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Cultural consciousness: CMOs reveal their personal experiences of cultural diversity and inclusion

Marketing leaders from Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities have a unique perspective on how to bring their lived experiences and values to their external campaign efforts as well as team leadership. Here, we talk to two of Australia’s finest CMOs on their lived experiences and views on how to improve the way brands embrace cultural inclusion.

Distinctive cultural backgrounds, values and experiences can influence everything from purchase decisions and brand affinities to how we see our own identities. So it’s not surprising to find Australian CMOs from a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background bringing their unique multicultural lens into their professional lives as well as their personal ones.

To understand just how important cultural inclusion is to brands, CulturalPulse has asked three CMOs with multiculturally diverse backgrounds to share a personal perspective on how they feel about being representatives of Australia’s CALD communities. We’ve asked these marketing leaders to share their own views on modern multiculturalism and what it means today, as well as their lived experiences of being culturally diverse and how this reflects in behaviours, buying patterns, product usage, passion points, and what’s important to them.

What does being a representative of Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) community mean to you?

Ana Sofia Ayala, Chief revenue and marketing officer, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia (ASA): It is a privilege to represent my multicultural background in Australia. My background combined with my global work experience across Latin America, the US and Australia has given me a deep understanding of the importance of embracing and advocating for diversity. As a CMO, it is my responsibility to ensure our sales and marketing efforts authentically reflect the richness of our diverse community. This includes giving a voice to all cultures and languages and driving inclusivity in every aspect of our operations.

Shaden Mohamed, chief customer officer, Silverchef (SM): I feel blessed to have been born to an Egyptian family, with all the richness in culture, language and history it brings. To be part of this, and the greater CALD community, brings me a sense of pride because multiculturalism is the gift that keeps on giving to this great country. At the same time, I also feel a sense of responsibility to protect and promote diversity, and to achieve success beyond what is expected of a woman of colour. I shouldn’t have to feel as though I have something to prove, but for better or worse, my experiences (and upbringing) are the source of this drive.

Can you share a lived experience of how your cultural background and influences reflect in your personal attitudes, behaviours, day-to-day buying patterns, product usage, passion points, or what’s important to you?

ASA: My cultural background has been instrumental in shaping my identity and values. Growing up in Mexico, gaining work experience in Miami, Florida and now after a decade in Australia, I have embraced the values of warmth, strong familial ties and a sense of community. These core values continue to inform my leadership style, fostering collaboration, empathy and a deep sense of belonging among team members, colleagues, and partners. Furthermore, my exposure to diverse cultures has nurtured adaptability and open-mindedness, enabling me to appreciate and leverage the distinctive characteristics and preferences of different consumer segments.

When it comes to developing new products or experiences, particularly in the tourism sector, I am hyper aware of the importance of considering the needs and preferences of all cultures and backgrounds. Ensuring our offerings cater to diverse guests involves considering elements such as language, accommodation options, food and beverage, as well as providing an inclusive experience that celebrates the uniqueness of each culture – especially in our core target global markets. By recognising and embracing the diversity within our guest base, we can create meaningful and enriching experiences that resonate across the board.

SM: My parents navigated Australia in the 1970s and 1980s as new migrants, when racism was rampant and exclusion expected for the CALD community. Many migrants – despite their education and skill set – were forced into factory work and blue-collar industries. My father started his own business instead. His cleaning company quickly rose to become one of the largest in Australia at the time, servicing airlines like Ansett Australia and winning contracts with major airports, schools and organisations.

To watch this success on the one hand, but then see my mother spoken down to when shopping, was extremely confusing as a child. I came to learn it was okay for a ‘wog’ to attain success, so long as they understood their place and didn’t overreach. And most importantly, so long as there was a benefit to their white ‘superior’. The words of my high school counsellor have stuck with me to this day: “Aiming too high will only lead to disappointment… count yourself lucky you get to go to University.” I was a good student, consistently performing at the top of my class, with scores that allowed me to have my pick of university. Yet her words made me feel undeserving and took me back to those insults I heard growing up: “Wog”, “go back to your own country”, “your skin is the colour of dirt”. If I ever have the opportunity to meet her again, I will give her a copy of my resume and thank her for being a powerful reminder of the voices I needed to ignore in order to achieve what I have.

