Coke, Cheerios score touchdowns for diversity

Championing diversity and inclusion is not always a smooth road.

Last Sunday, I was among the 111.5 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Super Bowl. As a member of a football-crazed family, Super Bowl Sunday has assumed holiday status for me. Our American Idol-like judging panel closely reviews and rates the ads, which have become as important as the game itself. To this process, our family has incorporated a “CFEI” rating criteria: Creative, Funny, Emotive, and "I-opening.” The latter underscores how much the spot spoke to us as individuals and made us feel proud to be included in its story.  

Though a tough crowd, we're not much different than the millions of people seeking the brands in which we see ourselves. These are the brands we reward with our business and generational loyalty. So when a company spends $4 million on a 30-second spot during a broadcast that delivers the most viewers in US television history, engaging the most people across as many backgrounds as possible would seem a primary goal. How often can such a diverse audience be found glued to one screen?

To be successful, though, the brand creative and communications teams must be attuned enough to the nuances of inclusion to understand that this type of engagement is best accomplished via a common set of interests and values – not simply casting. Here is where we see the practical line drawn between visible diversity and true inclusion.

Let's focus on two brands that got it right. These examples are traditional advertising, but the diversity and inclusion lessons gleaned are best practices across the integrated marketing and communications mix. 

The first is Coca-Cola. I felt enlivened as I watched the “It's Beautiful” multicultural spot featuring seven different languages and diverse ethnicities, religions, races, and families, including – in a Super Bowl advertising first – a same-sex family. That is America to me and to so many like my family who accept and understand that the greatness and strength of our beloved country – and its companies – are rooted in our pluralism, not our prejudices or myopic views of what define us. Unfortunately, this excitement was met by a wave of vitriol attacking Coke in the social media sphere. 

However, rather than issuing a reactionary apology or downplaying its message, company executives maintained their position that the ad was an example of “a powerful message that spreads optimism, promotes inclusion, and celebrates humanity – values that are core to us."

Coca-Cola has had diversity challenges – most notably a record racial discrimination settlement in 2000. However, the company also used its mistakes as opportunities to learn and pivot. It has openly made an effort to align its internal diversity with its external perception. From a focus on internal culture to external advisory councils, diversity trainings and councils, and business resource groups, it has been consistently recognized for its strides to achieve what CEO Muhtar Kent defines as the company's global premise that “our diversity should be as inclusive as our brands.” 

Today, its inclusive efforts are helping reap the rewards of a social media boon (second only to Budweiser's “Puppy Love” ad) and achieve its goal of getting “people talking and thinking about what it means to be proud to be American.” That conversation is sure to continue as a 90-second version of “It's Beautiful” is scheduled to debut during tonight's opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

Cheerios, which entered the Super Bowl ad fray for the first time this year with an adorable little girl named Gracie, was another winner. The brand received abhorrent criticism last May when a spot featured the biracial child and her fictional black father and white mother. However, the Cheerios marketing team didn't cower when it reprised the family during the big game – this time to announce Gracie's new little brother. 

Despite the outdated and outlandish views expressed by detractors, Cheerios unapologetically used the cross-cultural value of family to highlight the commonality within our differences. By tapping into the value system of viewers, the brand connected with families across lines and sent subtle yet transcendent messages of inclusion, understanding, and shared moments. In doing so, it demonstrates how brands can leverage diversity and inclusion to initiate dialogue that helps foster an understanding and embrace of previous “taboos” as new societal norms.

The brand delivered its messages with such credibility because they are consistent with the values that Cheerios and General Mills continually embrace, from mission efforts “to make lives richer with foods that…help to create a special moment with family and friends” to award-winning, symbiotic work on both sides of diversity. The brand understands the importance of the multicultural consumer and having an inclusive workplace. 

Championing diversity and inclusion is not always a smooth road. However, both Coca-Cola and Cheerios demonstrate that it is a journey and, thus, the commitment to it must be long term. No brand or company gets it right all of the time, but in my family's book, these two brands scored touchdowns.

Latraviette Smith, former VP, global diversity and inclusion for American Express, has spent 15 years in communications in agency, corporate, consumer, and multicultural PR, as well as senior marketing roles. Her column will focus on the PR industry's ongoing efforts to advance diversity among its ranks at all levels. Connect with her via LinkedIn or at

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