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Marketing for Good: Can we challenge cultural stereotypes?

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Zumi Njongwe, Consumer Communications and Marketing Excellence Director, Nestlé East and Southern Africa Region

Marketing and communications is ever-evolving, shaped and led by creativity, reflecting the world around us. Over decades, this industry has both driven and reflected human experiences, telling stories that equally bring us to a tear or a guffaw in an instant. There have also been enough stories we have told, that do not tell the whole truth. These have been quick and anger or annoy many of us because they do not reflect the people at our workplaces, communities and the people consuming our brands. To that end, I am passionate about portraying equality as a normal way of life.

This is not so much a mind-blowing revelation as it is an acknowledgement of the role, I once played reinforcing stereotypes throughout my career in the past. In behavioural science, the concept of social norms touches on how we are shaped by what others have done and this affects how we look at the world as it can be a shortcut to making sense of the millions of signals our brains receive each day. Moving into different stages in my life, I have discovered some of the deeply held beliefs that perpetuate inequality, stereotypes and biases in the communication and advertising spaces. Reflecting on some of these discoveries, I am sometimes embarrassed to have been partisan in bringing them to life in all sorts of media.

Earlier in my career, the first strong biases I became aware of, were Eurocentric beauty standards as the norm that African women had to aspire to. These biases impacted how we simply defined our beauty, and the fallout is still with us today. The second instance was when I had my two beautiful children, a son and a daughter. I recognised how clothing, books, and children's entertainment had gender biases deeply entrenched in them. They tainted the way my children perceived their gender roles, and this was difficult to undo. In some ways, I am still confronted with this challenge regularly. Childhood biases are deeply rooted and take a disproportionately long time to unlearn, affecting future generations to come.

The last bias I will reference has been my experience as I entered my fabulous forties. I was reminded of the existence of ‘youth bias’ that permeates advertising – as we all fight to recruit and re-recruit new lucrative consumers into our portfolios. Somehow when you reach the age of 40, you are no longer part of the consumer audience at the centre of consideration. This is particularly poignant for women as the lens on beauty changes significantly, compared to our younger counterparts. This is why I believe in the power of inclusion - driving representation to change and shape the future we want as a society.

As marketers, we have a fundamental role to play in this regard. Brands can be and are usually shortcuts into parts of people identities. By representing people's identities in a conscious, deliberate way that can reconstruct the spaces in which they play - we can do our part to share the burden of addressing many of these social challenges. NESTLÉ CREMORA recently released a remake of the 'It's not inside, it's on top' ad. The advert was remade into five different versions with diverse casting, to shed light to what joy means to a new generation of South Africans. The casting reflects the diversity of our country, while opening conversations on inclusion.

Progressive portrayal is more than a question of representation but includes the depth of how we characterise people and situations in an authentic and meaningful way. I am still thriving to make up for transgressions from earlier in my career I and still have a long way to go. What I am clear about, is that there is no time for incremental changes anymore. The work done by the Unstereotype Alliance, and many organisations has never been more critical in driving just gender portrayal, given our levels of atrocious violence against women, children, and other marginalised communities in Africa. Over and above this, Kantar Global Monitor 2021 has also reported that 88% of consumers agree that not enough brands do a good job of representing people like themselves or their communities. They further share that only 6% of ads show people aged 65+ worldwide, while people live longer, with more substantial discretionary spending power than younger age groups. And finally, that at least 15% of the world population has some form of disability, but only 1% of ads featuring someone with a disability. Another study shared by dazed media shares that 2/3 of consumers care about racism, LGBTQI+ and gender issues, with 26% actively lobbying for visible change and more robust policies in this area. What then, are we saying about these communities when we create brand work that keeps them on the fringes of our societies?

Here are some considerations I would have told my younger marketing self that I hope others can find helpful:

  1.  Consider representation more broadly to show the wider spectrum of the communities we live in, through age, gender, points of view, beauty standards, non-traditional roles, sexual orientations, and class. We must do this even in societies where this is unacceptable. Instead of waiting for these societies to change before we act, we can adjust HOW we deal with cultural challenges.
  2.  Be conscious about the gaze or lens our consumers see our work. There can be nuances in the portrayal of certain groups by dominant groups who cannot identify with their lived experiences. I have needed help to understand how to portray differently-abled people from their perspective as this isn't a world, I inhabit every day. I have had to be careful of my own unconscious biases.
  3.  Reflect diverse consumers owning their own space and actions versus being permitted to be involved. I often think that for those in my daughter's generation who want to be married in future, it's unlikely that they will always wait to be asked for their hand in marriage but will instead be the drivers of this request. Imagine if we showed this generation what it is to drive the outcomes they want confidently and intentionally!
  4.  Finally, is the work moving the social conversations in your spheres of influence forward or at a minimum, doing no harm, or setting the prevalent causes back by decades.

We are all a part of the advocacy for change, whether we want to participate or not. Actively and consciously driving acceptance and transformation, we can be a powerful part of activism and build a better world, one consumer, one community, and one cause at a time. Not only is it good for our planet, but it is also good for business.