Seven-times world champion and the only black driver to have ever raced in Formula One since its creation in 1950, Lewis Hamilton recently showed his support to the LGBTQIA+ community by wearing a rainbow flag helmet during the last 3 races of the 2021 Formula One season. These races were hosted in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – countries where same-sex relationships are illegal and where the only two acknowledged genders are male or female. When asked about his decision to wear the helmet, Hamilton stated that “Equal rights is a serious issue” and that he hoped this action would “spark positive conversation and change”.

This gesture of support was praised by many, but Nasser Al Khater, CEO of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, cautioned that while everyone was welcome to express their opinions and visit the country – regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity expression – Qatar and the local regional area were more conservative about the topic than other cultures and that he encouraged fans from abroad to respect that.

Despite best intentions, this example highlights the challenges in finding the delicate balance between being progressive versus offensive, especially in a global and cross-cultural environment where sensitivities vary greatly.

With that in mind, how can global brands avoid potential pitfalls while still driving progressive inclusive initiatives across markets?

Recent research shows a growing focus from companies and their agencies to be more inclusive in their business and messages. Google saw a 181% uplift in consumers searching for diverse brands between January 2020 and January 2021, and, according to a 2020 study by Microsoft, 76% of Gen Z are more likely to support brands that are authentic in their advertising. Not only is there a demand from consumers for more diversity in advertising, but diverse ads also appear to perform better. Research from Unilever and Kantar in 2019 suggested progressive ads are 25% more effective and deliver better brand impact.

But is this true around the globe? And how can global brands trigger awareness and mindset change without creating an uproar within some markets or communities? How far can they go?

Cultural intelligence and diversity mapping are the keys to unlocking some of these challenges. Let’s consider how.

How cross-cultural research can challenge your own perception

What is inclusive marketing?

Let’s take the definition put forward by Salesforce: It is defined as “creating thoughtful and respectful content that truly reflects the diverse communities that companies serve, by elevating diverse voices and role models, decreasing cultural bias, and leading positive social change”.

This definition puts an emphasis on diverse communities – but how diverse the community that you are serving is will hugely vary depending on the country. For example, Brazil has the largest proportion of people of African heritage outside of Africa, and 56% of Brazilians identify as black or mixed. In the US, 18.5% of the population is Latino (60.6 million), which accounts for more than half of the total US population growth since 2010. These factors hugely impact what ethnic diversity in advertising means, looks, and sounds like – and will, by definition, vary greatly from one nation to the next.

Did you know that same-sex marriage is still prohibited in 69 countries and that women need their husbands’ approval to work in 18? This might seem shocking to the Western world, yet in a global environment, challenging your own perceptions and understanding that what is commonly accepted in some cultures might cause outrage in others is crucial if you want to develop campaigns that will work across markets.

To get cultural intelligence right, it is critical to consult local experts who will provide you with that level of insight and granularity. Bear in mind that the end goal should be to raise awareness and trigger mindset change, within the context of understanding current attitudes, some of which may differ within markets and communities.

As an illustration, let’s run through a few examples of brands that haven’t fully understood local sensitivities, and others that have and as a consequence have successfully contributed to more progressiveness within the local market.

When brands take it too far

Dabur India
In October 2021, FMCG group Dabur India released an advert for its skincare brand Fem Bleach, which featured a lesbian couple celebrating Karva Chauth – a Hindu ritual from Northern and Western India whereby married women do not eat from sunrise to moonrise, for the wellbeing and long life of their husbands. Same-sex marriage is not legal in India and as the advert featured a tradition followed by married women, the advert was criticized for deliberately hurting Hindu tradition, and the brand issued a public apology. Madhya Pradesh Home Minister, Narottam Mishra, asked Fem Bleach to take down the advert and announced that regulations would be developed to ensure brands no longer cross the line.

By featuring a same-sex couple taking part in a traditional religious ritual, Fem Bleach took a stance for inclusivity but went against cultural beliefs – which backfired. This example highlights the struggle for brands to be progressive when it entails abruptly challenging people’s cultures and beliefs.

Burger King
Two years earlier, Burger King withdrew an advert in New Zealand featuring customers eating their new Vietnamese Sweet Chilli Tendercrisp Burger with oversized chopsticks after receiving backlash from customers in China. Burger King issued an apology, stating that “the ad in question is insensitive and does not reflect our brand values regarding diversity and inclusion”. A similar situation occurred when Dolce & Gabbana featured a Chinese model struggling to eat pizza and pasta with chopsticks, with similar results.

When cultural sensitivity pays off

In April 2017, Airbnb launched its ‘Until We All Belong’ campaign in Australia to support marriage equality in the country, by encouraging people to buy and wear a ring with an incomplete circle. That same year, a nationwide postal survey sent showed that 61% of the population said they supported the legalization of same-sex marriage. The campaign was a big success in Australia and beyond with the ring selling out and the video campaign generating half a million views within hours of launch. By coming up with a concept that was very much in line with the overall perception in the country at the time, Airbnb was praised for this initiative.

Bhima Jewellers
In 2021, Indian jewellery brand Bhima Jewellers released an advert called ‘Pure As Love’, showcasing the journey of a transgender person, assigned male at birth; the character is played by a transgender woman called Meera Singhania. The advert received a lot of praise for casting a transgender (as opposed to a cisgender) person and for sharing a positive message of hope and normalized reality rather than the struggles of finding acceptance in society. In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court officially recognized transgender people, eunuchs, and intersex people as a ‘third gender’ by law. This explains why Bhima Jewellery was more successful than Fem Bleach with this campaign, as they understood Indian culture is more progressive on gender identity than it is on sexual orientation. The advert was still deeply rooted in Indian culture, focusing on familial support and the traditional idea of femininity, yet portrayed the parents in a supportive and progressive light.

It is important to remember that cultural intelligence helps give the right level of nuance and authenticity required to tackle a particularly sensitive topic. Making the effort to understand people’s experiences, traditions, and point-of-views is the starting point to success.

So, when are you getting started?

Cover image source: Miles Peacock