Yes to diversity marketing, no to social washing

More and more customers are expecting diversity from companies. Diversity marketing therefore offers enormous potential for brands – as long as the campaigns are credible. Our story explores how that can be achieved.

Diversity and marketing: the dos and don’ts
Image: © Firn / AdobeStock

Stop “pinking it and shrinking it”

Women love makeup and shoes; men are all about cars and DIY: some gender stereotypes are still lingering today. And ads are perpetuating those misconceptions. Product makers often use traditional roles and stereotypes in their marketing to address different target groups. The problem: there is a fine line between targeted communication and gender-discriminatory advertising. “Pink it, shrink it” – in other words adapting products to female consumers by turning them pink and making the packaging smaller – is just one example of gender marketing gone wrong.


Diversity marketing wants to put an end to that – in favor of more diversity.

And there’s a good reason behind it: a growing number of customers are becoming more aware of diversity and expect brands to do the same. The younger Gen Z and Gen Y target groups, who are extremely promising for many brands, are particularly enlightened on the topic. Diversity marketing therefore offers companies an excellent way to appeal to those target groups – when it’s done well, that is.

What does successful diversity marketing look like? Two practical examples

If you’re a brand wanting to implement a marketing strategy that includes different target groups, you need to be credible. One example is Gillette’s commercial “The Best Men Can Be” from 2019, which was mainly directed at men, but also aimed to challenge stereotypes and toxic masculinity.

The ads created by NYX Cosmetics are another example. For some years now, the label’s campaigns have been targeting not only women, but a wider group of people, as this ad shows.

Barilla – how not to do it

However, companies need to be careful not to let diversity marketing turn into social washing. Claiming to act morally and diversely, but ultimately lacking substance, which companies frequently make the mistake of doing, can significantly damage a brand’s reputation. On the flip side, not paying attention to diversity at all is just as big a mistake. In 2013, pasta producer Barilla showed the consequences of that kind of attitude, when the company’s chairman, Guido Barilla, said the following in a live interview: “I would never do a commercial with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect, but because we don’t agree with them.” It’s not hard to see why this statement caused an international scandal. Scores of customers, particularly Twitter users, turned their backs on the brand using the hashtag #boycottbarilla. In response, Barilla apologized multiple times. To repair the damage done to its image, the label then did a U-turn: in 2016, it recruited American lesbian YouTuber Hannah Hart as its “Pasta Girl”; and in 2019, it presented its pasta in pink packaging and invited famous drag queens to the table for an ad in collaboration with the Italian fashion line GCDS.

Worth a read: Sports gear giant Adidas caused a stir in February 2022 with a controversial diversity campaign, sparking a discussion about what falls under female empowerment and what borders upon being distasteful. Read more about it in this DMEXCO story.

3 tips for successful diversity marketing

The Barilla scandal teaches us that good communication is key in marketing. If you want your campaigns to hit the mark with your target group, you should take on board the following three tips:

#1 Know your target group

As a first step, you should always thoroughly analyze your target group. Who are you wanting to address? Would it make sense to segment the target group? Or do you need to develop a campaign that includes different target groups? For example, if you’re developing a campaign to launch a new line of period underwear, your main focus will be on female customers, whereas children’s toys or a new dating app will require brands to communicate more neutrally and refrain from gender marketing.

#2 Set the right focus

Once you’ve defined your target group, you need to find the right strategy for your diversity marketing. Are you mainly targeting men? If so, use your ad to challenge the concept of toxic masculinity. Are you marketing products for women? Then celebrate femininity as a strength and dispel the devoted housewife cliché. But if your product is of interest to a wide variety of people, you can and should ask yourself to what extent you could avoid focusing on men or women. Maybe a gender-neutral approach would be more appropriate.


#3 Be inclusive

Diversity marketing campaigns land well when they’re genuine. To achieve authenticity, it helps to generally give the issue of diversity more attention in your company. For example, it can pay off to hire diversity officers and raise employee awareness of diversity through training sessions and workshops.

Ready to make a difference?

Diversity marketing is in touch with the times. However, marketing strategies promoting diversity need to be well planned. If companies don’t want to be accused of half-hearted social washing, they should sustainably adapt to the calls for more diversity. For brands that seriously want to make a difference, that will provide a good basis for credible diversity marketing that appeals to the relevant target group.