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Performative Marketing with Alison Tedford

If your goal is to be an ally in your business, then it’s important to make sure that you don’t slip into performative marketing where you talk the talk, but you don’t walk the walk. 

Today, I’m chatting with marketer and social justice educator Alison Tedford about how we can identify and avoid falling into the trap of performative marketing and show up as allies in our businesses. 

Ready? Let’s get started.

In this episode:

  • What is performative marketing and what does it look like in online business?
  • Questions to ask yourself to determine if your business is really showing up as inclusive in a meaningful way
  • How to identify if you are centering your experience and what to do instead to drive the conversation forward for real change

Listen to the podcast here:

Performative Marketing with Alison Tedford

Welcome, I’m very excited to have you on the podcast today to tackle this topic of performative marketing. I’ve touched on it a little bit before, strictly through the lens of feminism and how people like to market to women’s empowerment, and then not actually do anything to further women’s causes. 

I’m excited today to broaden the lens right and go beyond just that aspect into other issues in performative marketing. But before we dive into all of that, tell us who you are and what you do on the internet.

Sure, my name is Alison Tedford. I’m a marketer, author, and social justice educator. I help people connect with other people in a way that reflects their values. 

Anything to do with values in your business is near and dear to my heart. You also write for a lot of publications and you’re a published author, too.

Yes, my book comes out April 6.

 And you’ve already been contracted for a second book, right?

Yes, that one will come out next spring.

Very exciting. I can’t wait to pick up your book. I think I have a pre-order in for it. I’m looking forward to that. 

So I guess before we dig too deep into this, let’s set up a broad definition of performative marketing. How would you define performative marketing to someone who’s never heard the term before? 

Performative marketing is surface level marketing that pays lip service to a concept without actually doing anything to address the underlying issues. It’s making the right noises but not doing the right things.

Performative marketing is surface level marketing that pays lip service to a concept without actually doing anything to address the underlying issues. It's making the right noises but not doing the right things. Click To Tweet

Yes, making the right noises. One of my favorite examples is literally anything from a makeup brand that markets with women’s empowerment while subtly sending the message that you’re only empowered if you’re wearing the right lip color shade. Not that I have anything against lipstick, but we’re not really doing what we could be doing. 

This issue comes up a lot, especially in the past year, since all the protests in the United States and the world due to police brutality, and things like that. We’ve seen a lot of performative marketing. We’ve seen brands who are changing their packaging and changing their mascots, and all those things are good, right? They’re good things but there are other things that go beyond that. It’s not just putting a black square on Instagram. It’s not just removing a racist trope from your packaging. It has to go beyond that. 

And so, for us small business owners, how can we make sure that we’re not getting stuck in the performative aspect of marketing? How can we make sure that we’re taking that deeper?

The first thing you need to look at is the messaging that you’re putting out there. Is it inclusive and reflective of what’s happening in your business? If you say you care about different groups of people, what have you done in your business to actually enact that? How do you show that in the work that you do every day? How does the work that you do support those concepts that you talked about? And how do you welcome people? 

If you say you care about Black lives and you say you care about trans lives, what are you doing in order for them to feel welcomed and want to do business with you? How have you prepared a space to welcome them?

If people are sitting down, they’re asking those questions, what are things that they can look out for inside their business to either make sure that they’re doing that already? Or to start doing that? 

I actually developed a checklist for this from a web perspective. Part of it is like looking at the language. Is it accessible? Does it center your own lens without considering anybody else’s? You can look at how accessible the content is. Do you provide transcripts? Do you consider the context of the people reading your content and whether they’ll be able to relate to it? Does it represent situations they might encounter in their lives if their lives are different than yours?

How relatable are you? Look at your client base. Is there diversity within your client base? And if there isn’t, it might be time to look at what you might be doing differently. Maybe you’re not advertising in the places where other people who are not like you will see it. So look at really going to where people are making meaningful connections, and building relationships with people so that you can learn and engage in conversations to look at what you’re doing. Is there something you can be doing to make this more inclusive? Can you welcome people in a better way? And then compensating those people properly for their time and knowledge.

Yes, don’t reach out to your Black friend and ask them to review your sales page to make sure it’s inclusive. There are people out there who do this for a living, you (Alison) being one of them. You need to go to those people and give them money to pay them for their labor to help you realize how to do this.

