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Families have evolved. Why haven't brands caught up?

Brands and advertisers are ignoring modern families. Could one solution lie in switching up the creatives and therefore cultural nous at company-level?

Since 2008, government statistics reveal that the UK's share of married couple families has declined, while the share of cohabiting couple families has increased to the become the second-largest family type at 17.9% of the population.

In place of the traditional nuclear family model, there has been a huge rise in the number and variety in non-traditional family units, with today’s family structures increasingly complex. Unmarried couples, gay couples, mixed race couples, transgender parental figures, parents who do parenting apart, step families, intergenerational families, divorced parents, single parents – it’s clear that the 2.4 children family, as we know it, is a dying demographic.

And yet this traditional model of family structure is, above all, the single most over-represented and over-catered group when it comes to advertising, marketing and services. In the advertising world, you have 30 seconds to convey an immediate message, so such messages are often overly reliant on traditional representations because it resonates more with our lazy definition of a ‘family’.

'The lack of diversity and inclusion within the creative sector leaves little empathy for the nuances and cultural sensitivities of the eclectic groups it endeavours to target'

Why is this point important? Advertising and branding is one form of communication that we willingly choose to bring into our homes. Our continued exposure to archaic norms does nothing to move the needle on diversity and inclusivity in real terms. In fact, these continued codes, built on a framework of bias underpinned by an American Dream-style ideal, makes us particularly susceptible to accepting messages that perpetuate discrimination.

As intolerance and hate crimes rise, exacerbated by toxic political discourse fuelled, not least, by the Trump presidency and the campaign around Brexit, advertisers and brands can wield considerable clout in tackling harmful partisan thinking and unconscious bias. Where politics is failing people, companies, advertisers and brands could be our last bastion of hope.

#ThisIsFamily spring/summer 2019 campaign by Studio Blvd for River Island
'It’s time for companies to become genuinely more diverse and inclusive within their own structure, and in the products and services they provide'

We are, of course, slowly seeing more diverse representation in brand and advertising campaigns, albeit within the boundaries of what constitutes as ideal and aspirational: the John Lewis Christmas advert featuring a light-skinned, black middle class family with a trampolining dog; the Boots’ advert from a few years back featuring a mixed raced family; Lloyds Bank with a same-sex couple getting engaged.

But consumers are already becoming wary of tokenistic representation and disingenuity, with some of the world’s most renowned brands still getting it wrong with myopic products or campaigns that inadvertently insult rather than celebrate the marginalised.

This could stem from the lack of diversity and inclusion within the creative sector itself; an industry that is still predominantly full of white, middle class, university educated male thinkers with little empathy for the nuances and cultural sensitivities of the eclectic groups they are endeavouring to target. What results from the creative, then, is a kind of bland diversity that does little to develop a meaningful emotional connection between consumer and brand.

Let’s be clear: I’m definitely in for more diverse representation in advertising and brand campaigns, and I accept that the evolution of such representation is still in its relative infancy. Indeed, to show more representation is not without risk. It can alienate a consumer base that finds deviation from the norm uncomfortable. Brands must show backbone and bravery against the backlash and stay true to their convictions.

More and truer societal representation is just one part of a bigger solution to the problem. It's time for companies to put money where their mouth is and work hard towards becoming genuinely more diverse and inclusive within their own structure, and in the products and services they provide. Otherwise it’s just a hollow gesture, wearing the mantle of liberal forward-thinking values with no integrity or authenticity.


Steve Wardlaw is chairman of Emerald Life, the first insurance company ensuring equality for all, particularly women and the LGBT+ community, and a prominent LGBT+ activist.


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