April 29, 2019
Outside the box

Don't brand your company with whites-only images

Bonnie J. Walker

Earlier this month, I walked into a restaurant founded and branded in the late 1930s. The images posted to the walls throughout the space in this Western Massachusetts location (and many other locations), are black-and-white photos from that era, with only white people in them. I asked the manager why the only images on the walls were photos of white people, especially given we were in a racially diverse location. She told me the brand is all-American and meant to bring nostalgia from when the restaurant was founded.

This response troubled me for multiple layered reasons, but most pointedly, this suggests to be American means to be white (only) and positive nostalgia is only tied to white people. While there is nothing inherently wrong with images of white people, in isolation, I want to see myself and my children of color represented in the businesses I patron. My children and I are American, and I want to be acknowledged as such. I want my children to feel a sense of belonging everywhere they go, especially when I am contributing financially to an establishment's infrastructure. I want to know, in plain sight (and otherwise) a business I patron is committed to inclusion.

You create inclusive branding in multiple ways, but the most impactful is through images. The cliché, "A picture says a thousand words," is a cliché for a reason. What customers see and feel from the observations they make is far more impactful than what a business has written on its logo. A synonym for image is public impression. Public impression is the general impression a person, organization or product presents to the public. 32% of marketers say visual images are the most important form of content for their business, and 80% of marketers use visual assets in social media marketing, according to a 2018 report from the Social Media Examiner.

If you want to attract people from all different backgrounds and all walks of life, make sure your public visual image is as diverse as possible. Your biggest assets are your employees, who represent your brand and sell your products, so it's advantageous to hire a diverse staff. When people see themselves and their cultures reflected in a business, they feel more comfortable and are more likely to become a customer than if they feel like an outsider. "Brands like Google, Target, and Microsoft are weaving inclusivity into their brand's foundation and business strategy, showcasing this at every consumer touchpoint, all while remaining authentic, approachable, and aligned on the company's core values," says Andrew Shepherd from Interbrand.

Pay close attention to your business brand and what it says about your commitment to diversity and inclusion. What story does your brand tell? Who does it attract? What photos/images do you have posted throughout the business space, and what demographics do they represent? What do clients see in the space? How does your environment make a diverse body of customers feel? People are emotionally moved to purchase products and services, more than anything else. How are you creating emotional connections to satiate the emotional needs of a diverse audience?

Understand how your company is perceived. Review online opinions and critiques to find out how people perceive your brand. Unbiased opinions are very important, especially if you care about inclusion and want mass appeal of a broad clientele. Take a fresh look at your branding images.

Developing a diverse customer base takes more than simply focusing on visual images, but it's a good start. Creating inclusive branding and lived business inclusion requires a long-term commitment and a willingness to adjust business practices to meet the needs of diverse clientele. Businesses can bridge this gap and increase sales to the multicultural market by educating themselves on the differences. The more a brand can personally connect, build relationships and trust, and include all customers, the more it will push the boundaries in the global marketplace, increasing the business bottom line.

Bonnie J. Walker is executive director of diversity & inclusion strategy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, plying this arena in higher education in Massachusetts for 15 years. Contact her at bjhall@wpi.edu.

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