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  • Paul Jankowski

Update Your Brand’s Approach To Diversity—Carhartt Shows You The Way

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

"Diverse" group of friends hanging out. This staged diversity doesn't cut it anymore. GETTY

A lack of meaningful diversity in brand communications as well as leadership continues to be an issue we’re all trying to solve. In the “it’s never too late to do the right thing” vein, as a branding/marketing industry, we all need to get this solved. Not with platitudes and PC social posts, but with tangible, sustainable processes and procedures that keep us from ever going back to the archaic days of ‘white men rule.’

Customers are demanding and expecting changes

In the past, this has led to a familiar and oft scoffed at scene: six students representing six different ethnicities with their arms over each other’s shoulders in front of some building on a college campus.

That might have worked then, but it doesn’t now according to a poll by popular stock image provider, Getty Images.

Of those who responded to the poll, 80% claimed the usual tactic of slapping a diverse face or two into brand imagery doesn’t cut it. A majority of respondents said a better approach brands should take is representing people like their customers.

What does this real diversity look like?

Getty’s global head of creative insights, Rebecca Swift, stated simply, “People want advertising that captures authentic lifestyles and culture.”

The need for more targeted lifestyle imagery is a trend I’ve been following heavily for the past several years.

My research has focused mainly on the New Heartland (Midwest, Southwest, Southeast) and the brands who excel at representing the diverse audiences that exist within it.

A New Heartland Generational Study released in early 2020 found that only 31% of New Heartland residents and 36% of their counterparts on the coasts feel the majority of ads, and sponsored content for products they’re interested in purchasing relate to them personally. A majority of both camps (56% and 51% respectively) believe brands manage to reflect their consumers’ lifestyles and culture only “sometimes.”

This is a huge missed opportunity considering that approximately 50% of New Heartland and coastal customers agree that brands that appear to understand their lifestyle activities and core values/beliefs are more attractive to them.

The problem: a destructive disconnect between strategy and creative.

There is a accepted yet destructive disconnect between strategy and creative. By the time many creatives get a brief, they are so disconnected from the real essence of how and where the brand aims to be positioned.

Creatives spend so much time agonizing over how they can show diversity that they lose sight of how the actual human beings they’re depicting are living their lives. That disconnect comes through in the imagery being propagated.

One could call it a miscommunication between the foreground and the background of the visuals.

In 2018, Google conducted an audit of its campaigns and discovered a similar miscommunication.

"Our images had lots of racial diversity. But everyone looked like they worked in tech and lived in hip, urban neighborhoods," Lorraine Twohill, the Chief Marketing Officer of the tech giant wrote in a blog post for ThinkWithGoogle.

When the company started paying more attention to what the people in their photos were doing, it freed up its creative teams to tell a more accurate story about people’s relationships with its products.

A very important take-away here is to avoid using skin tone as the only way to represent diversity, as was the case in a couple of radically terrible marketing campaigns by Dove and Nivea.

The Getty poll showed that 62% of the 5,000 customers it surveyed said they’ve been discriminated against, overwhelmingly cited their skin color as the source of that discrimination.

These failures go to show that hitting the mark with diverse marketing messaging isn’t easy, but it is possible.

Here is an example of a New Heartland brand that goes beyond token representation and makes an effort to truly understand the culture and lifestyles of its customers:

What does a work wear brand like Carhartt know about diversity?

Background: The 131-year-old workwear company started in Detroit, Michigan, is a product of the Second Industrial Revolution, and originally a mainstay of railroad workers who came to rely on founder Hamilton Carhartt’s bib overalls. “Honest value for an honest dollar” was the company’s motto, and America’s laborers who were not yet afforded the comfort of the 9-hour workday connected almost immediately with that message. Family-owned and sourcing most of its materials from U.S. suppliers, Carhartt is the epitome of a New Heartland brand, so it’s essential that its marketing campaigns represent the lifestyle in this region.

Diversity in Practice

Scroll through Carhartt’s social media and you’ll be hard pressed to find a lack of diversity displayed in its Newsfeeds. There are black truckers and construction workers, women farmers, and Asian fishers, among others. And many of their social images are user-generated, which adds to the appeal that is signature to the brand. This is a testament to the amazing amount of attention to detail Carhartt puts into its marketing, especially from a digital standpoint.

In a 2017 campaign promoting its fall collection, Carhartt worked with Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa’s production agency to highlight the brand’s reliability and utility across its generations of serving American laborers from steam engines to horse-drawn plows to construction to wrangling horses.

"We sweated every detail because we care about the making of our commercials, just as we sweat the details that go into the making of our products,” Brian Bennett, Vice President of Creative and Executive Producer at Carhartt, on the 2017 fall campaign said. “It's why we found a train from 1889 and it’s why we went to Alaska to film scenes that represent the building of the Alaskan Pipeline.”

Since the beginning, Carhartt has been highly-attuned to the environments its products are frequently utilized within and it has used this as a foundation for its marketing efforts, featuring the people who naturally gravitate towards those environments in its ads.

Founded in Europe in 1989 ,the brand even developed a new product line, Carhartt Work in Progress. When 90s rappers found the durability of Carhartt workwear suitable for the oftentimes rough conditions of the city, elevating the company’s products to street wear status.

LOS ANGELES, CA - Singer/rapper Drake performs onstage at the American Music Awards held at Nokia Theatre. (Photo by Kevin Winter/AMA2011/Getty Images for AMA) GETTY IMAGES FOR AMA

But even this sojourn into more practical daily clothing hasn’t detracted from Carhartt’s reputation as a brand for the American worker. Carhartt’s recent Labor Day ad video and campaign titled For Our Friends on Labor Day, which aired on television and social, continued to display the brand’s knowledge of the lifestyle and core values of its customers.

MAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR CARHARTT - On Friday, Sept. 04, 2020, in advance of the Labor Day holiday, Carhartt unveiled a larger than life installation of 1,670 hard hats at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville, Tenn. to represent 1.67 million job openings in the skilled trades across the U.S. in June alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Carhartt is doing their part to help train the workforce of the future by donating all of its online sales on from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. EDT on Labor Day to their long-standing nonprofit partner SkillsUSA. (Jon Morgan/AP Images for Carhartt) ASSOCIATED PRESS

What Can Brands Learn from Carhartt?

Carhartt is one of the most enduring brands in our country for several reasons. Between its rich history, which is woven into every piece of marketing the company releases, and its pursuit of real stories from its customers, Carhartt doesn’t try to be something it isn’t or portray an image that is inconsistent with the people it represents.

(Jon Morgan/AP Images for Carhartt) ASSOCIATED PRESS

The creative and strategy teams leading Carhartt let their shared customer and brand values of hard work and the lifestyle that accompanies having a strong work ethic guide the visual design process.

Brands who are hoping to make strides in improving the diversity of their marketing campaigns should first look at how their brand values translate across different customer lifestyles and orchestrate creative assets that speak into those realities.

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