Health Equity Is On The Table. Where's the Beef?

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

By Angela Kokinakos

Part 3: The Social Impact: We assert that the private sector creates or reinforces the conditions that lead to health disparities through their impact on media, marketing, and culture.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a number of cracks in the American health ecosystem, highlighting deep-seated disparities. The disproportionate rates of infection in communities of color became a call to action within the public health community, urging actionable efforts toward reversing health inequity. Some companies have implemented Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives to address unconscious bias and robust anti-racism education programs to address issues at the organizational level. Others have launched internal initiatives aimed at aggressively diversifying workforces to more accurately reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the population outside their office doors. Have their products and marketing strategies embraced this paradigm shift?

Beyond systemic biases, the events of 2020 illuminated numerous social determinants that underpin disparities — from food deserts and residential redlining to employment and education, many of which are drawn along racial lines. As a result, marketers are finally making more concerted efforts to understand how their work impacts diverse populations. Are they taking what they’ve learned into account when creating new products or programs, or updating existing ones? Klick SVP of Diversity Strategy Amy Gomez stated, “A more overt recognition and exploration of how our personal biases as marketers keep us from adequately supporting multicultural [customers] makes us better equipped to find solutions.

Marketers must realize the value of cross-cultural marketing; in the wake of the pandemic, customers are listening. Advocates of such approaches were previously met with resistance — “the system wasn’t accustomed to it,” says Victor Paredes, VP of creative strategy at venerable multicultural agency UWG. But now, brands are more open to these ideas. Why?

What are the benefits of designing socially conscious products and marketing?

If a company is not actively thinking about equity during the design and development process, it can and will create a product that perpetuates oppression and racism. For example, racial discrimination has been found in facial recognition and health care risk algorithms.

Companies may have marketing practices that increase disparities, especially if the product is something that itself drives poor health like tobacco, soda, or junk food. African and Hispanic Americans drink more sodas and — no surprise — display a higher prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes than their white counterparts. When asked, they say that their soda-drinking habits are strongly influenced by television advertising, especially when commercials feature celebrities of their own race or ethnicity.

The food and beverage marketing environment and messages about physical activity and nutrition need to change dramatically to accelerate movement toward health equity,” says Northwestern University’s Ellen Wartella, a leading scholar of the role of media in children’s development. “Advertising works, and the kinds of messages that children receive are influential.” Advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year to reach the youth market; children view more than 40,000 commercials each year. Companies have an opportunity to build lifelong relationships with their consumer base by choosing messages and products that align with healthy and socially equitable behaviors.

Businesses can increase their bottom line when they help lead the way toward equity. “Cultural competence in business means that your company understands and appreciates cultural differences. It means that you approach your business strategy through a lens of diversity, inclusion, and belonging so individuals of all backgrounds feel included to either work at your company or be a customer,” explains Rebecca Riserbato. There are two key reasons why companies would do well to involve themselves in rebranding or stressing their cultural competence.

First, by facilitating an environment of open and honest communication in a diverse setting, companies can attract the best talent for their employee base. A mountain of evidence supports the idea that diverse organizations perform better:

  • When there is an optimal gender balance within an organization, employee engagement increases by 4 percentage points, gross profit increases by 23% and brand image strengthens by 5 percentage points.

  • Higher levels of ethnic diversity increase revenue by a whopping 15%.

  • According to Glassdoor, 67% of active and passive job seekers say that when evaluating companies and job offers, it is important to them that the company has a diverse workforce.

  • Most studies surrounding diversity in the workplace have found that for every 1% increase in gender diversity, company revenue increases by 3%.

Second, on the consumer side, cultural competence is important because consumers are less likely to support a company that lacks diversity. In today’s socially aware marketplace, companies have been shamed for their lack of inclusion or tone-deaf behavior. Conversely, support of DEI and social justice causes has made some companies become wildly popular:

Choosing not to take a side on polarising issues can be just as damaging to a brand as choosing the wrong” side to support. For example, in 2017, after then-president Donald Trump signed executive order 13769 known as the “Muslim travel ban,” Uber’s rival, Lyft, donated a million dollars to the anti-travel-ban lobby while Uber stayed out of the fray. Within the space of a weekend, 200,000 Uber customers deleted their Uber apps and switched to Lyft.

With great change comes great reward, but there are pitfalls to avoid on the road to culturally competent marketing. The message to brands is clear; if corporations want to be considered socially conscious, they must take the time to understand the various arguments and issues before choosing a stance, the foresight to know that it is impossible to please everyone, and the courage to stick to their guns during any potential fallout. Conversely, let Uber be a reminder that not taking a side at all could be a poor strategy. Taking a stand on racism might seem like a risky move, but given the current sociopolitical climate, staying silent could hurt a brand’s reputation even more.

