If I'd asked freelance consultant Dr Bianca Bailey-Wilson how she felt about the representation and inclusive practices of brands last year, or at least before Black Lives Matter kicked off in the summer, I'd have probably got a very different answer.

"I'd say a lot of brands have come a long way in the last six months," she says. "Mainly because they've stopped debating whether representation and inclusivity is an issue or not. We no longer have to make the case that it's a 'thing'."

Up until that point she had spent most of her career arguing with clients who asked: "but is it really a problem?", "do they really spend?", and "are they really there?" "Now, people are recognising that there is a massive issue and ask what are we doing about it?" she says.

Some brands have been more up-front and open, doing more advertising, while others have engaged with research houses to think in greater depth about diversity and inclusivity. Yet unless such action results in internal change the end result can come across as tokenism because the major issue with brand comms is often a lack of diversity in the workforce.

Others are familiar with the challenges. Indeed, a trawl in Coca-Cola's archives reveals its 'Boys on the Bench' print ad from 1969, part of its 'Real Thing' campaign, featuring African-American and white kids on a park bench in New York, drinking Coca-Cola and laughing. Given that it was a year after Dr King was assassinated and the Civil Rights Movement was in full flow, it could have been seen as a brave move, but it looked completely natural. Then the famous Hill Top commercial with its "I'd like to teach the world to sing …" put an even more iconic sheen on its reputation as a brand that embraced diversity.

Fast forward to the present day and we have seen, particularly since George Floyd's death and the start of the pandemic, a shift in marketing communications. Rihanna's Fenty underwear range, which had already celebrated women of all shapes and colour, embraced male body size diversity this autumn with the launch of her Savage X range. Further back, we've seen familiar names such as Nike, McCain, Mattel and Dove promoting diversity in their own communications.
Yet this doesn't mean that brands are finding it easy. It requires, says Maru/Matchbox's Anjul Sharma, thinking outside of the box, using ideation to put yourself in someone's shoes. "You need a team that is open to challenging itself, its own assumptions. If you have a diverse workforce, they can help with that."

She cites the example of Transport for London, which has long recognised that, by talking to diverse audiences, it ends up creating a better service for everyone. "They think a different way," she says, "and that is where having the right mindset, the right cultural mix, an enquiring mind is so important in an organisation. HSBC, over Diwali had a beautiful gif file with a rotating light, a small thing, not costing a lot but the impact on different audiences is definitely worthwhile."

An intrinsic lack of data can be a problem for marketing teams, Bianca cites a recent study she worked on with ClearView Research, on black and mixed-race spending power/habits, which indicates disenchantment about the messages, or lack of them, carried by traditional media. It leaves the way clear for social media to fill the gap, and is likely to continue to if there is ongoing lack of representation in brand owners' workforces.

"It will be interesting to see whether the change that brands are talking about will continue over the next couple of years," says Bianca, "or whether it will be a case of it being 'flavour of the moment'." Naomi Campbell is just one high profile voice that's been raised on this topic in the past. The difference now, Campbell says, is that those well-known names that say they are committed to change can be held to account further down the line.

Anjul has a long track record in this area. Some 20 years ago she chaired the MRS's Ethnic Research Network, set up to better understand different cultures and communities and engage them in the right methodologies. She sympathises with marketing teams under increasing budgetary constraints and time pressure, asking themselves: "if I only have a small amount of money, which audience do I use it on?"

"I would always say to the client: 'this is the absolute minimum you need to do. Failing that, get yourself a consultant who can steer you through some of this. While it is incredibly important to talk to the consumer, someone from the community who has been around the block a few times can pretty much tell you what you need to do to at least get some kind of engagement. The less money you have, the smarter you need to be. And if you're a large organisation, talk to your employees."

Did this Christmas represent a sea change in terms of advertising? Well, some say it was the most diverse in years and provoked debate. To name but three we had AB InBev working on social campaigns to change the way people drink, Amazon following a ballerina who brings the community together while Sainsbury produced a set of three TV ads, including one, Gravy Song, which sadly sparked a social media backlash. If it was a school report card, I think it might say: Better, but must try harder.