Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Consumer Research

Consumer insights company Bigeye explores research focused on minorities and under-represented groups with Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais, the co-founder of Versiti.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: Bigeye discusses the results of a Market Research Society report with its author, Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais. Co-founder of Versiti in London, UK, Dr. Gervais conducts research with traditionally underrepresented groups in society. She explains the roots of many market researchers’ unconscious biases, the benefits of engaging with minority audiences, and suggests practical steps we can take to ensure consumer research is truly diverse, inclusive, and representative.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. In 2020, diversity, equity, and inclusion – or “DE&I” for short – has shifted from being an initiative of corporate HR departments to a more broad-ranging conversation, prompted in part by the international Black Lives Matter movement. Today, we’re going to consider some of these DE&I-related subjects such as gender and racial equality, disability, neurodiversity, and the LGBTQ+ community, in the context of consumer research. Software company Adobe published a study last year that found that 38% of US and UK consumers are more likely to trust a brand that shows more diversity in its ads. Nearly one-third of consumers overall say that they are more likely to purchase products or services from brands with ads that reflect diversity. That percentage rises to over 50% among respondents identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community and those who identify as African-Americans. Authentically reflecting diverse identities and issues requires a more nuanced approach to developing advertising messaging, which in turn requires marketers to develop real empathy for minority audiences’ lived experiences. To talk about conducting research with underrepresented groups, my guest today is Dr. Marie-Claudie Gervais, the co-founder and Director of Research at Versiti. Based in London, England, Versiti helps clients in the public, private, and third sector understand and mitigate against inequalities and strive for greater inclusion and a fairer society. The research firm unearths and explores the experiences, attitudes, and behaviors of Black, ethnic minority and faith communities, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, women, the young, and the old. Marie-Claude, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: Hi, Adrian! Thanks for having me. I’m very glad to be here.

Adrian Tennant: So Marie-Claude, what led you to co-found Versiti?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: I think it’s been really a mix of professional, business, and personal factors. So I started my Ph.D. at the London School of Economics many years ago, then I was a lecturer in Social and Cultural Psychology there. And so there’s a very long-term kind of commitment and interest and understanding about what makes people feel and think and behave in the way that they do and the role of social groups and communities and culture in shaping all of that. I had a wonderful time at the LSE, but in 2000, so 20 years ago, I could see that issues around diversity, inclusion, and equality were becoming important and that there were significant ethnic inequalities in particular, in relation to very many different issues. So, keen to have a greater impact, to drive change, I left academia to create an agency that specializes in research with people from ethnic minority backgrounds. And that was a great experience. But for factors that are personal more than anything else, I left that agency to my then ex-husband and joined forces with Stephen Cribbett, who is a wonderful guy and a research industry veteran, and together we launched Versiti. And now the scope of Versiti is not just ethnicity, but it’s extended quite beyond that to encompass work with any minoritized group. I said at the beginning that it was also personal factors. So on a personal level, I’m French Canadian, living in London, and I was married for 20 years to a British Pakistani man and we have two wonderful children that have been much enriched by being raised in three different cultural traditions. So Pakistani, British, and Canadian, and it’s the personal level really hugely important to me to get diversity, inclusion, and equality right because I want my kids to grow in a world where they will have the same opportunities to thrive as everybody else.

Adrian Tennant: Marie-Claude, you are the Director of Research. What methodologies does Versiti typically use?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: That’s a good question. We’re not really wedded to any specific methodology. I would say that we, in fact, pride ourselves on being creative and thoughtful in terms of adapting the right methodology for each brief. When I was at the LSE, I also taught research methodology across the whole university. So I’m a nerd when it comes to research methods and I like to try new things. So yesterday, for example, we launched a report which looks at the state of diversity, inclusion, and equality across the whole market and social research, data analytics, and insights sector in the UK. It’s a big piece for the Market Research Society – so that’s the world’s leading research association. They have members in 60 countries. It’s very big. So of course, for something like that, we did a survey. It made sense. But for most projects, we tend to use qualitative research, all sorts – face-to-face, online, individual, group-based, ethnography, – all sorts because qualitative research is just more appropriate because the issues that we are researching most of the time are complex. They are not well understood. So they require more in-depth exploration, more sensitivity, and ability to really adapt to what the participants are saying and to adjust to that and to kind of find our way really in their world. Also, almost by definition, many of the research participants will have experienced exclusion, discrimination, and might have a degree of distrust towards the research industry. It takes time for them and the issues we tap into can be very sensitive, right? So it takes them for them to build rapport with us. The closer we can be to their environment, their home, their workplace in their family, in the shopping malls where they go, in their living room when they watch TV, that kind of stuff, the better it is. Now I would also say that over the last 10 years, we’ve certainly made very extensive use of online research communities. They unfold over a fixed period of time, say a week, two weeks, a month – and they give us time to build rapport and to get, I guess, the closest to some kind of ethnographic approach as, you know, client budgets will typically allow. And also online communities make it possible for participants to share their lives, in the moment. So they document what’s going on in their lives, but they can also give a much more thoughtful, considered view on things. They can upload their experiences or perspectives or views, opinions, feelings through text, or images, or video. They can give us feedback on content, concepts, product, services, advertising, whatever. So for many reasons, that tends to work well and really we’ve delivered many award-winning, kind of transformative insights, really for our clients using that methodology because precisely of the customer closeness and immersions that this makes possible.

