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Why Cultural Innovation Is the Next Frontier of Inclusive Marketing


Marketers have now spent considerable time discussing why inclusivity is the future of marketing. By now, the term has become a staple part of the business lexicon. Brands are slowly evolving, with inclusive messaging no longer being confined only to isolated cultural moments.

Yet a glaring contradiction exists: while diverse representation in ads is steadily increasing, diversity in leadership is shrinking. Think pieces on inclusive marketing recycle mostly the same maxims: be "authentic" in storytelling, listen to your customers, and so on.

Conspicuously missing is a sustained and intentional focus on the social responsibility of advertisers. After all, it wasn't long ago that brands pledged to be catalysts for cultural change and direct problem-solvers for societal issues.

This isn't mere nostalgia for the past. Research shows customers continue to expect no less. According to Edelman's 2023 Trust Barometer, globally consumers want more social engagement from brand-driven businesses and many consumers globally say businesses are not doing enough to address climate change and economic inequality. And, according to Weber Shandwick, 82 percent of U.S. consumers still overwhelmingly want companies to take a public stance on human rights, with 73 percent wanting businesses to speak on climate change and 72 percent — on racism.

This focus on tangible social change, however, has waned in the conversation. The industry is faced with the question of what's next after the question of "why inclusivity is important" is exhausted.

Better representation is a start, but as we should know by now, it's hardly enough. The true challenge for conscious marketers lies in wielding marketing's considerable cultural influence on concrete changes in societal norms.

But how? By understanding the brand's role in cultural issues and judicially linking inclusivity and equity with innovative thinking in marketing campaigns, more brands can begin to deliver practical solutions that not only benefit the bottom line but work to solve real-world issues.

Discover new untried approaches to longstanding issues in your category.
The beauty industry has long been a bastion of unrealistic and exclusionary beauty standards. What's particularly challenging is that stereotypes get internalized. More inclusive representation can be helpful, but it only scratches the surface of dismantling deeply ingrained cultural norms. To make a meaningful impact, brands need to do more than pay lip service to diversity; they must actively disrupt harmful cultural narratives.

Ulta Beauty is one example. The brand is going beyond mere surface-level representation. Inspired by its associates' observations of customers' negative self-talk, Ulta has launched The Joy Project, a targeted campaign to enhance consumer well-being and joy. In partnership with renowned author Mel Robbins, Ulta is training its 53,000 associates to identify and combat negative self-talk in both themselves and shoppers. This offers marketers a few lessons in inclusivity and cultural innovation.

For one, acknowledging past wrongs is vital, but the future demands action. Ulta is setting a new standard by training its workforce to identify and dismantle self-deprecating thought patterns. In doing so, the brand is redefining retail by addressing a deeper issue and making self-acceptance an active part of the shopping experience. This shifts inclusivity from being just an image on a billboard to becoming an impactful part of the customer experience.

Marketers can take note: To make a genuine cultural impact, brands must use innovation and ingenuity to weave inclusivity into every layer of their business operations.

Leverage your brand's unique strengths to become part of a solution.
In a bold move to combat book censorship, this month Penguin Random House is launching its Banned Wagon Tour — a clever spin on the "bandwagon" effect. The initiative aims to distribute free copies of banned books, including seminal works on racism and queerness, through states like Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas. Created in collaboration with the Freedom to Read Foundation, Pen America, and Little Free Library, the tour also plans to stock banned titles in Little Free Libraries along the route.

So, what does the brand accomplish besides distributing a few free book copies along the way? By aligning itself with organizations committed to intellectual freedom, Penguin Random House is no longer just a book publisher. This assumes the role of a defender of democratic freedoms that lovers of books tend to cherish.

Having identified an urgent issue at the intersection of its category genre and wider culture, the brand channeled its resources to not only amplify the conversation but also to take concrete action — by hitting the road in the South, taking legal action against censorship, and supporting those on the frontlines: authors, teachers, and librarians.

And here's the critical part: Penguin Random House isn't merely aligning itself with a random cause; it is leveraging its brand's core competency — publishing — to drive the conversation to the forefront.

This is an inclusive innovation in its most potent form: a strategic synergy between brand identity and real social impact that both elevates the brand and important causes for the people.

Cultural innovation is a new imperative for inclusive marketing.
Marketing has an urgent need for fresh perspectives — not just for understanding the meaningful role that brands can play in cultural change but for taking real-world action. If the slow rate of industry change in the last three years reveals anything, it's that we can't solve longstanding, overdue problems with the same ways of thinking that brought us here in the first place.

It's often believed, for example, that inclusivity leads to innovation in business. This is, of course, true: Research shows that diverse and inclusive businesses see higher rates of innovation and productivity. But if brands want to make a meaningful impact in the lives of their audiences, innovation must become the cornerstone of inclusive marketing, not an afterthought — or maybe an eventual result.

Marketers need new tools and frameworks for understanding culture, and at its simplest, that's exactly what innovation is: a new way of looking at enduring problems.

This starts with investing in cultural intelligence. Brands need to deeply understand present-day issues shaping their customers' lives and values to identify how the brand's existing strengths can evolve into actual solutions. If inclusivity is, indeed, the future of marketing, as we like to believe, then cultural innovation must be the fuel that powers it.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel is a cultural theorist, strategist, and social critic. Currently a cultural intelligence lead at Reddit, she is the author of Cultural Intelligence for Marketers: Building an Inclusive Marketing Strategy (Kogan Page; March 2024).