In this inaugural issue of The Green Note, we could have soft-balled it with a discussion of brand safe advertising techniques, or that One Weird Trick to Get More Facebook Likes, or some other nonsense clickbait.

We won’t be covering either of those topics. Not this year. Instead, we’re devoting this issue to inclusive marketing.

Why should marketers be focused on inclusivity? First, and indisputably the most important reason, is because it’s the right thing to do. In a distant second, because it’s also good for the bottom line.

As brand marketers, we have a responsibility to our customers to portray humanity fairly (if you are more interested in an unfair portrayal, you should go into political marketing.) We are chronicling the human experience by shining light on our beauty, our flaws, and our needs. The stories we tell should be truthful, and the truth is that humanity everywhere is diverse in ways beyond just skin tone.

But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a step back. We should clear the air about a few misconceptions people have in defining the concept of inclusive marketing. So maybe it’s easier to start this conversation by highlighting what it is not.

  • Inclusive marketing is not some political hot potato, or a “deep state” conspiracy to inject political correctness into marketing. It’s not about politics.
  • It’s also not (just) about diversity. You don’t get an Inclusivity Gold Star by licensing a stock photo of a diverse family to use in your social media ad. Inclusive marketing is not about checking a box.
  • It’s not a special campaign or a side effort. It doesn’t require an additional marketing budget.

So, what is it really? Inclusive marketing refers to the story, people, and processes that enable underrepresented groups to connect with your brand. Marketing which considers skin tone, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, body type, ethnicity, language, religion, physical or cognitive ability, socio-economic status, or some intersection of these and other characteristics, is marketing which can be considered inclusive. Those are the traits that start to tell the story of the human experience — the things which cannot always be represented with a “diverse” stock photo.

A brand practicing inclusive marketing will consider its products and services in ways that will resonate with all people, and make some of them finally feel seen or represented for the first time.

For those customers, this messaging can build tremendous good will and brand loyalty. For the bottom line of the brand, an inclusive approach enables you to find new customers who were previously un-affected by your marketing.

As I mentioned earlier, this doesn’t need to be a special campaign. In a way, it should be your only campaign. So how do you make the leap to inclusive marketing?

It starts in your business. Whether you are a full service agency or a brand, these discussions need to be engrained in your company culture.

To be able to tell the story of humanity, humanity should be fairly represented at the table. Start listening to the voices of people who are not like you. If you’re waiting to have these discussions until you are storyboarding your creative, it’s not going to work. This starts with your hiring practices, and continues by recognizing which voices should carry the most weight in your meetings and scrums.

Give your customers some credit: they can tell the difference between a story that was created “for us” versus one that was created “by us.” Or as Michael P. Krone put it, “If your customers are different than you and they feel unrecognized, you will begin to lose them.“ This is as true in brand marketing as it is in politics.

Listen to your customers, or potential customers, and use your marketing to tell their story.

Here are a few examples of inclusive marketing.

  • Nike is always a leader here. In their campaigns, Nike doesn’t only show people with different skin tones wearing their shoes, they also offer products and marketing for frequently excluded groups. For persons with physical or mental conditions that can make lacing traditional shoes difficult, Nike introduced the FLYEASE line with technology that allows lacing up without the use of hands. To address the needs of Muslim women, Nike created aline of branded hijabs made of materials better suited for athletics than their normal daily garments. By taking these steps, Nike opened up new markets and created brand loyalty in two previously very under-represented groups of athletes.
  • In a Super Bowl ad a few years ago, >Microsoft featured a handful of children with physical disabilities. The ad highlighted the poor accessibility of existing game controllers, leading into the debut of Microsoft’s new adaptive Xbox controller. The kids were thrilled with the new controller and how it helped them level the (virtual) playing field when competing against their friends. Xbox instantly became the console of choice for gamers needing better accessibility.
  • Victoria’s Secret has long been criticized for using models with unrealistic body types, and avoiding any sort of diversity with regard to gender identity. Last year they finally started making an effort toward inclusive marketing.

Inclusive marketing carries benefits for humanity and for sales, but to do it properly requires thoughtful planning and introspection. It’s a strategy that can be deployed by every single marketer at no cost, and carries big benefits for customers and brands alike.

This post was originally published in The Green Note, and was simulcast in The Green Note Show Episode 1.