Adrian Tennant: We’ve actually addressed online research communities previously on this podcast and we’ll include a link to that episode in the show notes. Minorities are by definition, not the majority of consumers. So why do you think brands now seem more interested in addressing sometimes tiny percentages of a given market? 

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: In this sense, a lot hinges on how you define minority, and I – alongside many people who have a more kind of a legalistic mindset when it comes to this – tend to define the minority not by their demographic size, but by their access to power. So that’s why women are protected by the equality legislation. For example, of course, women are 50% and a little bit more of the population, but because historically women are experiencing discrimination, we are protected by law. And so the size of the group is not what defines minority status. And I sometimes say to people, if you consider white people, especially during Apartheid in South Africa, clearly they were a demographic minority but a political majority – in a sense – they had the huge amount of power. So I think we need to complexify our sense of what the minority is you know, if women are half of the population and people from non-white backgrounds, I think in America it’s currently about 40% of the US population and it’s expected to reach 50%, in the next 25 years. So 50% will be from a non-white background. And then disabled people on top of that would be 26% I think of the adult population. And, probably LGBTQI+ people would be a little bit less than 5% – it’s similar to the UK percentage. So even if you allow for overlapping categories, the net kind of percentage would be more than half of the population. Now, people who belong to minority groups are particularly interesting because if you understand their needs, you get things right for the majority of the population as well. For example, you know, most of us will have an iPhone that has some kind of a fingerprint for opening your iPhone, right? So a way of identifying yourself and it saves you having to remember yet another password, and that was designed, in order to address memory deficit and dexterity problems with some disabled people. And wow, it’s a lifesaver for so many of us, right? So getting things right for a minority can really serve the needs of a majority. So I think the import of your question is more about why brands should care and why actually have some started to care? And clearly, Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 have both shined the light on structural inequalities, especially in relation to race, of course. And that’s triggered a whole raft of reactions. So in some cases, brands have been jolted into action because they suddenly became aware of the nature and the scale of racism. So that became a moral imperative, right? An ideological and emotional reaction with brands, deciding that they need to do more and to focus, addressing these inequalities. I was listening to Lewis Hamilton, Formula One driver, who was saying in an interview that it’s not enough not to be racist; you have to be actively anti-racist. And I think that’s the kind of attitude that many brands have taken. But we also have brands who came to us because they were under pressure from their own staff. And so their diverse workforce approached them and demand that they would do something to respond to Black Lives Matter, in particular. So then it’s brands as employers that are beginning to think, “Whoa! We have to react to this and to somehow demonstrate our commitment to social justice, otherwise our staff are going to go!” right? And then more generally there’s purely a commercial imperative because there’s growing evidence really that brands, as you said in your introduction, you know, brands that embrace diversity and inclusion perform better. A study by Heat, which is an agency that is owned by Deloitte, shows that brands that include a broad variety of demographic and cultural groups in their ads improved perceptions amongst their consumers and actually gained a significant stock market value. The average stock gain was 44% in that study and brands with the highest diversity scores showed an 83% higher consumer preference. And that’s because for more and more consumers, especially younger people, that brands that are seen to be diverse are more trusted because diversity makes them seem caring and relevant and progressive and innovative and dynamic. So for tons of reasons, they appeal more. Now, I would also say that it’s really important to avoid thinking only in terms of representation. So having, an Hispanic or gay person or disabled person just plunked on an ad because it feels very quickly tokenistic or box-ticking, or exploitative in some way, kind of just jumping on the diversity bandwagon without any connection to the brand’s purpose. Right? So it’s the way in which diversity is portrayed that matters. And people want to see authenticity. They want to see full people, three-dimensional characters, people in situations that they can relate to, that share their concerns, their strengths, their values, their lifestyle. So it’s much more subtle. It’s much more nuanced, as you said and it’s about normalizing diversity and kind of getting everyone to see that actually everyone uses washing powder, everyone uses tomato ketchup, everybody drives cars, you know, we all love chocolate. And that’s the shape of the modern consumer. We can’t pretend that they don’t exist.

