News • 11 12 2018

How brands can positively challenge stereotypes

Recently we held a seminar exploring how brands can positively challenge stereotypes. It was a fascinating topic, and in our preparations it became clear that it’s an even knottier issue than we’d first thought.

Stereotypes get a pretty bad rap, and when you hear the word your first thought is probably negative – that it’s an inflexible, oversimplified or unfair image or idea of a particular person or thing, like your mother as your primary caregiver, young people being unmotivated, or the British being unable to cook.

This is largely due to how stereotypes have been used in the past, and how specific stereotypes have failed to evolve. But in principle, stereotypes can be incredibly useful – not just to brands but to people in everyday life – because they provide a shorthand for meaning and a shortcut to understanding. They help us navigate the world without needing to assess and analyse every piece of information that we come into contact with. We understand a little quicker, laugh a little harder, feel part of things more deeply.

So why do we react so poorly to stereotypes? Well, there’s no doubt that they can be out of date, untrue and offensive. Stereotypes “assume” knowledge – they can stop us from asking the right questions and searching for the new answer. And because stereotypes are about simplification, even at their best they offer an incomplete picture.

So many stereotypes rely on aspects of identity, both things we can control, like our beliefs, priorities, how we present ourselves to the world – and those we can’t, like our gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality and more. No one wants to be defined by one aspect of their identity, especially if it’s untrue.

The current groundswell behind diversity and inclusion puts these aspects of identity in stereotypes front and centre. This means brands have a fantastic opportunity to show their understanding and appreciation of these movements in how they challenge, and in some ways evolve stereotypes.

We discussed a lot in our 90-minute seminar – listening and asking the right questions, knowing when you’re supporting or challenging, taking a stand or establishing a “new normal” – but there were a few thoughts that stood out.

Inside out
If you are surrounded by sameness – by people who only reflect your own identity and your experience – it naturally reduces your understanding appreciation for the people you are engaging with. Unconscious bias creeps in without a diverse workforce.

When Edward Ennis was appointed Editor of UK Vogue (the first non-white and first male person to hold the position) he set about changing the make up (no pun intended) of the editorial board. The change in internal culture followed through to the product itself, with a more diverse range of shapes and ethnicities featured on the cover during his tenure that is a fairer (though still more beautiful) reflection of society.

Understand that things change
If stereotypes are to be useful, then they have to evolve. If you take the stereotypical idea of a family, you might think of the Oxo adverts – two parents, three children, mum holding it all together, dad grumbling etc.

McCain’s “We Are Family” campaign shows that the stereotype of “family” shouldn’t be about who’s in it, but what it means to us. It features a host of real families, from single parents to grandparents, different ethnicities, different genders and sexual orientations, sharing mealtime together.

Do you have permission?
Credibility is essential, and you have to ask whether you really have “permission” from your audience to talk about certain things. And if you do choose to, you need to make sure you get it right.

The furore around Jamie Oliver’s “Jerk Rice” earlier this year was based on there being no such thing as jerk rice in Caribbean cuisine, and that the recipe missed several key ingredients used in jerk cooking. The product adopted a stereotype that was inaccurate, equating “jerk” to “anything Caribbean” and didn’t appreciate its meaning or cultural importance.

These are just some of the considerations for brands showing their audiences that they are avoiding the misuse of stereotypes and that they are using them positively – as shortcuts to meaning, understanding and belonging that can boost reputation and loyalty.