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Authentic Representation: A Foundation For An Effective Marketing & Communications Strategy

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By: James Wheeler, Co-Founder of CIEDA https://wearecieda.org & Huluku – Authentic Representation in Digital Art Competition 

It was marketing visionary James Pilditch who said that ‘ignorance of markets is no new subject’. Back in 1969 he was referring to a design office in Paris creating a symbol for a Dutch company all around the letter Q for ‘quality’. Pilditch observed, no doubt with a wry smile, that in the Netherlands quality is spelt with a K (kwaleit). The point he was trying to make was that in order to be internationally successful, an organisation also had to be local.

James Wheeler, Co-Founder of, CIEDA & Huluku

Just as the marketers and designers of the 1970s needed to adapt to an ever increasingly globalised world, the similar paradigm shift is occurring today. Not only must marketers and communications specialists think both internationally and locally, but they also must think inclusively – a third dimension so to speak. 

Including By Design

Inclusive design is a term that you may well be familiar with. It’s going to be a big deal over the next decade as people begin to realise that inclusion and diversity does not just stop at fixing the gender pay gap. Eventually, diversity and inclusion will stop being their own defined concept and be absorbed into the concept of inclusive environments.

Inclusive design is not about designing something for everyone, or at least as many people as possible – that’s something known as universal design. Instead, inclusive design is about asking three questions – rather reminiscent of Lean’s 5 Why’s methodology.

  1. Who is excluded?
  2. Why are they excluded?
  3. What can we do to include those excluded?

For a commercially minded organisation, a useful fourth question could also be ‘how can we innovate and increase our revenue from it?

The potential difficulty here is that what works for one excluded group, say working class women in rural Manila won’t necessarily apply directly to working class women in the poor areas of Washington DC. There will be similarities in the answers to the three questions which can be applied with some confidence but always new learning points to extract and understand and its these that make the difference between being able to include and therefore break any cycles of exclusion. This is where James Pilditch’s local/international comparison comes in. 

The central benefit to thinking inclusively is that it opens new markets, new product designs and new opportunities that the neuro-homogonous ‘Victorian’ thinking of the past would have prevented. This is a primary reason why neurodiversity in your organisation’s business functions like design, operations and your C-Suite is essential and is a popular topic. Without it, inclusive design and the associated innovation and clear opportunity for increasing revenues is much harder to achieve. 

Think back to the last time you felt excluded. It’s likely that memory generates a feeling of exclusion. How did it make you feel? Do you still think about it?

When groups or individuals get into a cycle of exclusion this feeling grows and spirals to other touchpoints that might not have been the original source. Because exclusion is often cyclical, reinforced by a myriad of behaviours and incidents, it is necessary for companies and organisations to make the first steps in breaking any cycles they can identify – the management consultant’s low hanging fruit.

Authentic representation is a really easy way for an organisation to be more inclusive both internally and externally, it’s a neat way of inviting people in, and it helps to break up cycles of exclusion. 

Authentic Representation By Design

On a basic levelauthentic representation (or AR) in marketing and communications is about not making assumptions and about managing any biases when you are shaping a project or creating the actual design.

But it’s also about preparation.

It won’t be long before every client and internal management team will be asking for authentic and inclusive content – each and every time. This inclusive content will eventually form the foundation of every strategy, at least until good design becomes just design and bad design is a thing of the past. Design, marketing and communications teams should be asking now whether in Pilditch’s words ‘we are ready to serve their new needs, have we the competence, the resources and the outlook they need’.

The availability of resources aspect is key to this question.

CIEDA’s Huluku competition is not only trying to inspire creators to make their digital art more representative, but also to develop the quality and volume of resources for organisations to use too. Authentic representation in the movies and in photography is much more common but this doesn’t help when organisations want to use more illustrations and digital art from stock libraries in their projects.

Huluku was born out of a recent UK government scandal where a COVID-19 poster was created which featured four domestic scenes each domiciled in little blue houses. The first featured a man, a woman, and a cat. The man was shown dominating the sofa with his arm around the women. The next three showcased various domestic scenes like cleaning and family care – all featuring a female figure doing the domestic, likely unpaid, work. It illustrated perfectly how negatively stereotyping the role of women can impact on the effectiveness and relevance of marketing campaigns. The success of this example hinged solely on the use of digital art.

The principal issue was not that the illustrator went out of their way to create these negative stereotypes but that the ‘authentic representation’ mindset wasn’t present nor was there the volume of quality and respectful content which could be used for commercial and editorial purposes.

It is likely the design team responsible were limited by the resources available, created a design which wasn’t fit for purpose and that causes a risk management headache. The COVID-19 emergency could hide some of the damage but a corporation in business as usual would not be able to shake off the error so easily.

In short, the lack of inclusive resources created a vast and internationally visible reputational risk for the UK government which had not been picked up by the content creators themselves nor by the end client. 

Action By Design

Inclusion and authentic representation are issues that have probably been around since the dawn of time in some form or another and is not, as the historian Simon Sharma puts it ‘some contemporary piety of the woke’. Like the energy transition and human caused climate change, they have become mainstream activities for everyone, everywhere – safe to talk about and pragmatic to put into practice.

Designers, marketers and communications teams need to take a look at available resources now before they are caught out and unable to meet the needs of their clients or internal teams.

C-Suite and business leaders, meanwhile, need to look to authentic representation as a remarkably easy step on their organisation’s inclusion and diversity journey. One that will yield significant advantages and benefits whilst only having to do the right thing – surely innovation at its most efficient. If these decision makers doubt that the designers, marketers or the comms team are up to date or have enough resources to do the job then it is still early enough to act.

CIEDA and Huluku can inspire and encourage the current and next generations to create authentic digital art, but it still needs to utilised by appearing in the company brochure, be a banner on a busy website or fill out pages in a magazine.

Authentic representation is going mainstream. Ready?

 

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