Voices

Inclusive brands need to include the neurodiverse

Why now is the time for brands to expand the pool of diverse narratives and be more inclusive of those who are neurodivergent.

Fauzia Musa, Editor-at-large and Tom Richer, Junior Strategist, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.

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“If you believed, they put a man on the moon…” so goes the song by R.E.M. This song is played several times on repeat by Jack, a young neurodivergent man who has autism. He plays this song via Amazon’s Alexa, proudly demonstrating to those around him his hard earned independence in a care home in the south of England. “Echo, play REM Man On The Moon,” shouts Jack, his excitement growing every time the song plays.  

Jack is Tom Richer’s brother, the founder of a creative initiative called The Bridge Between which aims to be a resource and source of inspiration for those with siblings who are neurodivergent. 

“Three years ago, my relationship with my brother Jack was getting more and more distant. We were living independent lives and our relationship had whittled down to distant telephone calls and when I did see him I never felt like I captured enough time. This is something I have had conversations with other people who have neurodiverse siblings and whilst no experience is the same, we have all found some areas difficult. I found it not only important to positively address a lack of support for neurodiverse siblings, but for my own health and my brothers. The Bridge Between was born from this and today we are an inclusive initiative promoting creativity in accessible ways for neurodiverse and/or disabled siblings,” says Richer. 

Neurodiversity is defined as “ the diversity of human brains and minds, the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species” by Autistic UK. According to the World Health Organization, 17 percent of the global population have been diagnosed with a neurodiversity, though fewer than 50 percent know they have one. And more than 15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent and 10.8 percent in the U.S. Despite such a large global community, only 3% of characters on screen have disabilities in North America according to the Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities (CSPD). 

It’s an area of inclusive marketing that often goes overlooked, with race, gender, and sexual orientation taking the lead. Few brands have harnessed the potential to connect with this large global community or cultivated a relationship with those who have many stories to share. It’s these stories that not only can help us better understand those with neurodivergence, but also how we can connect with them. 

Though brand engagement with neurodivergent audiences is underexplored, products have come a long way, helping us control our environments in ways only imagined in science fiction. Now this technology has also been a crucial advancement in accessibility, helping neurodivergent audiences live independently. Apple, Amazon, and Google all have their own voice control systems that support neurodivergent individuals as well as options for non-verbal members of the community.

 

Brands are obsessively trying to become more community-driven, drive advocacy, and have long-lasting impact; and here’s a huge community with amazing stories to tell who deserve to be represented along with other underrepresented communities.

Fauzia Musa, Editor-at-large and Tom Richer, Junior Strategist, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.

Google’s Project Diva, which stands for Diversely Assisted, is a great example of voice control systems helping those with neurodivergence. Project Diva helps people give Google Assistant commands without having to use their voice. A person who is nonverbal or is limited in their mobility can use an external device to trigger Google Assistant commands. The company launched this prototype at Google’s annual I/O conference in 2019, inspired by a Google employee’s experience of trying to help his neurodivergent brother. 

And Amazon similarly has pushed the boundaries for what can be achieved in and outside of our homes just with our voice and its key product offering for Alexa is accessibility. But Alexa’s ability to transform the lives of those with disabilities goes largely unaddressed in marketing and advertising, though they would make compelling narratives for a mainstream audience. This is where Richer sees a huge opportunity lost for brands like Amazon and Google who have such a positive impact with their products. 

“The Amazon ecosystem doesn’t just reach homes, it reaches diverse audiences such as my brother and enhances smart living with over 100 million adaptable products. However, there’s minimal representation of neurodiverse and/or disabled individuals in Amazon’s advertising when there is an audience who is very engaged with the brand everyday.” 

Brands are obsessively trying to become more community-driven, drive advocacy, and have long-lasting impact; and here’s a huge community with amazing stories to tell who deserve to be represented along with other underrepresented communities. 

This is not to say brands should be exploiting neurodivergent audiences for their marketing objectives, as some TV shows arguably have. Channel 4’s 2012 show The Undateables has been renowned for its attempt to subvert misconceptions with those who have disabilities, but its marketing never quite hit the mark even by its naming of the show. More recently, pop star Sia’s film Music faced widespread criticism for its portrayal of autism. The singer’s directorial debut featured a neurotypical actor playing someone with autism as well as scenes depicting the autistic character being put in restraints. Both The Undateables and Music may be well intended, but their efforts have adversely affected the communities they aim to help. 

It’s time we expand the pool of diverse narratives and be more inclusive of those who are neurodivergent, and the friends and family who support them.

Fauzia Musa, Editor-at-large and Tom Richer, Junior Strategist, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.

Brands changing the narrative

At its core, brand building is about storytelling and increasingly these powers are being optimised for better understanding, amplification and celebration of diverse audiences while normalising differences. Gucci recently made waves by making Ellie Goldstein, a woman with Downs Syndrome, the face of its beauty campaign. This was the first time the luxury fashion brand featured a person with disabilities, hopefully inspiring many others to do the same. 

Nike also recently made a splash with their latest GO FlyEase shoe. The shoe, which can be put on easily and requires no shoelaces (often a challenge for the neurodivergent), was seen as a sign of progress for inclusive clothing. Though the shoe’s appeal is wider than for those with disabilities, the brand missed a huge opportunity to represent people with disabilities throughout their brand ecosystem. 

It’s evident brands have an immense opportunity to engage people with neurodivergence and disabilities and involve them in their inclusive marketing efforts. The best way is for brands to connect with these communities, prioritise their stories, and tell them. This can be easily achieved for brands already investing in accessible products to tell powerful stories of those whose products help in profound ways, and most importantly, put media dollars behind these narratives so they have wider reach and impact. 

It’s time we expand the pool of diverse narratives and be more inclusive of those who are neurodivergent, and the friends and family who support them. Brands are making strides in being inclusive of race, gender, and sexual orientation. But as Jack sings everyday (thanks to Amazon’s Alexa) “If you believed, they put a man on the moon,” then surely the brands improving Jack’s life can tell his story and inspire us all. 

Guest Author

Fauzia Musa, Editor-at-large and Tom Richer, Junior Strategist, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.

, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand

About

Fauzia Musa is Editor-at-large at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand. Born in Mumbai, and raised between London and the Bay Area. Equally right and left brained. A former chef and journalist, she cut her teeth leading brand and design strategy at Media Arts Lab (Apple), IDEO, and Google, amongst others. She built the brand strategy team at Google Cloud, and led design work for Kate Spade, Playstation, The Times, and Hulu while at IDEO. In her (very limited) free time, she’s working on draft two of a novel. Tom Richer is a Junior Strategist, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand. Born in Southampton (UK) he studied at Kingston University. He's the founder of inclusive neurodiversity initiative The Bridge Between and is part of Brixton Finishing School's 2019 Alumni.