In recent times, diversity has been a hot topic everywhere. With the increased use of social media, widespread discussions about inclusivity have come to the forefront, with the younger generations taking the lead. The youth today display loyalty and interest towards only those brands which are socially aware. They won’t take a second to tarnish the image of and boycott the brand which is not inclusive of minority groups in its working. As a result, many brands have shifted to adopting marketing strategies which are representative of marginalized groups. Before discussing about ‘tokenism’, I would like to pose a question. In this race in the professional world to achieve diversity, how many of these efforts are authentic and how many are just to impress the audience to look good?

Many companies undertake bland marketing steps to display representation. These institutions, without doing anything helpful, display false allyship. There’s a term for this- tokenism. Tokenism is defined as “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.”

In simple words, it is a hollow practice to display equality without actually achieving it. It gives companies a very false sense of success. It gives the appearance of spreading equality and diversity but only on the surface level. It’s like calling yourself an ally just because you’re friends with somebody, without showing any real support for their community whatsoever. Tokenism is dangerous because it creates confusion and chaos in the minds of the onlooker because it becomes hard to differentiate it from authentic efforts of adding real value to the cause. Many of the big brands and companies undertake this harmful practice. For instance, Doritos’ rainbow chip bags roll out only during Pride Month, without it taking any significant stand for the movement during the rest of the year. In the sea of white, able-bodied models, you will find only a single picture of a WOC posted by big makeup brands in months. Companies will hire 10 men and 1 woman as their board members.

Muslims are increasingly becoming sceptical of brands using hijabs as a marketing tool.

These efforts look more like clever marketing ploys to make more money and garner attention. It seems as if they want to check these things off their to-do-list to avoid public backlash by undertaking such bland steps and winning brownie points by doing nothing of long-lasting effect.

And then you have brands that absolutely nail it. M&S launched adaptive clothing designed for people with disabilities. You have ASOS which has been a strong advocate of the LGBTQ and disabled communities and has maintained a strong stand on mental health. They have actively made contributions; whether it was raising money for GLAAD or launching a wheelchair-friendly jumpsuit. Then you have the makeup brand, Fluide, which specifically caters to gender-neutral POC. The brand encourages people to wear makeup in any way that feels right to them.

As the younger generations are becoming very reactive to societal changes happening around the world, the impact on the businesses using tokenism is extremely negative. These brands cannot think to survive in the market for long if they continue using pretentious means to appear inclusive. Victoria’s Secret is the best example. Its policy of exclusivity has completely killed its sales. Why will customers want to invest in a brand so non-inclusive of all body types? Tokenism also hits hard the person being used as a ‘token’. In a corporation, you cannot expect a black woman to be the sole representative of her whole community.

Often, this whole process becomes very mentally taxing for the person involved.

What can businesses do about this?

I think while some brands do have malicious intent behind these steps, others simply are confused as to how to go about it. In fear of crossing the thin line between wanting to be more inclusive and becoming tokenistic, they somehow lose track. Brands actively need to rethink and question their efforts before jumping on any plush marketing bandwagon. What steps are we taking to ensure diversity in our workforce? Are we representing people other than white, cis-gendered people in our marketing campaigns? Are our practices exploitative?

Customers want to see real and tangible actions. For that, businesses need to make sure that their whole set of operations is in tune with their support of minorities. They need to dedicate and invest their time to cultivate their online presence to be more representative on the whole. Ensuring that employees aren’t called upon to be the lone representative of their group is also a key step. It’s important brands understand that they shouldn’t need to talk about just how diverse they are. Their intent and persistent efforts should be enough to say it.

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