by Erna George (@edgeo23) We all know South Africa has a highly diverse consumer base, yet the marketing and advertising industries’ focus on building diverse thought and inspiration is still too slow. There are still too many similar agency profiles and responses, and people still use friends to conduct work, not because of credentials for a particular task (fit for purpose) but because they’re known entities. Breaking into this industry is a challenge but so is changing it.

It doesn’t mean a single or one-dimensional fix; it must be addressed from all angles.

Note: I wrote this before the explosion on Black Lives Matter but it would probably look strange for me not to comment on it in a column talking to diversity. This column clearly focuses beyond race and, in my view, brands that comment on #BlackLivesMatter should tread carefully for reasons below. Supporting the right causes is admirable but only if you can do it well and with clarity that you are 100% in the right in all of how you behave and operate. 

  1. Societal and political issues are always challenging for brands and needs to be handled with great care. Beware the total context — you must understand the scenario context and detail and you will need to articulate the message carefully so it doesn’t appear that you’re just jumping on the bandwagon for a platform that’s getting attention
  2. It must be relevant to your brand — its proposition, role or purpose in society and the context of the story you’re telling
  3. Most importantly, only do it if your house is in order. If commenting on Black Lives Matter, then ensure you truly live this ideal ie diversity is part of your team/business approach and values. If not, don’t use it as an opportunistic play for your brand.
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Aspects of diversity still have to be a consideration in SA

I managed to convince a young and very smart black candidate to move to Cape Town to join my marketing team, once upon a time, from Jozi (no small feat, given the Jozi vibe). He came in and shook up thinking, especially with agencies. On about the third revert with one of the agencies, he said something along the lines of: “Have you guys ever looked at what outdoor life looks like for young black people in Joburg because it isn’t mountain climbing and walking on beaches — and, by the way, it isn’t only soccer?”

Where’s the balance between aspirational and relevance or connecting on a platform of understanding? I hope we’re moving on from having to represent each of the racial groups in every TV ad or showing gender in the most-typified ways. There must be representation of diverse people (race, gender and more) in culturally relevant situations that consumers can connect with. To deliver this in a non-derogatory or contrived way, we need people on teams in our business and agencies who have a deep understanding and appreciation of a multiplicity of cultural nuances and have diverse teams who are keen to truly understand your brand’s market.

A blend of global and local is another growing aspect of diversity

The world is getting smaller, and recognising when to showcase a global awareness with a local scenario will help key brands. Showcasing other customs or societies in your communication without an innate understanding of these will come off as fraudulent as societies blend more than ever. This is important for lifestyle and aspirational brands which overtly express a balance of global and local nuances. It’s also important for those brands looking to global for trends or new waves. The reason this is important is that we need to balance global and local inspirations.

The keyword is inspiration — not duplication. So please don’t tell marketers that since veganism or gluten-free is mainstream in Europe, it must be so in SA (and I’m not suggesting anything wrong with veganism or reducing gluten). Being ahead of the curve doesn’t mean force-fitting a curve when all things are heading in the opposite direction.

In this situation in SA, it might be preferable to consider ranges that have a variant for vegans or target a niche (and probably premium) sector but don’t imagine we are Europe or that SA can be turned into this. Identity which markets South African product lifecycles, behaviours or interests typically follow by category, and then watch, test and borrow. Tread carefully as getting this blend of social or ethnic shades wrong can create an unforgivable circumstance for the brand or failed launches.

What’s most critical is that you don’t imagine yourself as the consumer

You’re not a proxy for the consumer, especially if you’re distanced from the consumer set or the product has never been part of your point of reference. A typical situation arose recently when I had to taste-test Maltabella in a benchmarking exercise. While my sister loved what she called “brown porridge”, it was never part of my diet.

When you work on a brand, please immerse yourself in it but don’t consider yourself a loyalist or expert. When was the last time — or have you ever? — tasted corned meat, used roll-on or cooked with Bisto? If you work on a brand that makes products that were never part of your basket, you can’t rely on your tastebuds or experience to judge changes, manage quality or product-delivery profile. Create a panel in your business of users or get a consumer panel, otherwise don’t be surprised when changes don’t resonate. Stress-test your connection to the product test, even if you understand the brand well.

An article by Monique Bell in Adweek (“Advancing Diversity in Advertising Starts in the Classroom”; paywall) suggests that this starts with education: “[When students] of all backgrounds become more knowledgeable and mindful about racial representation and related practices, they will begin their marketing careers endowed with an appreciation for diversity and inclusion. Eventually, the marketing communications that they produce can shape consumer behavior (particularly among underrepresented consumers), which will translate into engagement and sales.”

Respecting and embracing diversity is more important than ever

This is a key introduction but, as some of us can’t go back to the classroom, there are other considerations we must take on to balance and bring the right level of diversity to our marketing world.

  1. Build diverse teams and be served by diverse partners who commit to knowing your consumer market in depth
  2. In-depth understanding is not a once-off; keep immersed and stay open to ensure relevance
  3. Rely on your consumers, even if you’re part of the target market — you’re not every consumer

Respecting and embracing diversity is more important than ever — age, experience, interests, ethnic and culture. Explore and honour to win.


Erna GeorgeAfter starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her regular  “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.

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One reply on “Fair Exchange: Diversity in marketing critical for growth, positive outcomes”

  1. Can I add the fourth point regarding diversity:

    4. Appoint a black owned and managed agency as well. If there’s value in a diverse team within a white agency, there’s even more value with a black owned agency especially if the product/service is aimed at the predominately black consumers. This will also go a long way in diversifying the industry and not just the Multinationals and white owned agencies. Not to mention the value chain down stream…

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