Purpose Incorporated: A primer for brands in APAC

This article is part of a special series on how brands in APAC can go beyond profit to do good and do better for themselves and others. Read more.

Non-WARC subscribers can read this series in its entirety by accessing the articles via the landing page.

Why it matters

For diversity, inclusivity and representation to be truly embedded in the advertising industry, the full spectrum of society has to be represented in offices and boardrooms, and until society is reflected, there must be a conscious effort to move from thinking only about brand safety and brand suitability to also embracing brand responsibility.


  • Authenticity in demonstrating brand diversity and inclusivity values is critical in brand responsibility.
  • Brand responsibility aligns brand and business ethics/values with media platforms/content to demonstrate brand purpose.
  • The uncomfortable truth is those at the tables of power in advertising are white, male, middle-class, straight, able-bodied.

More brands exist than people need.

With 68% of people believing that consumers have the power to force corporations to change (Edelman Trust, 2021), brands need to represent their audience or face the risk of cancel culture.

According to Global MONITOR, 65% of consumers say it’s important that the companies they buy from actively promote diversity and inclusivity in their own business or society as a whole.

Edelman Trust 2021 reports a 42% increased importance and urgency to address foundational problems of discrimination and racism worldwide, year on year.

At the heart of most brands’ purpose, their reason why is inclusivity and accessibility. For example:

  • Nike – To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world (*if you have a body you are an athlete)
  • HSBC – Opening up a world of opportunity
  • Apple – To empower creative exploration and self-expression

Why then, with many brands’ very reason for existence grounded in empowering people, are we still talking about the need for diversity, inclusivity and representation in advertising?

Rebuild from the inside, out

We must face the uncomfortable truth: the identities of those sitting at the tables of power in advertising have remained remarkably similar over time – white, male, middle and upper-class, straight, able-bodied.

Campaign-Kantar’s June 2021 DEI Survey showed that the rate of action in industry diversity is not matching up to the acknowledgement of the importance of the issue.

  • Overall, 61% of people said that equality across all backgrounds and races is mentioned as a corporate value
  • And yet 34% of people feel that meetings are dominated by people who are not the same ethnicity or race as them.
  • 49% of APAC women in advertising said they feel pressure to conform to gender stereotypes.
  • Post #blacklivesmatter, a mere 42% of respondents said those of different races are treated equally, compared with 35% in 2020.

The study did not make mention of those living with a disability, with their industry representation and inclusivity consideration notable by its absence.

Despite an increase in companies in 2021 outlining equality in gender, background and race as a corporate value, and increases in organisations conducting surveys on diversity and having a DEI committee or leader, a massive 70% of respondents say their organisation’s policies around diversity have not improved the situation in their workplaces in the past two years.

For diversity, inclusivity and representation to truly be embedded in our industry, we need to see, and advocate for, the full spectrum of society represented in our offices and boardrooms. Until we truly reflect society, we must make a conscious effort to move from thinking only about brand safety and brand suitability to also embracing brand responsibility.

Brand responsibility

At OMD Australia, we define brand responsibility as the “alignment of individual brand and business ethics and values with media platforms, content and publishers to demonstrate brand purpose and authentically support and represent causes and values”.

At its very core, a brand’s purpose is inclusivity. When it comes to advertising and media however, we often see a disconnect between a brand’s intentions (their purpose, values, Diversity and Inclusivity Charter) and how the brand shows up in advertising.

Authenticity in demonstrating brand diversity and inclusivity values is critical in brand responsibility. Brands and marketers may have well-intended efforts but all too often, we see diversity applied to a brand without the rigour, community consultancy and accountability that such an important topic requires. Superficial brand efforts to demonstrate diversity may do more harm to the brand than if they had not gone to market with a diversity or inclusivity message in the first place.

Australian telecommunications brand Optus was called out after launching a campaign entitled #signyes – conceptually a well-intended, inclusive initiative to encourage Australians to communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing by learning Auslan.

However, the campaign itself failed to include open/closed captions on video content and used the outdated – and deemed offensive – term “sign language” rather than the correct terminology, Auslan. These fails could have been avoided had Optus engaged and worked with people who are deaf or hard of hearing to develop this initiative, rather than trying to take ownership and authority of the message for them.

Media company Nine had to quickly replace its, again well-intended, campaign encouraging Australians to get vaccinated, upon receiving immediate backlash that it only featured white talent from the network.

When brands truly embrace authenticity in diversity and representation, the effect is incredibly powerful. This often means giving up their own brand platform for the community they set out to champion, becoming a true ally.

