As the holidays return following a more distanced 2020 season, marketers are bringing back campaigns centered around gifting and gathering. Brands like Starbucks and Target are also putting diversity and inclusion at the center of their efforts, spotlighting purpose during a key marketing season for which togetherness is endemic.
These campaigns are being driven by changing consumer demands, but marketers must be mindful to make their work truly inclusive across a number of dimensions as they look to authentically engage consumers while avoiding problematic potholes, several industry experts told Marketing Dive.
"Brands are really starting to respond to that expectation that consumers have, which is if you're going to ask for me to belong in this brand, if you're looking for wallet-share in my purse, then I need for you as a brand to not only represent me in your efforts, but also recognize my individuality and how I want to show up, engage and spend money with your brand," said Kyla Jones, U.S. diversity strategist at agency Rapp.
Diversity and inclusion (D&I) have gained prominence in marketing and are often shorthand for two major types of representation: race or ethnicity and gender or sexuality. But to engage with consumers for whom D&I is a priority, brands must create holiday campaigns that work across a number of relevant dimensions, touching on different identities, including religion, family makeup, age and ability.
"If you're only showing race and ethnicity, you're really not diverse: you're just showing race and ethnicity. You have to show that intersectionality, of how people show up beyond just the color of their skin, or how they identify with a particular culture," Jones said.
Brands winning the holidays
Target gets high marks from several experts for its holiday campaign — its largest of the year — which was developed in partnership between the retailer's in-house shop, creative agency Mother and women-owned production companies Little Minx and Merman. Target also worked with media agency Essence to increase spending with diverse media partners, expanding the reach of a 30-second spot that shows a diverse cast come together for a wide range of holiday celebrations, from Thanksgiving and Friendsgiving to Christmas, Hanukkah and Diwali.
"They touched on so many different intersectional touch points … to further amplify that everyone can belong at Target," Jones said.
The ad's intersectionality feeds into the brand's overarching "What We Value Most Shouldn't Cost More" campaign by focusing on price and value to connect with the large swaths of consumers who are focused on budget consciousness during a holiday season that will again feel the effects of the pandemic, explained Karthik Easwar, associate teaching professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
"There's that commonality that you can speak to, especially when it comes to the functional and emotional needs of the consumer," Easwar said. "All those holidays — whichever religion and culture they originate from — are about community, love, togetherness, sharing and kindness, and those are things that we can speak to as marketers."
Multiple experts highlighted the need for brands to include persons with disabilities — a community that has been significantly marginalized throughout all of advertising — when crafting diverse holiday campaigns. Of particular import is considering red-green colorblindness, which affects about one in 12 men and one in 200 women and could wash out ads made in the colors most associated with Christmas.
"As marketers, our brains are conditioned to prioritize the mass market audience, which subconsciously marginalizes those with disabilities," Jones said. "Disability inclusion can't be a retrofit, it has to be a strategic priority for every brand campaign and not just around holiday seasons or cultural holidays."
Like Target, Starbucks is also focused on commonalities this year, continuing its gradual move away from putting Christmas at the center of its holiday campaigns by embracing the more secular concept of gifting as the theme. Along with the usual red and green cups, the chain will debut cups in a wintry lilac color, all of which include a blank space meant to resemble a gift tag.
Internal meets external
Starbucks has also ramped up its internal diversity while making its holiday marketing more inclusive. As part of its corporate strategy, the coffee chain has built out a framework of goals and commitments; a way to measure progress; and been transparent about the progress that is or isn't made, explained Matt Voda, CEO of marketing analytics and optimization firm OptiMine.
For other marketers, Starbucks exemplifies the need to make D&I priorities not just in advertising but throughout the company. Such efforts should cover a range of activities, including hiring and engagement practices; developing, promoting and sustaining diverse talent; and talking about D&I internally. Internal D&I also acts as a flywheel for better marketing campaigns: Diverse workplaces and marketing teams that bring different perspectives and experiences to the table can lead to more authentic, nuanced, accurate and sensitive efforts that resonate with a wider group of audiences.
"Consumers are much more savvy when it comes to feeling out what is authentic versus what is inauthentic and feels more like tokenism. So when you act, they also want to see that diversity, not just in your ad, but in your office," Easwar said.
To ensure inclusive campaigns from diverse companies resonate with consumers this holiday season, brands must take real action to connect with the folks they're trying to reach.
"If you're going to talk to these communities and invite them in the door to spend money with your brand, then there has to be a regenerative effort of you actually showing up in that community during the holiday season."
U.S. diversity strategist, Rapp
"If you're going to talk to these communities and invite them in the door to spend money with your brand, then there has to be a regenerative effort of you actually showing up in that community during the holiday season," said Rapp's Jones.
These boots-on-the-ground efforts could include food and clothing drives, or experiential activations that educate consumers about financial literacy and savings during the holidays. But perhaps no effort connects campaign to action better than Old Navy's, which is offering free "bootcamps" to increase to increase the number of diverse Santas as part of its "Happy ALL-idays" push.
By helping to widen the field of people who can portray Santa Claus, Old Navy is addressing a gap in representation, as less than 5% of professional Santas in the U.S. identify as people of color, while almost half of U.S. children under 15 identify as non-white, per data cited by the brand. Actions like those of Old Navy turn pleasant holiday ads into more than just "inspiration porn," Jones said.
"How are you actually getting that type of social impact — not just showing it through commercials and very pretty visuals — but taking that action to the streets into the people and actually putting it in their hands or in their space? It's more of that equitable and accessible piece that a lot of brands forget when it comes to doing D&I work," she said.
Facing controversy with courage
At the same time that brands are working to ensure their ads and actions resonate, they also must navigate the challenges of a polarized political and social climate where almost every brand action can be seen as divisive; the heightened emotional connection to the holidays only makes this more fraught. For example, since Starbucks began de-emphasizing Christmas in its holiday marketing, the chain has faced nearly annual controversies over its cup designs.
Experts stressed that brands that are making serious commitments to D&I can and should roll out inclusive holiday campaigns, ensuring marketing teams are aligned with corporate goals and can take risks and not shy away from approaches that will have more impact, OptiMine's Voda explained.
"Good, well-run companies who embrace this as a strategy set forth real objectives and goals, and the marketing team then can can align with those and be more courageous in taking those moves, knowing that if there is blowback or a market reaction that they're not gonna be left out to dry," Voda said.
It is difficult for companies to avoid hard discussions about D&I, even when not marketing around it, especially as consumers want to know where brands stand. But the key for marketers is standing by their campaigns, as long as they are consistent with the brand's values, mission, vision or goals.
"You might lose some consumers, you might win some consumers. But I think that that is okay, because as long as you're being honest and true about your intentions and how it's consistent with the rest of your firm, you're going to find the consumers that you want to be in longer-term consumer relationships with," Easwar said.
And despite controversy, consumers might find the products and value propositions too great to avoid, even if an ad shows a different kind of family or holiday than the one they celebrate. Historically, barely any ad accurately reflected a diverse consumers set — yet those consumers bought the products, he noted.
"Now we're seeing a different segment that might say, 'Hey, I don't like the way I'm seeing your depictions,' but if you still have a product that is effective and has good value, those consumers might still come into the marketplace and do business with you," Easwar said. "That's something that a lot of these different sub-segments of the American marketplace have been doing for decades.