However, in an effort to reach a broad audience, not all companies want to have their corporate identity aligned with a particular social movement. “Large businesses want people to buy their product, to support their company, whether they are hardcore Democrats or hardcore Republicans, or in between,” said Ronn Torossian, head of 5W Public Relations. Lloyd Carney, a former tech executive who currently sits on several boards, said “smart” companies are taking steps to address social causes internally, allowing them to avoid potential backlash. His opinion is that “it’s one of those things where it’s better to make quiet noise… A press release is the worst thing you can do in this highly politicized environment.” Even if a company opts to avoid a public stance, the evidence demonstrates that by implementing DEI initiatives within their corporate structure, they can have a positive impact on their bottom line.

Consumers have options in the marketplace and they can tell when a company’s motives are not authentic. A company must do more than “stand with” Black and brown people, they must employ and support their communities. This support can be active or passive. A company may choose to identify itself as an “ally” in a supportive non-racist position, indicating its support for change with limited action, which seems the least one can do. An authentic corporate ally must be proactively involved in anti-racist actions and campaigns. However, if a brand or company has a poor record of internal DEI initiatives, consumers are literally not going to buy the hype.

Anyone who understands the reference in "Where's the Beef?" will quickly see how advertising can infect our culture. However, these days, marketing is more targeted to each consumer based on their individual digital footprint through search engines and social media. Fewer people see the same advertisements, with possibly the exception of annual Superbowl campaigns. While this makes it more difficult to influence large-scale shifts in the social environment, on the flip side, it may contribute to the ease with which people continue to live in their own "bubble;" marketing that is delivered to each consumer is typically just what they want to hear. Perhaps if brands were willing to consider operating from a position of collective beneficence and less from objective capitalist sociopathy, they could authentically earn a consumer's business. What kind of market share could a business acquire if they put a greater (or even entire) portion of their advertising budget into projects designed to ameliorate social justice issues that plague potential consumers (buying goodwill) instead of spending that money figuring out ways to convince us that they have, for example, a bigger, juicer beef patty? Many of the techniques used to collect customer data and provide targeted marketing have recently been used outside of the marketing sector. It is concerning that our very democracy is being hijacked by technological tools intended for profit-making which have been easily repurposed into political influencing. One may question why we need these tools at all.

Geeta Menon and Tina Kiesler in the Harvard Business Review described brand authenticity as, “the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful to itself (continuity), faithful to its customers’ expectations for the brand to deliver on its promises (credibility), motivated by caring and responsibility towards the community (integrity), and reflecting values that consumers consider important (symbolism).” Menon and Kiesler further defined continuity and credibility as “corporate-oriented” and focused on the company and its customers, while integrity and symbolism are “societally oriented” and focused on issues outside the scope of the company. While both are important and valid ways of expressing a brand’s position, actions with a societal orientation may be perceived as more authentic to consumers.

Alicia Garza, who originated the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in a Facebook post from July 2013, explained how it’s not enough to simply post a sign or repeat her words, companies must prove their allyship by taking action. “It really is a very direct assertion of both a problem and a solution at the same time… I think what’s become clear is that some of the discomfort with this statement is that it forces you to choose sides. You can’t say some Black lives matter, or they kind of matter, or they matter sometimes. The statement asks you, ‘Do you believe Black lives matter?’ And if so, is that the world that we live in right now? And if not, what are we going to do to close the gap there?”

We know that structural racism and inequity lead to poor health, when are we collectively going to take responsibility for these constructs that result in "stress, depression and long long-lasting, cumulative damage to the body and brain." The media, advertising, corporate culture, and hiring practices all have the power to influence the social environment of our neighborhoods. They can help push it toward one that is inclusive, or one that ignores or perpetuates structural racism and prevents or slows change. According to a 2020 Nielsen report, consumers are more likely now to expect brands to take a stance on social justice issues. Sincere efforts are needed to repair relationships and open dialogues with potential employees and customers who have previously been left out. Companies will benefit by creating campaigns targeted respectfully to Black and brown consumers. Those who actually take the time to listen, understand people better, and gain a more precise understanding of their experience can use it to build a more nuanced, culturally competent relationship with their employee base and consumers.

Next: Part 4. Previous: Part 2.

Photo collage elements courtesy of amirali mirhashemian and Aleksandra Tanasiienko on Unsplash

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