In an expansive media landscape brands have many ways to reach their target customers. From social media influencers, to podcasters, to news outlets, and to partnerships and events, options for telling a brand’s story is sizeable. With opportunity, however, comes risk and mistakes can have ripple effects that affect the bottom line. 

In a recent episode of YPO presents Ask the Experts – Building Inclusive Brands, hosted by Brian Nickerson, CEO of Stella Insurance Sam White discussed media missteps from global brands, how authenticity can mitigate risk and how leaders can effectively model inclusiveness.

Define your Brand and Prioritize Authenticity

In April, the global brewing company Anheuser-Busch faced backlash from conservative and progressive consumers alike when they partnered with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on a sponsored Instagram post featuring a personalized beer can to celebrate her transition.

Social media erupted with calls for boycotts and videos featuring the destruction of Bud Light cans. The company’s defense was what many would describe as a lukewarm statement about influencer marketing, and a subsequent statement from CEO Brendan Whitworth was deemed too weak for many LGBTQ organizations and activists. Essentially, no side was satisfied with the response.

According to White, Budweiser’s blunder was losing sight of its primary market and trying to play in a space that was out of bounds for its brand. Is inclusiveness an important part of the Budweiser brand? Should it spend time and energy in that arena? It’s ok if the answer is no, explains White. “There may be no specific requirement for you in your marketing to be inclusive because you will be spending a lot of marketing dollars pitching your product to the wrong demographic,” she says. 

Brands must clearly define their values because consumers are savvy and know if the marketing doesn’t track. If brands are not authentic, they can end up offending everyone. “Your customers aren’t happy. The community that you’re supposed to be trying to stand with aren’t happy. And then I think when you get challenged, it’s very hard for you to be in a defensible position because you weren’t coming from a place of authenticity to start with. For me, authenticity is probably more important than inclusivity in that regard,” says White.

Align Your Brand with Its Values 

Brands don’t have to be the same in what or how they support causes, according to White. It’s ok to be different. Stella, for instance, champions people-centered causes over environmental ones and what they choose to support aligns with this strategy. Focused priorities can effectively guide business decisions and result in products and marketing that speak to the customers they’re trying to reach. 

Stella Insurance was launched to protect and empower women in the male-dominated financial sector, and everything from product design to marketing to company culture supports this brand promise.

It begins with a lot of research into the pain points of their customers, explains White. Then they look at the underwriting process, the product design and the purchase experience. Is there anything within the brand ecosystem that could be deemed discriminatory? Is each business component delivering on the brand values?

Answering these questions leads to substantive product features and guides decisions on what causes to support. For example, Stella covers claims when a car is damaged by a partner, and it donates a portion of every policy sold to Women’s and Girls’ Emergency Centre. Everything ties back to protecting and empowering women. White says brands can also amplify their values through strategic partnerships and support for organizations that align with what you’re trying to accomplish. “Communication and amplification is also important, not just financial,” she explains.

It Takes Boobs to Be Inclusive

Part of building an inclusive brand is modeling inclusive leadership. White doesn’t fear “cancel culture” and prides herself on being open, authentic and vulnerable when it comes to difficult topics. This gives others permission to be themselves and encourages open dialogues. “There are respectful ways that we can have completely different views and still engage with each other. And I have to believe that is what we are all striving for at some level.”

She’s also not afraid to use humor to call out gendered language in the workplace and she shared the reasoning behind Stella’s marketing campaign “It Takes Boobs,” during the conversation on YPO Presents. It is a play on the gendered phrase “ballsy” or “it takes balls” meaning to be brave and gutsy. 

We often don’t think about the biased language we use, explains Sam. The cheeky humor makes a point that both men and women can be brave and take risks. “Courageous acts are not gender specific.”

The campaign’s been so popular that men at Stella have taken it on, playfully checking or changing their own language at work. “You can move people a lot further with humanity and humor than you can by judgement and accusations,” says White.