the U.S. began to shift, brands wanted to resonate with multicultural audiences — without alienating their general-market (a.k.a. white) audiences. Many brands, including Louis Vuitton, YSL Beauty, and H&M stores, intentionally focused on featuring models with racially indeterminate features, who were lighter skinned and perceived as less ethnic. What’s seen as desirable and appealing is a model who is neutral and not “too dark.”

And yet a community with significant buying influence continues to be ignored: Black consumers, who have $1.3 trillion in spending power. Some companies seem to understand this to an extent: After the killing of George Floyd, there was an uptick in the beauty industry in featuring darker-skinned models in social media. A study by Eyecue Insights of 70 beauty brands showed that, before the summer of 2020, only 13% of images showed darker-skinned models. In June 2020, darker-skinned models made up almost 25% of images. However, in July, that dropped to 20%. In August, 16%. Many brands have been trending toward featuring lighter-skinned models since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Stop casting racially ambiguous models. Intentionally cast and feature dark-skinned models and actors in your content and programming. Measure the impact consistently and evaluate your progress on a quarterly and annual basis. Brands have the power to shatter stereotypes by moving beyond featuring only light-skinned individuals.

Be Intentional About Product Shots

“We don’t have to worry about colorism in our social media content,” a senior marketing leader once said to me. “We only have shots of our jars,” he proudly proclaimed as he pulled up his brand’s Instagram feed.

Post after post, I saw white hands holding up jars. Holding ingredients in their white hands. Spreading product with a knife onto a sandwich. White hands pulling apart a deliciously gooey grilled cheese sandwich. White hands were the default; white hands were normative.

The lack of diverse and inclusive stock photography, especially when it comes to Black representation, is a challenge that brands constantly face. Be intentional about all product shots from the start, whether that’s a jar of peanut butter, a laptop, or a book. Don’t default to stock photography. Budget for the shots you need in advance and be intentional about including dark hands. Consider who’s behind the lens as well: Mandate that your agency partners include Black, indigenous, and people of color photographers in a request for proposal process.

Consumers are waiting to see what rebranding and new advertising campaigns will look like from brands that made promises to stop propagating colorism and perpetuating racism. Belief-driven buyers are becoming the new normal; more consumers want their brands to represent their values and be advocates for societal change. Marketers can either risk being left behind or embrace the responsibility to uphold their promises and challenge the industry standards.

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