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Nothing excites a customer more than seeing themselves included in advertising campaigns, marketing messages, and branded content pieces that are focused on authentic representation of their demographic identities.

While advertising agencies, creative boutiques, PR firms, and many other companies involved in inclusive marketing campaigns are trying their best to show diverse representation, to avoid tokenism and performative allyship, absolutely all the professionals in these companies should have a firm and authentic understanding of their target market. Otherwise, your company risks producing an inch-deep marketing strategy with diverse cast members just for the sake of diversity and without the necessary thoughtful consideration that actually attracts and retains customers. 

How can you infuse authenticity into your inclusive marketing campaigns? Most powerfully, you should consider the value of documentary-style narratives and content. This article also proposes three actionable tactics for marketing and advertising professionals to consider when working on a campaign or strategy that targets diverse and inclusive markets. But first, let’s take a look at the market impact of documentary-style narratives versus scripted content.

The Power of Truth and Documentary-Style Content

What I mean by “documentary-style content” is any narrative given by a real person – not an actor – who is authentically sharing their own story and their own experiences. As the name suggests, any kind of production that takes on a journalistic approach also provides a sense of realness and authenticity to its target audiences. 

These types of content document a truthful representation of one person’s unique, individual experience, or the experience of a group of people. They are relatable and human-centered. They focus on a singular, real-life narrative, not one that is made up, edited, or aspirational.  

One great example of that content is the Ford campaign called New Power Suit, which showcases the real, lived experience of Patrice Banks – owner of Girls Auto Clinic. Patrice is an engineer, mechanic, and entrepreneur who created a business centered around women (and predominantly, women of color) in the auto repair industry. Her appearance in Ford’s spot is part of their initiative in showcasing entrepreneurs, culture-shifters, and game-changers who are changing the narrative of their industries. 

The beauty of this campaign is it’s acute representation of the story as it is. In the video, Banks is surrounded by her colleagues and friends, talking directly to the camera about the work they do and the intention behind it. This production exemplifies the power of a documentary style and authentically represents a real character with a true, lived experience

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Ok, But What About Scripted Content?

Today, the majority of commercials and short-form videos rely heavily on creative concepts and storyboards produced by ad agencies with the dual purpose of entertainment and engagement. They naturally go through the process of script writing, pre-production, auditions, casting, videography, and video editing to produce a narrative that is polished and professional, with the right key words and call to action. These ads rely on a willing suspension of disbelief so that, even though customers are aware that the content is performative and fictional, they still connect with it, appreciate it, and often feel an authentic emotional reaction. 

As an example, take a look at the Stuttering Association for the Young’s (SAY) heartwarming storytelling spot called “In The Spotlight” (produced by BBDO). Even though these are scripted scenes with actors performing each of the roles, the cinematic feel of this campaign touches the heart and highlights a lived experience that many people may be unaware of.

What’s also powerful about the making of this campaign is that BBDO copywriter Aaron Marshall has a lived experience that is relevant to the narrative of the story. In his retelling, Marshall expresses how his personal experience of growing up with a stutter, along with being a stellar copywriter at the agency, aided him in writing this particular spot – an authenticity that shines through in every scene. 

The key takeaway here is that, even though the SAY spot is not a documentary-style narrative, by employing a diverse team of employees (like Aaron Marshall) and cultivating an inclusive workplace culture where those employees feel empowered to bring their full selves to work, SAY manages to tap into an authenticity of lived experience that enlivens their spot and makes it ring true. 

Now, let’s dive into a behind-the-scenes strategy of actionable tips you can employ to  produce more authentic inclusive marketing content. 

Step One: Immersion –  Get To Know Your Audience

Imagine you are working with your team and are presented a brief from one of your clients that targets a specific demographic community. Your first step should be cultural learning. Get to know your audience through online research and immersion – not just internet searching alone. Find ways to connect with the target community by showing interest in their culture and by initiating conversation. Simple ways to do that are by reaching out to a colleague, neighbor, community organization, or friend of a friend you may not know yet. 

Ask questions, but make sure to approach the conversation with respectful admiration for their culture and their individual lived experience. You may also want to consider paying these people for their time or even just buying them coffee while you talk. In any case, make sure you are not taking advantage of them for the benefit of the campaign. 

In fact, you might start by researching articles, publications, and other online content that talks about the misrepresentation of that group and false narratives that have been promoted in the past. Consider how those misrepresentations can be a starting point for a conversation, both within your workspace and outside of it. This is definitely the starting point before even thinking about how to represent that demographic in your marketing campaign. Also, remember that no community is a monolith, and every person will have a unique experience and perspective. 

Step Two: Experience – Conduct Research with Real People

Focus groups, questionnaires, and surveys are common practice within market research departments in many companies, and they’ve been around for decades. One fresh approach to these research tools is to conduct a focus group with the particular target group you are addressing, but present a series of questions that are centered around their lived experiences not just how they consume the marketed product or service. 

Allow the participants to simply talk about their everyday lives, interests, challenges, likes and dislikes. Give them space to speak with authenticity, and listen with an open mind that could shift what you think you already know. Remember that you are not there to counsel them or exploit their perspectives but to listen carefully and create a product or service that serves them well. These conversations can give you at least a little understanding of what it’s like to walk in their shoes.

Step Three: Inclusion – Give Your Employees Open Permission to Share Their Narratives

After researching the lived experience of your target audience both online and in-person, take a look at your own internal team, and allow your employees (or colleagues) to share their own authentic narratives and experiences. Remember to be considerate of your privilege in terms of seniority and power in the team, and make it clear to your team that all sharing is voluntary and not required. Open the opportunity for people who identify as part of your target demographic to take the lead on this campaign, with their consent and comfort being taken into consideration. Professionals from underrepresented groups – and especially  those who currently work in junior positions within the organization – may need that personal request and safe space to share their perspectives. 

In conclusion, immersion, experience, and inclusion create opportunities for honest storytelling by nurturing relationships within your target markets. They also allow you to move beyond surface-level, performative representation to better showcase authentic narratives driven by personal experience. 

These are key steps for any creative team within marketing, advertising, or PR firms to take before producing content that specifically targets a certain demographic group. As a first step forward, consider how you can implement these practices with your team the next time you are presented with a creative brief to produce inclusive, authentic marketing content.

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