Catching Unconscious Bias in Marketing

written by Candace Warner
2 · 23 · 21

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Including diverse perspectives in the workplace mitigates “blind spots” that could potentially ostracize customers and harm your brand.

At people3, Inc., unconscious bias training is one of our most requested workshops. While many are just becoming aware of these two words, unconscious bias has been trending within the diversity and inclusion space for several years now.

When we deliver these educational workshops, we often reveal the final analysis before delivering all the curriculum, and (spoiler alert) the results are always the same: We all have unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias consists of our mental shortcuts, the places our brains automatically go when presented with new people or information. We believe that you are not responsible for your first thought. However, you are responsible for your second thought, and you are most definitely responsible for your first action.

Despite being unable to completely eradicate these biases, we do have the power to mitigate them with practice. Sometimes that looks like course-correcting our own behavior. Other times, that looks like getting help from our friends, colleagues, family members, and neighbors.

So, where do we get these thoughts, these mental shortcuts, these unconscious biases?

Unconscious Bias is Learned through Socialization

As a sociologist who’s been a professor for 20 years and a diversity and inclusion consultant for ten years, I often talk about unconscious bias through the concept of socialization.

From a young age, all of us are socialized to have some form of bias. These biases come to us from various sources like the media and our caregivers, parents, siblings, friends, or peers. They are the unconscious assumptions about the world and how it works that we pick up along the way. We learn what behavior is “acceptable” and what is not. We learn who we think is safe and who we think is dangerous.

One of my favorite examples of this is to ask people if they believe crime is increasing or decreasing, and who they think is more likely to be the victim of a crime. Invariably, most people get it wrong. They assume crime is always high and that White women are more likely to be victims. But neither of these assumptions are true based on the data.

In short, the social influences we are exposed to in our formative years are responsible for those first “instinctive” or unconscious thoughts. Over time, these influences shape who we are as individuals—and ultimately influence our perceptions of others—good and bad. Collectively, these influences make up our unconscious biases.

American Demographics are Changing

It’s no secret that the demographics of the U.S. population are changing. In fact, Non-Hispanic White Americans are expected to be the minority in the United States by 2050. For marketers, this information is critical to note when addressing unconscious bias in your marketing strategy because the “public at large” (and ultimately your core customers) are rapidly becoming more diverse. To get a better idea of the current breakdown of U.S. demographics, check out these quick stats below:

  • 40% of the U.S. population identify as Non-White
  • 29% of the U.S. population identify as Non-Christian
  • 22% of the U.S. population do not speak English in their homes
  • 14% of the U.S. population are foreign-born
  • 12% of the U.S. population identify as having a disability
  • 7% of the U.S. population identify as Veterans
  • 4.5% of the U.S. population identify as LGBT

Each of these demographic groups may have a unique set of experiences that differs from the current U.S. majority population, that identifies as White, heteronormative, cis-gendered, English-speaking, middle-class, able-bodied, or other characteristics we consider the “norm.” This ultimately shapes how diverse consumers spend their dollars.

The advent of social media, for example, has amplified the concept of “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is a phenomenon where consumers boycott (and often bankrupt) companies that fail to acknowledge cultural differences or perpetuate stereotypes. This behavior is most prominent among Gen Z (20% of the U.S. population) and Millennials (22% of the U.S. population). Both of whom are historically the most progressive and racially diverse generations in U.S. history.

Imperative to a brand’s longevity is its ability to create culturally relevant marketing campaigns. These campaigns must resonate with multicultural, multi-lingual, under-represented, and often marginalized audiences. Thus, catching unconscious biases in your brand messaging, research, and product design before launching a new campaign is crucial to getting ahead. One of the most effective ways to do this is by diversifying teams in your workplace.

Diversifying Teams Gives a Voice to Underrepresented Audiences

At people3, we consistently drive home the value of diversifying teams to our clients.

Simply put – diverse teams (teams with various demographic identities) outperform homogeneous teams (teams with similar demographic identities) by a landslide. This is true all day, every day. But only if you manage diverse teams properly, and their perspectives are valued and heard. Diversity isn’t limited to racial or ethnic identity either. It also includes people with different life experiences, value systems, sexual orientations, religious beliefs, etc.

It may be tempting to hire the same “types” of people to foster a sense of workplace unity. But in the long run, the organization will not be as successful because it’s not leveraging diverse experiences. Homogenous teams often become stagnant over time because they lack insight into the nuanced attitudes, passion points, and pain points that drive purchase decisions in diverse communities.

We had a client that nearly launched a brand-destroying product because they hadn’t gotten any thoughts or perspectives from anyone other than their all White male colleagues, who happened to make up the bulk of the organization. Luckily, the client showed this product to people outside of the organization and stopped the product launch before it landed in the hands of the consumer. Thankfully, they realized how offensive the product would have been.

Again, diverse teams create better products and better service for your clients.

Case Study – Burt’s Bees 2020 Holiday Ad Campaign

A recent example of a failure to create culturally relevant ads can be seen in Burt’s Bees’ 2020 holiday ad campaign. In an attempt to capture “real life” families, the company posted an ad showcasing three families who appeared to be White (at people3, we are too well versed in the social construction of race to assume anyone’s racial or ethnic identity, but the perception was that the families were predominantly White) and one who appeared to be Black, donning the company’s new holiday pajama gear.

The problem arose with the depiction of the Black family, who, unlike the other three “nuclear” families, only featured a mother and child – without a father. The implication was that the ad perpetuated false stereotypes of Black families who lacked stable father figures in the home. Despite Burt’s Bees’ best attempts to explain this fiasco, their intent was far from the outcome. And the impact of how their customer base received the ad had costly repercussions.

Other companies like H&M, Gucci, Burger King, and Ancestry.com have also faced similar issues in recent years. Issues that could have been avoided if diverse voices and thought leaders had been invited to the decision-making table.

Key Takeaways

Including diverse perspectives in the workplace creates better business opportunities for companies to connect with diverse audiences. Diversity is also key to mitigating unconscious biases or “blind spots” in your marketing messages that can potentially ostracize customers and harm your brand.

We are not responsible for our first thoughts. But we can course-correct our second thoughts if we equip ourselves with the right tools. By including diverse perspectives in our decision-making processes, we can redirect ourselves and catch unconscious bias before we fall.

Candace Warner

Candace Warner, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of people3, Inc. People3 is a full-service diversity and inclusion consulting firm providing consulting services and educational workshops to organizations that want to leverage diverse teams and expand their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Dr. Warner is a sociologist with over 20 years of experience educating others on all things people and a ten year veteran in the D&I space.

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