Today, I have a strong bias for the underdog and gravitate towards supporting individuals who fall into this definition. I go as far as travel 10 minutes every day to a local café to buy coffee I don’t enjoy drinking, just to support the owner. I will step in when I witness harassment or bullying, often to become the target of abuse myself. I will support initiatives and conversations that may solicit anger from my own community. I do this because I won’t accept inequity or injustice.

Where have you experienced a negative stereotype or misconception, as well as a positive response, as a result of your cultural background?

ASA: I am fortunate to have never encountered negative stereotypes based on my cultural background. Thankfully, my work ethic and contributions in various roles have surpassed any biased negative notions. In Australia, I have always received acceptance and respect, my colleagues have embraced the diversity I bring and acknowledged the value it contributes to our collective success.

SM: The way I look – brown, female, wearing a hijab and identifying as Muslim – in a professional setting often lends itself to anything but management. On a good day, an SME in IT. On a bad day, invisible. With such a small percentage of women of colour in leadership roles, why would I except anything else? It’s a misconception that has continued through my career despite the level of seniority I attain or the company I work for. From attending conferences and professional events, to meeting with vendors, if I am not ignored or dismissed, I am asked where the decision maker is. There are a very small handful who do treat me like an equal before they see my title and/or are curious enough to engage openly.

While many would view this as negative, I’ve learned to tackle this with humour, and now enjoy being underestimated because it can be used to my advantage. It’s amazing what people will reveal and how they behave when they think you are a nobody. One of the best deals I’ve done was with a vendor who mistook me for the coffee lady and discussed their bottom-line pricing right there in the room as they waited for the ‘executive’ to arrive.

 

How do you define modern multiculturalism – what does it mean today and why do you think it’s important to be culturally inclusive and representative as brands and businesses?

ASA: Modern multiculturalism is a dynamic and inclusive concept that embraces the diverseness of our society. It goes beyond representing but actively integrating different cultures, languages and perspectives into the core of our brands and businesses. To me, cultural inclusivity is not really an option, it’s how any brand does business, particularly in the travel and tourism space. Embracing multiculturalism enables us to better understand and cater to the unique needs and preferences of different segments to drive stronger customer relationships, loyalty and business growth.

SM: Multiculturalism in Australia is ever evolving and taking on new meaning with every generation. Previously, it could be used to describe the migrant community. It meant ‘different’ in a way that was unacceptable, and assimilation meant shedding everything that wasn’t ‘white Australian’. From the food kids packed in their lunch boxes to appear ‘normal’, to the names we adopted to fit in (Shannon instead of Shaden), modern multiculturalism would see us name our babies ethnic names even if they were not of that group.

Today, mixed race families are commonplace, second and third-generation Australians can identify as ‘X Australian’ without shame and cultural diversity can be out in the open instead of suppressed. We see this through the evolution of not only food and art, but also in business and brands. From the people who appear in advertising right through to the policies that surround recruitment practice, accepting and embracing diversity is a non-negotiable for many. We still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to representation in traditional media and corporate Australia, but certainly recognition we have a long way to go is a great starting point.

Can you share a personal experience or view on being represented versus misrepresented in advertising and why it felt excluding / inclusive?

ASA: My view is Australia is behind in adequately representing cultural diversity compared to other global markets. This was particularly evident to me upon relocating back from the States, where inclusiveness is now an essential requirement when advertising global brands. Unfortunately, even within Australia, there are cultural backgrounds not accurately represented. The journey towards greater inclusivity has only just begun. It is critical to raise more awareness in the advertising space, ensuring all cultural backgrounds, inclusive of indigenous peoples, receive proper representation.