Adrian Tennant: In my introduction, I framed our conversation today as a reflection of a broader societal focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Marie-Claude, could you explain how you typically define these values?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: Diversity is a little bit more factual, a little bit more like a head 

count in a sense. So it refers to the full spectrum of differences and similarities between individuals. Typically, we think about that in terms of socio-demographic variables, like, you know, people’s age and gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, social class, but diversity is also more encompassing than that can be of course, a diversity of beliefs and values and life experiences and personal preferences. So catering to that breadth of life experiences, and preferences, and needs is what diversity refers to. Inclusion – it’s more about a feeling and a set of behaviors and practices that are about making individuals, whatever their background, feel welcome and valued and confident that they’ll be treated fairly and respected. So for me, inclusion is almost like the normalization of diversity. It’s the point when we take it for granted that the whole world is diverse and we build this awareness in everything we do. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across that, but it’s a lovely way of thinking about the difference between diversity and inclusion: some people say diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance. And I think that’s just a very nice way of putting it. Now, equality is more complicated. It can mean equality of access, equality of opportunity in that sense, but also equality of experience and equality of outcomes, which is a trickier still way of thinking about equality and it might be more precise in fact, to talk about equity than equality. So too often people assume that they are fair because they treat everyone the same, right? They equate in their mind sameness with equality. So if you treat everybody the same, that surely that makes you fair. When in fact, fairness might very well be treating people differently saying, “Ah, okay, I’ve looked at your specific needs. And in order for you to achieve the same outcome, I’m going to have to give you a slightly different approach. Maybe I need to give you a bit more training on this, or create an ad that will be tailored to your life experiences and not somebody else, or a product that will meet X need and not another.” So equality of outcomes, I think, in a sense, it’s a richer way of thinking about that.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message. 

Lauren Fore: I’m Lauren Fore, and I’m on the operations team at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as agency professionals and reflects the way that Bigeye puts audiences first.  For every engagement, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers. This data is distilled into actionable insights that inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – and guide strategic, cost-efficient media placements that really connect with our clients’ audiences. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais, Director of Research at Versiti. Of course, a word we’ve heard a lot in 2020 is intersectionality, which can be defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations, such as race, class, and gender, as they apply to a given individual or group regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” As a researcher, how do you identify intersectionality and assess its influence on the ways in which participants respond in studies?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: Our thinking keeps evolving on this. I think to be fair, 10 years ago, I did a piece of work for the government, it was called “Ethnic Minority Women: Routes to Power” And it was specifically doing interviews with the 23 most powerful ethnic minority women in the country to map out their roots to positions of power and, you know, work backwards from there and identify what had worked and hadn’t worked for them. So that was an early study into intersectionality. Earlier on in this podcast, I talked about the survey we just published for the Market Research Society, and in that report, the way in which we kind of grappled with intersectionality is we looked at all of the data and we analyzed it by three types of researchers. So we created a type – type one, which I really don’t like the expression, but I think it’s going to be the simplest way of conveying what I mean about people that are known as “pale, male, and stale.” 

Adrian Tennant: [laughter]

