Tahmina Begum | Contributing Writer | Monday, 25 September 2017

The Diversity Checklist: How Brands Get It Wrong And Right

The Diversity Checklist: How Brands Get It Wrong And Right

The Debrief: From Munroe Bergdorf to Kendall Jenner, brands don't seem to be able to get it right when they try to play politics. Diversity is not a trend, nor is it about selling stuff...it's a necessary part of modern life

Recently, mixed-race transgender model and activist, Munroe Bergdorf was fired from L’Oreal’s #YoursTruly campaign, less than 48 hours after her ambassadorship was announced. This was due to Bergdorf speaking out about systemic racism and how white people can benefit from racist structures, even if they are not ‘actively’ racist. 

The question that lingers is how much do large brands like L'Oreal really care about 'championing diversity' if they fire an activist for speaking out against racism? How deep are their attempts at being inclusive? And, whose values are they protecting?

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Bergdorf’s firing and the furore surrounding it didn’t not occur in a bubble. In a post-trump era in which we have seen Neo-Nazi rallies take place, we have also seen black and brown women coming forward online and off to express themselves and stand up for what they know to be right. Think about how quickly L’Oreal was called out by the likes of Clara Amfo? Or how long it took for Pepsi to be forced to apologise for their abhorrent Kendall Jenner advert?

Indeed, at the same time hashtags such as #browngirlmagic are on fire, and women of colour now glow on the pages of glossy magazines where they were once conspicuous by their absence so much so that you can practically hear the words *melanin magic* when you turn the page. You could be forgiven for thinking ‘Ok, this is mainstream culture, this is progression, bye Nazis’. And though sometimes, even as a woman of colour, it feels as though as a society we are moving forward, what is also second nature is to be sceptical when large brands choose to switch on representation. Because well, why now? 

Founder and designer of Weruzo, a luxury ethical and sustainable fashion brand fostered in Nigerian roots, Chinasa Chukwu also questions this sudden push on diversity. ‘Brands like MAC have historically included people left out of conversations, such as their project for AIDs. When brands like L'oreal jump on a bandwagon - this is not to negate what they’re doing - but to go from zero to 50 models.  It is for capitalist intentions, they are doing it for the money’. 

One argument to understand why an influx of brands have chosen to be more 'diverse' in this shaky political climate, is that large companies have always tried to dip their toes into the shallower pools of activism, so they a) do not appear to be the big bad money making wolf and b) look cool. 

Speaking out is the new sexy and sexy sells. This is not to dismiss the people who have been given the spotlight by brands like L’Oreal but to remember that it’s important to remember that most large companies just want a digestible campaigner as a token to say they have kept up with the trend of being 'diverse'.

Another symptom of this is is that retail website Boohoo produced a campaign called All Girls and launch a short film showcasing no plus-size models, no trans models, no South Asian, indigenous and Latinx faces, no disabled bodies and frankly, a lack of variety within their call for diversity. Boohoo are ‘expanding’ the campaign to feature over a hundred women who tick the diversity checklist in their eyes, but why are campaigns like #YoursTruly or All Girls, ones which pussyfoot around the idea of diversity? Surely if you’re going to do a campaign based on being inclusive - do it properly. Do not wait for your consumers to educate you. 

Pepsi, L’Oreal, Boohoo are not the first brands who have attempted to capitalise on socio-political movements celebrating unity nor will they be the last. Coca Cola’s iconic advert 'I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke' in 1971, showed a wide range of people singing 'I'd like to teach the world to sing / In perfect harmony'. The same year the India, Pakistan and now Bangladesh border war happened and the Pentagon Papers revealed the American government’s involvement in the Vietnam war. In the same verse finished with the words 'I'd like to buy the world a Coke / And keep it company / That's the real thing', were also sung by a variety of ethnicities, a real blueprint on how large companies have profited through activist advertising without helping the cause. Because truly, what is a Coke, Pepsi or any other sign of Western rituals when socialising going to help? 

The problem is ‘these huge brands that have so much influence do not have any or enough people of colour making the decisions’, states Candice Williams, Senior Marketing Executive at Vintage Books and Founder of Guardian and 4th Estate Short Story Prize. ‘Not in the brand meetings, writing the advertising briefs, and definitely not in the boardroom. If there were, we wouldn’t have Kendall Jenner spudding a police officer with a can of Pepsi to stop race riots or a brand like L’Oreal firing the admirable Munroe Bergdorf for simply speaking out and presenting actual facts’.  

