The Paradox in Inclusivity Branding: Tone deaf or myopic?

From International Women’s Day to the big wins of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” at the Oscars, brands are having a field day this March. Women’s pride, Asian pride; we talk about inclusivity and empowerment.

“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities," and “Ladies, don't let anyone tell you are past your prime.”

Following a rebranding in recent years, Malaysian household brand, Julie’s Biscuits takes on an aspirational tone, becoming “more open, braver, and funnily more human.” While it was a missed opportunity, like with many brands, for Yeoh’s win at Golden Globe earlier this year, Julie’s was quick to respond with a logo swap to celebrate the actress’s win at the Oscars.

Julie’s Biscuits Homepage and OOH
Source: Julie’s Biscuits and thedrum.com

The Price for Being Inclusive

With consumers demanding environmental and social responsibility, how can brands balance authenticity and commercial success? Swift and on point, Julie’s Biscuits trendjack aligns and narrates its refreshed branding well. When done right, you earn brand love. When it takes a left turn, brands appear to be “trying too hard” or get backlashes for insensitivity.

Too much to ask for?

Less than a month after the launch of its new “Quiet Ride” service, Grab Singapore is on the radar again and this time, for its International Women’s Day campaign headlined “The most boring ride, ever.” Using data as part of its storytelling, the campaign reiterates Grab Singapore’s ongoing efforts to improve its safety features alongside the announcement of the launch of a new safety feature. However, it wasn’t a smooth ride for Grab Singapore. Equating boredom with safety, the campaign drew flak and invited sarcasm. Though met with mixed responses, the Instagram ad was reportedly taken down.

Brands need to carefully consider the potential consequences of their inclusivity campaigns and ensure that they are not only authentic and aligned with their values, but also resonate with their target audience.

"I love the ad. It makes me appreciate that a boring ride or even a boring day is not a bad thing and should not be taken for granted. As shared by Grab Co-Founder Tan Hooi Ling, Grab was founded primarily to solve the unsafe taxi industry as she was concerned for her own safety. The fact that Grab has successfully done so and disrupted the entire ride industry is certainly noteworthy. However, the campaign is not the best fit for International Women's Day where celebrating women’s empowerment and equality is the key."

Too woke or too ahead of time?

Calls to #BoycottHersheys ahead of the Easter holiday were not part of the plan for Hershey’s Canada. Released in celebration of International Women’s Day, Hershey rounded up five women, each an activist in their respective fields as part of its “Her for She” campaign. Among which is Fae Johnstone, a trans woman. The bold move is met with an equally strong reaction, varying from downright opposition to criticism and mockery.

"We value togetherness and recognise the strength created by diversity. Over the past three years, our Women's History Month programming has been an inclusive celebration of women and their impact. We appreciate the countless people and meaningful partnerships behind these efforts."

Inclusivity is still a divisive issue, and brands risk alienating customers who are not ready to embrace inclusivity. Brands that choose to take the lead must be ready to take the heat. The price of being inclusive may be high, but the benefits can be even greater if brands are willing to take the risk and invest in this important area of branding. Ben & Jerry’s is one of them.

“I can get why there are mockeries of the video. Creative execution-wise, it’s almost as if the video isn’t taking the topic seriously. When a movement is tagged to a product, it would appear opportunistic. Touching on sensitive topics, that was too quick and easy to apply.”

The Paradox of Progress

No stranger to inclusivity campaigns, Dove is known to champion body positivity. Throughout the years, it experienced its fair share of bitter failures and sweet successes. Most recently, Dove has partnered with LinkedIn to end discrimination against Black Women’s Hair. Titled #BlackHairlsProfessional, the campaign advocates for the passing of the Crown (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act through a series of powerful messaging.

Despite it being lauded, the scars remain. Some consumers are not quite ready to accept the brand yet. Just as it takes time to build a relationship, it takes even more time to fix a broken one.

Screengrabs from Dove’s LinkedIn and Instagram

It is important to acknowledge that even the most well-intentioned inclusivity campaigns can fall short or go wrong. Inclusivity should not be a trend but part of an ongoing conversation. Increased brand loyalty, positive media coverage and new market opportunities – while these dangling carrots are tempting, brands should not jump onto the bandwagon with a “checklist” approach, ticking off boxes without considering the underlying values and impact of their campaigns. The paradox in inclusivity branding is real, and it is the responsibility of brands to find and stay true to their voice.

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