ANZ Bank has long been a champion of inclusivity and diversity. Demonstrating allyship over the long term, the brand started with its owned assets and built from the inside, out. It started back in 2014, during Pride week, rebranding its ATMs to GayTMs around Mardi Gras – Australia’s premier Pride event to hero the LGBTIQA+ community.

Over time, this initiative built into representing LGBTIQA+ Australians in regional and rural communities where traditionally, they have had the least representation and acceptance within society. Most recently, ANZ has extended its demonstration of inclusivity values during the Australian Open where, as sponsors of legendary wheelchair athlete Dylan Alcott (winner of more grand slams than Andre Agassi), the brand approached Nike to develop the first ever custom shoe for a wheelchair athlete.

In these instances, the insight and execution were community-led, rather than brand-led, resulting in meaningful change and demonstrating true authenticity and brand responsibility by empowering people through brand assets.

Brand responsibility should not be a “one-off”, aligning with a date in the calendar or a token promotion, a reactive initiative or afterthought, or adding diverse casting or requirements to a campaign idea to tick the diversity box.

Demonstrating commitment to the cause and alignment with brand values requires a consistent, long-term strategy that mirrors the brand’s internal charter and delivers returns to the communities the brand sets out to represent.

Extending brand responsibility to media and platforms

As representatives and influencers of the media industry, our responsibility extends to sustaining the dedicated media channels that give those in minority groups a platform and a voice.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up 3.3% of the Australian population. According to the SBS network however, media that exists to serve these communities is often not considered as part of campaign planning. It is estimated that less than 0.3% of advertising in Australia is invested in media dedicated to reaching these audiences.

The government allocates funding to NITV – Australia’s dedicated TV channel – to First Nations content. However, community radio stations (essential for those in remote communities with intermittent internet access to stay connected) often rely on donations to stay active.

The Koori Mail, Australia’s dedicated print and digital asset, is 100% Aboriginal-owned and it is self-funded. With donations, and in some cases government funding in decline, brands and media have a responsibility to help maintain platforms for minority communities (and customers) to thrive and for all Australians to have a voice.

Dedicated LGBTIQA+ media platforms also heavily rely on philanthropic and government funding to ensure the community has dedicated representation in media. These platforms also exist to return funds to the community – Joy FM (audio/social) help fund Rainbow Country – a program providing much-needed training and mentoring for regional, rural and remote LGBTIQA+ people who need community connectivity.

Advertising opportunities do not require a huge financial outlay from brands in comparison to mainstream media partnerships. For brands to demonstrate inclusivity (especially those brands with Pride values at their very core), an “always on” media commitment to support platforms dedicated to the LGBTIQA+ community should be a long-term demonstration of their values.

Finally, we need to ensure brand accessibility.

Typical media strategies can often exclude people living with a disability. From an owned and paid media perspective, make every effort for brands to be inclusive – be it open and closed captioning on video content for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or alternative text or image/video descriptions for people who are blind or have low vision.

Accessibility options are limited for people who are deaf or hard of hearing on social platforms. Providers are available for Auslan interpreting/captioning to make the content more accessible, as well as other corporate services (event interpreting/awareness training). Media partners such as SBS Australia can build bespoke packages for brand-funded, audio-described programming too. Again, the cost is not as much of a barrier as the intent and effort for brands to evolve their approach to inclusivity and accessibility.

Transforming intent into action

Encouragingly, we are seeing more brands demonstrate their purpose and lean into societal issues and needs more than ever. Our industry is recognising cause and pro bono work at the highest level with dedicated awards and content.

With purpose at their heart, brands are built to be inclusive. We now have the ability to turn this intent into action through media and communications actions and principles.

  1. Consistency is key – demonstrate long-term commitment to inclusivity and brand values.
  2. 360 experience – ensure inclusivity and diversity are applied from the inside, out across owned, paid and shared assets.
  3. Alignment – hold media partners accountable to your shared brand values and consider the role brands have in supporting platforms dedicated to minority communities.
  4. Consultancy – extend partnerships and approach to consult and collaborate with diverse talent and representatives of key communities for meaningful and positive outcomes.
  5. Set and share KPIs – ensure that the brand impact and perceptions of diversity and inclusion efforts are measurable. Consider brand trust measures, reputation and sentiment – beyond traditional measures of awareness and sales.

Over time, as an industry, our ambition is to not only ensure that people and society are truly reflected in our businesses, brands and media activity, but to also ensure we improve the amount of high quality, ethical media content.

A win for communities, for brands and for media.

About the author

About the author

Penny’s background includes global, APAC and Australian agency and client media roles in strategy, account leadership and new business.

At OMD, she leads Melbourne’s strategy team and OMD’s national planning capability.