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: I know, not very nice! But older, white, straight, able-bodied men who typically have never experienced much discrimination. So they don’t tend to perceive it. So that was one type. Then there was another type, which was essentially the same thing, but instead of men, women. So women who are white, British, straight, age 35 and over, and able-bodied. And then the third type we group together, researchers who belong to any visible minority over which they didn’t have control. Right? So people see that you’re Black or Asian, or you wear a hijab or you are a wheelchair user – so visible minorities. And when we analyze the data by these types, which really were heuristic devices in a sense, right? It was just about seeing how advantages and disadvantages cohere, when you start considering intersectional factors, the results were fascinating and they’ve really revealed radical differences in perceptions of discrimination. Of course, in pay and rewards. And of course, in, you know, commitment to driving the change. So to me, that’s been a really, really valuable way of looking at the evidence because actually older, white men, straight, and able-bodied, hold so much power in society and if they never experience discrimination, it’s so much more difficult for them to see that it exists and to be motivated to do something about it. I think that from what I’m looking at in the communications on LinkedIn or whatever, that’s resonating with a lot of people they’re suddenly getting it and going, “Wow, we need to address that.”  I talked a bit about online communities and why they have advantages for that kind of research. Another reason is that it may be easier to explore empirically intersectionality. So you’ve recruited your participants, right? So they’ve taken part in the community and then you can analyze your dataset by discrete variables. Right? So the experiences of men versus women, or older people versus younger people, or middle-class versus working class, or whatever, but you can also compare data, say, for working-class gay men versus working fast lesbians, or young Black men versus young Black women and bring out all the data for these kind of combined characteristics and see the patterns. So I find it much easier to see patterns and to test hypotheses about intersectional experiences in that research platform.

Adrian Tennant: For your clients,  what does an engagement with Versiti typically look like?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: We have a few guiding principles. So the first is, before we start working with anybody, we’re a bit nerdish so we do a lot of research on the client and the sector. We try to learn as much as possible about the clients or their organizational culture, their corporate aims, their business objectives. And we look at the literature to identify interesting things to start an interesting conversation with the clients about their circumstances, but also opportunities, new target audiences, whatever. We’re very aware that for many people, the world of diversity and inclusion and equality is very tentative. It’s a bit scary. And they don’t want to work with people who are so ideologically committed that they fear that the hard left is walking into their office somehow. So for us, meeting with clients, connecting, building a relationship and a sense of trust is really important. And once we have that, then the relationship is so much more fluid anyway. It’s wonderful. In the kind of same vein, a little bit, we always have a good kickoff meeting with internal stakeholders to make sure that everybody is aligned and that we are very much attuned to the diversity of agendas in a room normally, and the insight requirements across the organization and there will typically be different people with very different understandings around diversity and inclusion. So being mindful, sensitive to that, is very important. And of course it’s the standard stuff about, you know, firming up the aims and objectives and the methodology. And we sometimes, depending on the scale of the project, we’ll have a whole risk register. It’s also, you know, agreeing timeline and deliverables and the standard stuff. We are very diligent in terms of having regular touchpoints so that it’s part of the trust-building and the open communication, and giving clients an opportunity to ask questions, right? In our reporting, we try very hard to make sure that clients obviously understand the issues and get the insights and go, “Aha! Wow! Okay, I get it.” But it’s also empathy. To us, it’s so important to bring consumers to life. Usually, we use quite a bit of video so clients get people and they also feel much more confident and empowered to have new discussions within the business and externally. And then I would say also our strapline, right, is “Evidence to drive change.” So, for us, research is never, ever an end in itself. It has really no value until it’s used. If it sits on the shelf, we feel we have absolutely failed. So we focus a lot on activation, and impact, and change. So we want to have an activation workshop at the end of the project. Once all the stakeholders have digested the insights, then we meet and we really workshop hard the implications for the wider business and begin to think through the next steps. Sometimes we bring research participants in the room, right? So that lived experiences are found in that conversation. A lot of it depends on how the client relationship started. So most of the time, I would say people come to us with a brief, some have a very strict brief – so government departments, for example, would have a very strict brief and so we adhere to that, but often it’s much less well-defined. So we did various pieces of work for Jaguar Land Rover, the kind of luxury carmakers. They needed to understand  – they knew they lacked an understanding of ethnic minority consumers, but they were not prescriptive at all about how to do that. So really left it to us to develop the approach. I think, if I recall, that combined an online research community with I think minority owners of luxury cars, but also ethnographic visits in car dealerships – so where we accompanied owners of luxury cars to kind of shop in a car dealership for their new car. And we also did interviews with ethnic minority members of the company, their staff, to understand the culture of the business. So that’s one thing. And then the really exciting thing for me is that we often completely generate a brief from scratch. So a good example of that is work we’ve done with RNIB. American audiences might not be familiar with that, but it’s the Royal National Institute for the Blind. So that’s a big charity that is supporting blind and partially-sighted people. And I kind of knew that some research had shown that the biggest barrier to full civic participation reported by blind and partially-sighted people was not their sight loss, was not their visual impairment. It was public attitudes towards them. So I went to the RNIB and I said, “Well, what are you doing about this?” I suggested five different programs of work we could do for them. And they went, “Okay, we would like this and this.” And actually, we were kind of finalists for an Insight Impact Award this year together. That piece of work led to a complete rebrand, a new logo, new strapline, a new website, a new corporate strategy that reduced their strategic priorities down from five to three. Now the research is a part of the induction of all new staff, it’s really been helpful and impactful. So yeah, sometimes we see the opportunity and we go, “All right, let’s set up a call.” And if people are open to that, it tends to really work well

