A discussion on the state of race relations with your local barista as they hand you your morning latte. Reaching for that infamous can of soda that’s been known to miraculously unite two very divided groups. Being given a reminder to share our gender identifiers with each other by your favourite chocolate sandwich biscuit.

Brands today realise the importance of – and business case for - broaching diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues. We’re increasingly surrounded by messages and campaigns crafted by organisations making the leap.

Too often however those leaps have generated public scrutiny where there could be engagement and collective cringe where there should be greater trust. Why? Because they’re not truly reflecting and connecting with audiences. At its core, diversity and inclusion is about everyone, but it’s clear that many brands are struggling to get their message to land just right.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise. D&I is a big, jumbled and constantly evolving topic that can be awkward and even intimidating to tackle. Many communicators – however well-backed they are by colleagues with deeper expertise - feel like they’re in way over their heads with so much at stake. The trouble is, this fear of making a gaffe often compounds the problem and derails well-meaning efforts. The result? What might have been a near-miss becomes a shameful disaster.

At RY, we’ve come to call this phenomenon the self-fulfilling faux pas. 

Breaking it down

So, what exactly is a self-fulfilling faux pas? It’s what happened that time you went to the ends of the earth to get deliver an important, worthy message. When you meticulously crafted every detail. When you took every precaution to make sure it all landed well. And yet, somehow, the right chord just wasn’t struck. In the past year alone, we’ve been inundated with precisely these kinds of D&I blunders that have suffered swift backlash and intense scrutiny, particularly on social media.

Take Burger King, for example. It came under fire in May when it tried to share a positive message by using its Whopper boxes to normalise mental health issues. While the #FeelYourWay campaign drew attention to a worthy cause, critics suggested it felt superficial and inauthentic. To make matters worse, former employees added to the furore by sharing their own negative experiences with mental health while at the company. 

Later in the year, RideLondon recognised cycling needed to encourage more people from all backgrounds to get involved, but took heat when one of its promotional photographs was revealed to feature an ethnic minority female rider photoshopped into the image. While the organiser’s intentions were noble, there were clearly better ways to go about it than simulating a desired reality without full disclosure.

Elsewhere, Budweiser UK partnered with Pride in London and launched its “Fly the Flag” campaign, complete with a colourful set of bespoke pint glasses. Each signified a different LGBTQ+ flag, including same-gender attraction, non-binary, transgender, genderfluid, lesbian, asexual and inclusive pride. This doing-too-much approach raised a few eyebrows on social media where people felt the beer giant’s unnecessary creations were opportunistic and insincere.

D&I communications done right

As these examples show, D&I communications can land wildly wrong regardless of the best intentions. Often, it’s the agonising over getting it right that blinds D&I professionals and communicators to potential gaps in their approach and delivery.

Our advice? Well, we’ve pulled together ten principles for great D&I design and communications to help with everything from how to visualise D&I data through to overcoming a reliance on clichéd stock imagery and rainbows. But here’s the critical lesson: don’t let fear or anxiety distract you. It may sound simple, but all too often that anxiety pushes brands into hasty or ill-thought-through actions. So, if you’re going to do it, do it - and if a slip-up happens, own the mistake and commit to listening and improving next time. You’ll find people will soon be ready to forgive you.

To read more about what we found on the shocking state of D&I mishaps, clichés, and how to actually get to good D&I communications, download Radley Yeldar’s full ‘Demystifying D&I: inclusive by design’ report here.

Erica Wong, Brand Consultant.

Back to top