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Disney, Diversity, and Doing It Right

Over the last several years, many movements have started in online communities. From #OccupyWallSt to #MeToo, just about every demographic has been impacted by change that started with a hashtag. For people of color, one that has stood out the most in my opinion is the notion that “Representation Matters.”

For all of modern history, enterprises large and small have looked for ways to connect with the paying public, and any marketer worth his or her salt will tell you it all comes down to being able to identify with the brand on some personal level.

From images to words, the marketing used to promote these brands and products was and still is often very Caucasian centered and doesn’t reflect just how diverse the audience actually is. One need only take a look at the images of white parents displaying a child-sized casket with a brown baby doll inside and signs with phrases such as “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school” scrolled across them greeting Lucille Bridges as she dropped her daughter Ruby at school to understand why brands may have been a little slower back then to change up their ad imagery. But in the year of our Lord 2020? In the words of the great prophet Marvin Gaye…

Pause: For those folks reading this and saying to themselves, “But that was so long ago” … it really wasn’t. Ruby Bridges integrated Frantz Elementary on November 14, 1960. My mother was 4 months and 3 days old. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t signed until 1964. I am literally the first generation in my family to be born with full civil rights under the law. The. First. Generation. Let that marinate.

In the years since, many brands have made efforts to be more diverse in their marketing efforts, but those efforts aren’t without valid criticism. While there may be people of color represented in print and television ads, the depictions have sometimes been stereotypical, included only one person of color whom you’ll miss if you blink, and, when it comes to portrayals of Black people in particular, the casting director opts for actors with lighter skin tones. To many consumers, it comes across as though the marketing team was trying to meet a quota rather than actually taking the time to get to know the very real communities choosing between their product and their competition’s. Marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong just as much as any other group of people. Some brands get that and execute it better than others.

That sentiment is a big reason why my first year as a Disney Cast member will forever impact the way I approach marketing. I will never forget the day I happened to be at Magic Kingdom instead of my home base of Animal Kingdom, and I got to hang out with Cinderella for a few hours. One tiny guest with blonde ringlets, decked out in a Cinderella costume of her own, took one look at Cinderella and said, “But that’s not MY Cinderella” to her mom. For some context, this was back when Disney classics came on VHS, and they stayed locked in the vault until the ghost of Walt whispered, “Do a six-month limited release, my child!” This kiddo didn’t know the real Cinderella, and she wasn’t the only child who came to the park looking at brown princess. The only Cinderella she knew was the one portrayed by R&B singer Brandy in the live-action version that aired on ABC. If nothing else, this interaction showed just how wrong many marketers and executives are when they come to the table with the preconceived notion that diversity doesn’t sell and will somehow harm the brand.

In the time that has passed, Disney is one of the few brands that has made an effort to incorporate more representation both in their theme park marketing and the content they produce. I was fortunate enough to work for the company when Mulan premiered. Disney earned its reputation due in part to their attention to detail, but it was especially interesting to witness the sensitivity that went into bringing to life the first East Asian Disney princess both on the silver screen and in the parks.

This has translated to big money and brand loyalty. As of the fall of 2018, African-Americans are the second largest group of visitors to Disney World after Caucasians. In 2009, Disney debuted Princess and the Frog, which featured Tiana, the first Black Disney Princess.

Though it received its fair share of criticism, the film earned nearly $270 million globally at the box office and three Academy Award nominations. Within the first month on the shelves merchandise featuring Tiana and her costars outsold other Disney Princess merchandise by double-digits. And for all of the movie’s faults, without it, we wouldn’t get to witness this kind of joy:

In 2018, Black Panther featured a nearly all-Black cast and earned $1.3 billion at the box office and three Academy Awards. Disney-Pixar’s Coco, set in Mexico and centered heavily on cultural norms surrounding family history, brought in $750 million worldwide and earned an Academy Award. According to Disney’s earnings report, Parks, Experiences and Products revenues had increased by 8 percent for the quarter. All of this is a result of the powers that be doing the work to engage and serve diverse communities behind the scenes.

Brands that are able to effectively engage with diverse communities externally have made an effort to build internal teams and advisors that are diverse. Doing so puts the brand in the unique position of immersing themselves in communities they otherwise wouldn’t and gives them insight into what may be insensitive or exploitative. With any product or service, it’s the storytelling that aligns the business with the customer. Whether it’s through traditional forms of advertising or new media, seeing faces and hearing voices that look and sound like yours is extremely important to members of marginalized communities and should be equally as important to brands. Good storytellers make the customer the subject of the story.

Is your marketing telling the right stories?


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