SM: I’m Muslim. And wear a hijab. Enough said! I don’t see ‘me’ unless it is a character representing a negative stereotype. Or on SBS. Quite frankly, mainstream media and advertising – including current non-diverse representations – have become part of my normal world view. As a woman of colour I too can be bias, and that’s a direct result of my environment and conditioning. Current culture influences everyone – including those from diverse groups – and it’s not uncommon to see communities ‘shun their own’ for breaking the narrative. I must exert effort as a marketer to ensure I am not a product of the racism I experienced, and doing what I can to normalise inclusivity.

Is there a brand you feel an affinity with or buy because of your cultural background?

ASA: I have yet to come across a brand in Australia that truly resonates with my background so what I’ve strived to do in my work with Voyages is to create a brand where people from all over Australia and the world will feel welcome – and importantly where Indigenous culture is celebrated.

SM: If you were to ask a random sample of people in or from the Middle East today which brands they had affinity with, bought or aspired to attain, it might have more to do with how it aligns to core values, motivations and aspirations, and less to do with their cultural heritage. The biggest brands in the world capitalise on this. It is why South Korea and China are among the biggest purchasers of European luxury brands. So to answer your question, the short answer is no. I might feel great nostalgia towards brands I grew up with, including homegrown Aussie favourites (Bonds, Arnott’s) but also items that made their way in a suitcase from Egypt or bought at the Arab grocery store. Of course, there are brands I will boycott because I disagree with how, and where, their money is invested, or because they are vocal about issues I view as discriminatory.

How are your striving to bring a culturally diverse lens to your role as marketing and business leader?

ASA: Embracing cultural diversity starts with having an inclusive work environment where unique perspectives thrive. I always prioritise diversity and representation within our sales and marketing teams to better understand and connect with our diverse customer base. By tailoring our products, guest experience and advertising strategies to include cultural diversity, we challenge stereotypes and create authentic connections. This approach strengthens our brand’s relevance.

SM: I have a simple rule that applies to both my marketing efforts and as a people leader. Representation should be a reflection of ‘real world’ at a minimum. Whether it is representation of your customers in advertising material, or the make-up of your team, cultural diversity should have a place, just like it does in society. Whether we like it or not, the definition of discrimination also includes to favour one group over another.

Saying this and putting it into practice though are two different things. Strategies and frameworks are a start, but they mean nothing if not put into practice. Embracing cultural diversity goes beyond the immediate workplace. It also includes the vendors you choose, the brands you partner with and the money you spend day-to-day operationally. All should align to that commitment of embracing cultural diversity (and indeed, diversity in general).

Have you started to proactively think about CALD and cultural diversity in your marketing approaches? What do you believe is stopping marketers from bringing multicultural into their mainstream marketing approach?

ASA: Embracing CALD and cultural diversity is a fundamental part of our marketing approach. With my background and now working for a brand that delivers cultural tourism experiences that support Indigenous employment, education and enterprise, I have developed a heightened awareness of the importance of representation across the board.

To me, lack of awareness in this area is what’s driving the gap. It is critical for Australian marketers to actively educate themselves, conduct thorough research, and engage directly with diverse communities. By seeking insights into their values, preferences and needs, we can better tailor our marketing strategies and create more inclusive and meaningful connections with our audiences.

SM: All marketing material at SilverChef is representative of the hospitality industry, and therefore extremely diverse. But as a B Corp, this would have been the case regardless. On the other hand, I have worked with organisations where this was not the case, and diversity avoided for fear of ‘upsetting the majority of Australians, who are not ready to see difference.’ Firstly, this is insulting to Australians, but also sets a very dangerous tone.

If the narrative is ‘diversity doesn’t sell’ or ‘diversity is brand damaging’ (unless it is within a postcode where that multicultural group reside or shop) then we shouldn’t be surprised when this attitude permeates other parts of society. I believe this is the key reason stopping marketers from bringing multicultural messaging into mainstream marketing. The other reason that comes up often, is that doing so would be politically harmful to the organisation, or backfire if it is seen to be done for political purposes or as a tick a box, which isn’t genuine.