Why representation matters for brands too

Representation has become the buzzword of 2019. The Unmistakables share how brands can use visual representation to tap into previously overlooked audiences, and consequently enact meaningful change for people of marginalised identities.

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Nov 01, 2019
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The concept of ‘representation’ has become the buzzword of 2019. We constantly hear about how pivotal representation is to championing diversity and inclusion - yet we rarely see this put into practice in a meaningful way. The images brands use are often sourced from online stock photo databases, where you will be met by a homogenous group of photos featuring the same ‘typecast’ people. In a world that is becoming increasingly globalised and diverse, brands need to be even more culturally sensitive about making representation authentic. Using relevant stock images is one way businesses can begin to implement this into their marketing and comms.

[Source: Lou Jasmine for The Unmistakables 'Despora' Collection 2019]

Why does Representation matter?

Representation may seem like a new ‘D&I’ term, however the concept behind it is rooted in something very simple: people respond positively to seeing people like themselves represented. Call it ‘like me bias’ or simply the desire to feel belonging, it is part of a very human instinct leftover from evolution, to feel safe and protect ourselves from danger. It is also why marketers have been using photography as a communication tool for decades: it breathes life into still products and creates familiarity in a way typography or branding doesn’t. 

If brands continue to rely on stock imagery that predominently features white, able-bodied and cis-het (cisgender and heterosexual), they will consequently distance themselves from the massive purchasing power to be found in minority groups. We’ve previously talked about how brands would be losing out on the UK’s Sikh pound, which is worth £7.63bn; the LGBTQ+ pink pound which is worth £6bn; and the purple pound of people with disabilities, their families and caregivers, which is collectively worth £249bn in the UK. 

The images we use help define brands, and now that equality, inclusion and diversity have become common terminology, they have a new opportunity for growth. By including people from typically under-represented backgrounds in their imagery they can reach an even wider audience. 

More and more consumers are expecting brands to not only embrace these principles, but become active allies in championing marginalised rights. According to the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand report, two out of three consumers are now ‘Belief-Driven Buyers’ worldwide. These are people who choose to switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on their societal stances. Furthermore, the study demonstrated that peer-to-peer brand advocacy was by far the most powerful tool for success, outperforming endorsement from celebrities, CEOs and journalists. A brand’s stance on societal issues like under-representation drives both purchase intent and consumer-to-consumer advocacy for the brand.  

[Source: Fenty Beauty Campaign]

Who's modelling the model?

These expectations are being set by a wider phenomenon called the “Fenty Effect”: that’s right, a social movement named after Rihanna’s brands Savage Fenty and Fenty Beauty. The launch of her own makeup line with 40, and now 50 shades available, completely shook the foundations of the makeup industry. People of all shades finally found colours that were tonally accurate and relatively accessible, which put pressure on cosmetic brands to follow suit by providing visible representation that matches their globally diverse audiences. 

Rihanna has set a precedent that will shift every industry worldwide, and providing visual representation might feel like a small step towards equality but it is a necessary step on a wider journey to inclusion. Unsurprisingly, the terms ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’, and ‘diverse representation’, as search trends, have increased in popularity over the last five years. Consumers are now demanding that businesses have better D&I practices, and embed inclusion into their holistic communications.

[Source: Lou Jasmine for The Unmistakables 'Despora' Collection 2019]

How can brands authentically represent minorities?

Using stock photo galleries like Broadly’s ‘The Gender Spectrum Collection’ or our ‘Despora Collection(mild favouritism here) are a first step towards creating authentic representation. The key to curating meaningful diverse visual representation comes from a desire to genuinely understand the nuances of each minority group. It’s exactly why we created our own Stereotypes study: to unthink our preconcieved notions of British Muslim identity. Tapping into these insights and data allow us to address minority audiences individually rather than lumping them into one homogenous ‘other’ group. 

To avoid being tokenistic, brands must unthink their biases about each respective demographic internally before putting out ‘diverse’ external communications. Unlocking the ‘difference dividend’ is pivotal to authentically championing marginalised identities, and using diverse visual representation is the first step to capturing this overlooked audience. 

If you enjoyed reading this, check out our first unmistakable character profile of trans muslim activist and Despora model, Sabah Choudrey, to read about how accurate representation is meaningful to them here.


Go to the profile of The Unmistakables

The Unmistakables

We are an award-winning culture and communications consultancy made up of minorities. Box-ticking is not what we’re here for, though. We’re here to help organisations to unleash mutual opportunities from what we call ‘the minority mindset’.

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