Adrian Tennant: Marie-Claude, from a practical perspective, how do you recruit participants for qualitative studies or find respondents for quantitative studies from underrepresented populations?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: So if you don’t have the right people in the room, you’re never going to get the right data. So it is clearly very important to recruit the right research participants, but I would say the more fundamental question where the expertise is required is more about creating the right sampling frame in the first place. So “Who should we be speaking to?” Not just, “Where do we find them?” but “What’s the profile of the people that we should be speaking to? Do we expect generational differences? Do we expect regional differences, age differences?” So that basic thinking – it’s really quite important. So let’s first of all, kind of,  think about the sampling frame and then it’s the process, which is kind of, you create a screening questionnaire, right? And we work with a team of specialist recruiters – so people who have a lot of experience in recruiting underrepresented groups often called, “hard to reach,” which we never use that word. We talk about “seldom heard” people because we think that the onus, you know, should be on institutions and organizations to reach out. So we work with people who have deep networks in communities in some cases, community-based organizations in order to meet quotas. So, yes, most of the time we work with quota samples, but we might also use nat rep samples. 

Adrian Tennant: That means nationally representative samples – is that correct?

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: That’s right. Sorry about that. And if it’s relevant, for example, a study of perceptions about people from minority groups, we sometimes use maximum variation sample, if that means anything. So that’s kind of for deep insights piece, we would find people who are extreme in one way or another. So they are really early adopters or they are real laggards or they are, I don’t know, in the world of sport, it might be they do Extreme Sports, for example, or they have never, ever lifted anything more than a fork and a spoon and the knife in their lives. So extreme people to try and understand what’s going on. And of course, we also work with clients’ own databases. What we try desperately to do is to avoid snowballing and all sorts of kind of convenience sampling which makes it really hard to derive like really valuable, robust insights from.

Adrian Tennant: Marie-Claude, thinking about the work you’re doing with Versiti, what are you most excited about in 2021? 

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: There’s so much uncertainty about it, that it becomes exciting. The political landscape is changing. In the States there’s of course, a lot of uncertainty still in relation to the results of the election and how President-Elect Biden’s going to be in power. In the UK, of course there’s COVID, and Black Lives Matter. It’s now, you know, an international movement that has affected and made people much more aware of structural inequalities in the UK, even though the triggers might’ve been in America, so that political landscape is making everybody much, much more aware of structural discrimination. For 25 years, I found it incredibly hard to talk about discrimination and sexism and racism because people were individually defensive. They’re like, “Well, I’m not racist. I’m not sexist.” And now they see that it’s not about individual attitudes and prejudices. It can be that your customer segmentation is biased in favor of certain customers and not others. So, you know, it’s processes as opposed to individual behavior and that awareness is making it so much easier to have different and more productive kinds of conversations. So I think the dial is moving. I’m excited by the sense of community. Also a sense of, you know, grassroots power that is emerging, which is great. I’m also excited to see how digital research is becoming the mainstream as we can’t do face-to-face research. So driven by necessity or by big COVID constraints, we might have an explosion of really good quality research if people embrace that and do it well. And I also have a sense that we’re going back to basics in a sense there’s a kind of resurgence of great quality qual and big data and, you know, artificial intelligence and that the miracle cure has not been delivered. So we go back to great insights and people who can do that will be hugely prized, I think, and, and valued. That’s the hope anyway. 

Adrian Tennant: If listeners want to learn more about Versiti and your research studies, where can they find you? 

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: The simple answer is just our website so www.Versiti.co, which is VERSITI.co and you will find Versiti and our work. 

Adrian Tennant: Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais, thank you very much for joining us today! 

Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais: It’s been a real pleasure. I’m very grateful for the tough, challenging, and interesting thought-provoking questions. Thanks, Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guest this week, Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais, Co-Founder and Director of Research at Versiti, based in London. You’ll find links to resources on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under Insights. If you haven’t already, please consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, or wherever you get your podcasts. And remember if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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