During my hiring trial for WooThemes in 2014 I wrote a fictitious backstory about Woo’s original mascot – a little ninja designed by Jon Hicks. The story was written from my understanding of Japanese culture and unequivocally well intended.
Two years later (with Woo part of Automattic) I came back from a week’s holiday to a storm erupting on an internal thread (keep in mind this all played out internally rather than publicly).
The nutshell: parts of my story had been flagged for cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and for not being inclusive.
I was shocked, and heartbroken. I wondered if people were overreacting until I shared what had happened with my Malaysian housemate and all he said was:
That’s good, at least you can just take it down.
And so began an interesting process for me, supported by some awesome Automattic colleagues, of exploring unconscious bias and what it meant for my work.
I emerged with what I consider to be one of the most valuable learnings I have had as an adult which is that with the best will in the world, I’m biased. I carry inside of me assumptions that I place on others based on my perception and not their experience.
The brain uses social stereotypes in order to simplify the massive amount of information that it receives from the world. And heightening the effect is the human preference for people who are similar to us. The vast majority of these processes are invisible to the conscious mind.
Whoever you are, there are invisible processes that go on inside you that help you make sense of the world, and chances are – they need tweaking.
This experience led to a significant awakening for me and has changed the way I create content and copy. I now proceed with a lot more caution, humility, and consideration. And with more feedback and input.
We need people alongside us who will be radically honest with us. A variety of people.
It’s changed more than my working. I was at a fundraiser event a few months ago and the speaker referred to ‘Mao’ in his talk. Immediately I found myself wondering if everyone there knew who ‘Mao’ was. With no qualifier or context the entire related point he made would have gone over the heads of some and left them out.
I’ve started to pay attention to things that leave people out. Even if it’s just one person. Especially if it’s just one person.
What does being more inclusive in marketing?
I’m learning to think inclusively as I design, write and collaborate on marketing content.
For example when we announced our new collaborator accounts on WooCommerce.com, Gareth Allison (my colleague) and I spent some time reviewing the announcement graphic, discussing how we could make it more inclusive: who it spoke to, who it perhaps did not speak to.
We didn’t end up doing anything groundbreaking but the fact that we had a conversation about it was encouraging.
A second example: in April this year we sent out a mailer about WooCommerce’s spring promotion and to acknowledge those in the world not experiencing spring at the time, I wrote in a little hat tip in the sign off:
“Three cheers for spring (and autumn)!” – it’s subtle but it’s in there. Something to acknowledge and speak to those for whom April isn’t spring, something that said: You, too.
No easy answers, tread gently and embrace your journey with inclusion
I don’t have an easy answer about how to achieve inclusivity in marketing but I am committed to trying. I’m still going to make mistakes. There are likely parts of this post that aren’t inclusive.
All we can do is stay open to learning where we have bias, be relentless in our effort to reduce our own, and gentle and honouring in pointing out that of others.
Is it possible to create brands that are still full of flavour, personable, alive and bold whilst keeping them inclusive, non-cultural and in a sense ‘neutral’? Yes.
What it takes to produce something inclusive is a diverse group of makers so we should build diverse teams. And / or surround ourselves with diverse discourse and break out of our echo chambers.
Be brave and enjoy discovering what making your marketing output more inclusive could look like. And then remember to share your learnings with the world!
If you’re interested in more of my thinking on these lines, I shared them in a talk at WordCamp Europe 2017 in Paris last month. Thanks for reading.