One specific example that I had in terms of inclusive language was working on a sales page with one of my OBM clients. All of her phrasing centered around having a husband and children because she has a husband and children. So we sat down and we talked about how not everybody has a husband or children and do we want to make that more inclusive? If her ideal clients are only going to be someone who has a husband and children, then the language is ok. But if that’s not the case, how can we make that language more inclusive? 

We had a lot of conversations about that back and forth until ultimately, we got to a place where she decided to broaden her language. We discussed using the term spouse instead of husband, but not everybody decides to get married. So we changed that language to partner. And we started using “if” language around having children, like ‘if you have kids’ instead of assuming the reader had children. 

We actually had a couple of people email into us and say, I wasn’t sure that this program was for me the first time it came into my awareness because everything was about husbands and kids because I’m gay. But I saw that you change the language and I felt like it was something that applied to me. 

That’s the kind of stuff that you’re talking about, right? Those specific instances where you are including every possible iteration of who your ideal client is in your marketing.

Right. How do you let people see themselves and imagine themselves interacting with your brand? How do you make it plausible that that’s part of their life and expand their mental map of what a customer of your brand would look like and what their life would be like?

If you say you care about Black lives and you say you care about trans lives, what are you doing in order for them to feel welcomed and want to do business with you? How have you prepared a space to welcome them? Click To Tweet

I think one of the things I would love to go a little deeper into is this concept of centering ourselves. I know that my fellow white women, we do this a lot. And I think we do this without meaning to. Without realizing that we’re doing it. Without really necessarily understanding the concept of what this means when we center ourselves. 

I saw this a ton as we were going through the Black Lives Matter riots and people were sort of waking up to racist stuff, as if we didn’t know that it was there before. And there was a lot of centering in those conversations. People and white women, specifically, were talking about how they felt bad about it. They were really making the conversation about themselves and how they were coming into awareness rather than how they could help fix it. 

So I would like to have a conversation with you about centering and what that looks like in a very real, practical context so that we can recognize when we’re doing it. And then stop doing it and focus the conversation in productive ways. Yeah, so

One of the places where I see this play out a lot more is around apologies. If you’ve had some kind of misstep within your community and then you maybe go live and you talk about it and you’re so sorry and you were up all night crying, then you’ve made it all about you and the impact of your actions on you. 

You’re not talking about the people that you’ve impacted. So it’s the lens through which you approach that reconciliation and saying, I recognize my impact and how the things I said or did had an impact on you. You saw something that you might have felt like I didn’t have your back or you might have seen that and felt reminded of situations where you have been treated in that way, and you’re watching someone else have that experience. And it’s probably very traumatic.

Focus on the impact on the people that you’ve harmed, versus you’re being sad that you hurt somebody. That’s really more about your discomfort and it’s not really about how you’ve affected your audience. So take a step back and think what are you trying to achieve? Do you want people to know how you feel? Or do you want people to feel better? Or do you want to make it about you.

So take a step back and think what are you trying to achieve? Do you want people to know how you feel? Or do you want people to feel better? Or do you want to make it about you. Click To Tweet

So basically, if you’ve ever seen an influencer, apologize on YouTube, don’t do that. Because they all do that. They all break down into tears. They’ll talk about how bad they feel. And then maybe for a couple minutes at the end, they might talk about how they’re going to try to do better. But they rarely focus on anyone else’s feelings in the equation outside of themselves. It feels very hollow, very performative, like you’re coming on here, and you’re crying to try to make people feel bad for you, because you fucked up in some way. That’s not really going to solve the problem.

No, and then it puts an additional burden on our audience to comfort you, when they have been in a position where they required comfort. And that’s your role in facilitating the community is to bring back the comfort to the space. Instead, you’re putting the responsibility of creating comfort on the people who are receiving your message, who are already doing a lot of work, because they’re already processing whatever it is that you’ve allowed to happen or done. So it’s additional labor for them.

Yeah, you’ve wronged these people in some way. Maybe you’ve been overtly racist, maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’re apologizing for the ways that you’ve not shown up in the best way that you could. You don’t want to ask them to do more emotional labor on top of the labor they’ve already done to most likely bring this to your attention in the first place. 

That’s a great point. You want to make sure you’re not putting the onus on them to make you feel better, because that’s not their job. There are other spaces for you to go and figure that out if that’s something that you need to figure out and explore. 