Another reason, of course, for all of this is that millennials, who grew up online, are more discerning and vocal than any group of consumers before them. Providing three shades of concealer only just won’t cut it anymore. This is a generation who came of age post 9/11, post Arab spring, post-Brexit, are more open to an intersectional conversation where it concerns feminism. They are also navigating fourth wave feminism which has told them this is the time for them to be individuals and speak out on the matters they care about (especially) online whilst also remembering third feminist wave ideals of thinking about other women - which then transfers into being a young woman active in the age of activism. 

As a brand, simply to keep up with globalisation you cannot ignore millions of women. Take the recent American Vogue cover with seven models emblazoned behind the words ‘Women rule!’ Two ‘light-skinned’ models, one mixed race model, a slightly ‘plus size’ model were employed as a way to show the world what was now expected. Fashion designer, Chinasa Chukwu examines that ‘It is as though they request ten models, most can be white but then they look for one black model. Got that? Great! Then they interchange South East Asian and East Asian models to cover the continent of Asian and great! ‘We’ve covered the spectrum!’.’

Yet the American Vogue cover did not cover the spectrum. It was tokenistic in that it selected women who were by Vogue’s standards 'ethnic' or 'alternative' but these models still fit the mould in what’s considered beautiful. There weren't any dark skin models, anyone with coarse hair, no disabilities or a range of ethnicities. The cover still sufficed in being non-offensive, offensive being anything which can go under the umbrella of Eurocentric beauty standards. American Vogue understood that slightly brown women are in and capitalised on that. No needle was pushed forward for women who have historically been ostracized from what constitutes as being beautiful because American Vogue did not do this for them. Uplifting the women who may have bought that copy for representation purposes is a bonus; profiting from seeming progressive was the real goal. 

After having genuine intentions to make products for women of colour, brands need to be willing to put in the financial commitment through time says Tahlia Gray. Founder of Sheer Chemistry, a brand which caters to every nude in hosiery, expands on this vicious cycle of large brands making diversity into a trend especially when there are no continued efforts. 

'What we’ve seen in the past are companies like L'Oreal and others increase their range and it is celebrated. Everyone is happy and after a mere six months - the darkest two shades are not selling and they remove those. It needs a year or two to simply to give consumers the chance to try it as well as giving access and trust. Sometimes we might go to an ethnically dense area to find the right product as it won’t be stocked in zone 1 or 2 so I’ll have to travel away from central, away from where diversity is. Discontinuing [darker colours] is not reflective of the market.' 

This has been singlehandedly showcased by the initial reaction to Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line launching with forty foundation shades, ninety-one variations within the collection and one lip gloss which fits all. The core of the new makeup collection had nothing to do with activism as much as it had to do with making sure that all the products could be used universally. There is no charity, no bigger picture but transparency resulting in the two darkest shades being sold out everywhere days after it’s release and breaking records by profiting more than its $10 million investment. Fenty Beauty had a diversity checklist but instead of using one model as the face of at least two different continents, the list is proudly diverse and if anything will continue to expand in 2018 instead of being treated like a fad. 

Though Gray states she is not dismissing any brands who have not been traditionally inclusive but that we, the consumers have the buying power. Chukwu agrees, as when I ask her what the future for diversity is and if it is a trend - one which all the women above have hoped it would not be - the answer is that though consumers now expect diversity, brands will only go as far we, the customers will push them. 'In large companies, there is so much bureaucracy, they don’t care that much... We have to continuously hold them accountable'. 

Senior Marketing Executive Candice Williams explains when producing her own campaigns, targeting bloggers, and enlisting participants in book consumer insights and research, she actively searches for a range of women. Designer Chinasa Chukwu also says when seeking ‘ethnic models’ - that’s what they’re called, modelling and casting agencies shall still send over who they want and it always seems more difficult to find ethnic models - or even spark a conversation about it. 

When I called the top five casting and modelling agencies in London, all five were happy to answer questions around casting on the phone - especially as London Fashion Week was in a few days time. However, when I mentioned the word 'diversity', phones were slammed shut and even 'no honey' was exclaimed before one call cut off. It seems as though no one wants to tackle the problem head on and fix it - the main reason why street casting agency: Anti-Agency or Nii Agency - a new look at what it means to be a male is doing so well. Out with the old mentality, in with the new. 

Instead of making diversity a trend or using a not-so-thorough-checklist, brands should either start to understand the consumers they have been ignoring or in this case, through paid research as Candice Williams reminds us: ‘You wouldn’t bring someone in to update your servers and ask them to do it for free, yet brands are still expecting people of colour to educate them on how to reach audiences that they’re failing to do on their own’.

You might also be interested in:

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If You're Offended By The Idea Of White Privilege Then You're Part Of The Problem 

Follow Tahmina on Instagram @tahminaxbegum 

Tags: Race