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5 steps to improve DEI representation in your creative work

This blog post was written by Tara Campbell and sponsored by our friends at Stocksy— the stock media platform that helps brands & agencies create inclusive, progressive & authentic content. Cover illustration by Marta Lebek.

The past few years show a monumental shift in marketing and advertising to better reflect the real world. Creatives and marketers have made efforts to improve the visibility of underrepresented communities in the past, but the cultural events of the 2020s pushed those efforts into hyperdrive. Today’s audiences are hyper-aware of the imbalances in the media, and expect brands to be positive contributors to society.

Why does representation in marketing matter?

According to a global survey from Ipsos and the Female Quotient, 72% of consumers say most advertising doesn’t reflect the world around them, and 63% don’t see themselves represented in most marketing materials. If over half the population is not representatively portrayed in the media, brands and creatives have a massive opportunity to improve representation and reflect the world as it truly is.

“When communities, constituencies, or identities are not included in media and marketing, this unintentionally reinforces social and/or psychological conditioning which says, in effect, this group or that isn’t important,” says Lawrence Carter-Long, the Communications Director at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund and the Director at the Disability & Media Alliance Project.

Brands and creatives have a massive opportunity to improve representation and reflect the world as it truly is.

Creatives and brands can start to turn the tide by acknowledging underrepresented groups, identities, and communities. To start considering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in creative development and campaigns, there are some best practices to keep in mind.

Image by Elizabeth Rajchart
Image by Elizabeth Rajchart

1. Research before you create

Inclusion begins with education and research, whether you’re commissioning a shoot or using stock images to advertise a product or illustrate a story.

“Media-makers should always be knowledgeable about the particular identity which is being presented, and that knowledge must be visible through the choice and design of the visuals used,” says Jeremy Ullmann, a Social Media Manager at the Media Diversity Institute.

Using stereotypical stock imagery is an acute problem in design often caused by a shortage of knowledge and awareness. If you’re designing creative that focuses on people, take the time to learn about them. Complacency is a silent danger to brands. It sneaks up as marketers and creative professionals reach for the easiest and most obvious visual media to accompany a project or campaign.

Modern and diverse audiences expect brands and creatives to take greater care when selecting visuals to accompany marketing materials. Under-represented groups will always recognize when imagery understands their identity.

Learning more about and inviting those communities into a conversation about media representation ensures that creative campaigns are authentic and representative of those audiences. At Stocksy, our brand values and content policies prioritize the inclusion of diverse and authentic imagery and footage, crafted by a global community of artists.

Image by Kristen Curette & Daemaine Hines
Image by Kristen Curette & Daemaine Hines

2. Collaborate and listen

Sometimes representation missteps are a symptom of not knowing what you don’t know. That’s why it’s important to do your research and also seek out the first-hand perspectives of the community you present. It’s also why Stocksy regularly collaborates with organizations that support underrepresented communities, such as the Authority Collective, an organization of women, non-binary, and gender-expansive people of color working in the creative industries.

While diversity and inclusivity are often used interchangeably and sometimes flippantly, representation sets the bar higher. To truly gain the trust of a broader audience and evolve your creative practices, underrepresented communities should be included in the campaign development process, not just visually present in the campaign.

“Token representation and half-hearted calls for “diversity” are not enough to solve equity problems within our industries,” says Authority Collective. “Allyship in visual media industries is more than merely recognizing privilege and voicing support — it’s about harnessing that privilege to elevate underrepresented storytellers with direct action.”

True inclusivity begins at the drawing table, and when steps are taken to diversify talent and leadership, more representation will follow. Many DEI missteps highlight opportunities to add more perspectives to the table when developing products and strategies.

Collaboration often means making space, listening, and learning. It can also mean amplifying the voices of others better equipped to tell a particular story or share their perspective.

When choosing stock photos and stock footage for your campaigns, keep these principles in mind.

Image by Roman Shalenkin
Image by Roman Shalenkin

3. Reflect intersectionality

Intersectionality refers to how different identity markers — like race, gender, sexuality, and class — interact and affect each other. These intersections of identity create distinct, unique, and widely varied experiences.

Most underrepresented people belong to more than one subgroup or demographic, but you wouldn’t know it by surveying the media or pop culture landscape. For some, it’s a lot to comprehend, but rather than deny or resist that, creatives and marketers can make giant leaps by opening to that growing awareness to change course and evolve.

“In recent years, we’ve seen Black people featured in marketing visuals more often, which is a good first step,” says the team at the Color of Change, a not-for-profit that leads campaigns that build real power for Black communities. “But, Black people are not a monolithic group. We have diverse appearances and experiences, and we are all uniquely beautiful.”

Recognizing that underrepresented groups are not homogenous in nature and are as varied and intersectional as any community is an exciting part of evolving visual storytelling. Including intersectional portrayals in advertising drives consumers’ feelings of closeness with a brand. There are many people, countless perspectives, and infinite lived experiences to learn from and showcase.

Through our content policy and global community of artists, Stocksy is committed to building a collection of stock media with diversity and intersectionality as founding principles.

Image by Alba Vitta
Image by Alba Vitta

4 . Reflect real experiences

Evolving creative and marketing practices to include more diverse representation is a great starting point. The common error made when developing collateral and visual materials, however, is pointing directly at those efforts. Real change comes when intersectional and underrepresented communities are simply present in a campaign or project, without the “hey, we did a diversity thing” cue.

For example, transgender folks don’t need to be shown wrapped in a flag to legitimize their right to exist. Curve models don’t need to have their parts focused on (especially with their heads cut off) to show that your brand believes they should be proud to love their bodies. People with disabilities don’t always need to be playing sports with a focus on their disability. They can just be there. Seen. Known. Valid. Grocery shopping. Drinking coffee. Commuting to work. Living life as it is.

Creatives that reflect the real world will be more successful in their campaigns. Stocksy puts a focus on stock images and footage that reflect the everyday lives of diverse communities from around the world.

Image by Daniel Zapata
Image by Daniel Zapata

5. Think long-term

Achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion in marketing is a long-term commitment. In contemporary culture, brands are scrutinized for maintaining colonial worldviews and for failing to update policies and practices. Structural, meaningful change is possible when people commit to creating tangible progress toward social justice that goes beyond lip service.

Decolonizing a brand is no easy feat. It takes time and resources, and there will, without any shred of a doubt, be missteps and failures along the way. But it’s a necessary practice and evolution in today’s world of advertising, media, and marketing.

“What gives me the most hope are the stories of minority voices calling out brands for ignorance,” Ullman of the Media Diversity Institute says. “These voices have more power than ever to hold brands and marketers to account. It might be a painful road for some marketers for a while, but being challenged to really think hard about the content they create will only help them in the long term.”

For marketers and media professionals, making the change could mean investing in marginalized voices, championing visual media creators with diverse perspectives, and hiring crew members and art directors who can offer fresh insight and wisdom.

“A huge part of this push for authentic diversity in marketing comes down to changing what we see and unconsciously absorb,” the Color of Change team explains. “Brands are trying to tell stories with their messaging, and by creating an authentic, nuanced portrayal of Black people, their stories can lead to institutional change.”

Image by Ogoh Clement
Image by Ogoh Clement

The future of reflective marketing

The media is a reflection of what we value as a society. The media we use as creatives is a reflection of what we value. When we reflect authenticity we create more connections. Ultimately, diversity in marketing creative helps everyone.

“If you are not centering the thoughts, wishes, desires, and experiences of a variety of communities in your work, then you are missing out — not only on largely untapped markets but also on the creative energy and insights born from their experiences,” Carter-Long tells us. “Get it right, and we’ll sing your praises to our friends, colleagues, and the news media, who are always watching.”

When media isn’t representative of real communities, people, and identities, we fail to reflect the real world authentically and honestly. By recognizing and tapping into our evolving reality, we can champion the creative process, grow with the world, and increase the success of all creative and marketing efforts holistically.

At Stocksy we produce stock imagery and footage that reflect diversity, intersectionality, complexity, and the evolution of modern culture. We help people have reflection points. We help brands reflect the real world. We help marketers to identify and reflect on cliches, tropes, and stereotypes. Stocksy reflects the real world.

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