Centering yourself takes the focus off of what you want to bring attention to, and makes it more about your experience of the thing versus bringing attention to the thing. Like if you’re going to use your platform to raise awareness about something, raise awareness of the thing, not just you and your reaction to it.

Yes, absolutely. Are there ways that people can take action in a way that, again, doesn’t center them, and also allows real change in real conversations? A lot of this, especially for white women, these are very uncomfortable conversations for people to have. I know from my own experience, you feel bad when this stuff happens because you don’t identify as the person who would do those kinds of things that would intentionally cause harm. 

So those are things that you have to deal with, personally, among your friends or with your own communities or to pay for support from the community that you’ve wronged. So how can people actually physically take action in such a way that moves the conversation forward or actually creates real change in their communities while dealing with that level of discomfort at the same time?

First, make a commitment to educating yourself. Like so often we say, these are messy and difficult conversations. But that doesn’t mean we show up unprepared for them. We can prepare ourselves to have better conversations, and they will still be maybe messy and they will still be uncomfortable. But you’ll at least know what you’re talking about and you’re able to engage in a meaningful way. 

The second piece is to plan for consistency. You can put up a black square and say you’re sorry about what happened. But it’s like if you treat your mom like crap all year, but give her a nice Mother’s Day present. It should really be something that’s your focus year round. So have a plan. How are you going to talk about this value in September? Because there’s still going to be racism in September. So there’ll be things to talk about but you can have a content plan that recognizes that there are seasonal things that you could be discussing. There can be awareness days. 

Make a commitment to educating yourself. Like so often we say, these are messy and difficult conversations. But that doesn't mean we show up unprepared for them. Click To Tweet

The final piece is looking for that alignment between your words and your actions. and maybe taking action. Like I’ve done the 2% pledge that Megan Hale promotes through her programming where I set aside 2% of my revenue to support causes that matter to me. So that’s another piece. Giving back in a meaningful way. Whether that’s dollars, whether that’s time, whether that’s resources. It’s looking at who your suppliers are, who your team is, whether you’re speaking at events that always center whiteness, whether your day-to-day life shows what matters to you, and whether that’s something that you talk about.

And then be specific in your message. Why does it matter to you? Who do you specifically want to include? How are you including them? Where do you recognize you’re falling short? What’s your plan to address it? And how are you making that information easy for people to find?

Yeah, exactly. What’s your plan to address it? And how can people find that out about you? Because I know there are a lot of conversations that I see online about that. There was just a conversation in a group chat that I’m in today where someone was interested in taking a course. And she was basically coming to us and saying, Hey, what do you know about this person? What are they doing to do better in the online space? Are they even trying to do better in the online space because I don’t want to give my money to someone who’s not making an effort in some way. 

I think those things are very important. I saw so many companies who didn’t want to put out any sort of public statement over the summer 2020. And a lot of the responses I saw when these businesses were asked why they weren’t putting out any sort of statement was that their view should be obvious. If people have to ask you where you stand, then you haven’t made your view obvious. If people have to find out by reaching out to you privately where you stand on an issue as important as inclusivity, then it’s not obvious enough for people to know. You need to say something and you need to be very open about that.

It can even be something you can do in terms of who you choose to work with and who you choose to invest your professional energy. Like I know for Megan Hale’s intake, she makes people explain what work they’re doing. She’ll make people specifically name the resources that they’ve consumed in the past year on a particular topic. So people have to be really clear about what work they are doing. And making a decision then about how type of people you want to prioritize as a service provider.

Yeah, I ask all of my clients why they identify as feminists and visionaries. You want to know if the people that you’re working with and supporting are aligning with your values. I think values are becoming an increasingly large part of what makes people want to work with other people, which I think is great. 

You want to be in a space where you’re thinking about it if you aren’t already and where you’re being very conscious of communicating that with your audience so that people know where you stand on these issues. And then they can decide if they want to work with you or not work with you.

It creates an affinity. It creates a connection. It’s shared value and alignment and it makes people want to get it. Often, the things that we believe about the rights of other people can impact how we deliver services. Thinking about a client that I had with a decluttering business. And she said to me, I’m not sure how decluttering relates to marginalized people. We talked about sometimes people have limited means and will have to hang on to things for longer because they can’t replace them. Or they can’t just arbitrarily make a decision that they’re just going to declutter their space and give up things when they don’t know that they could replace them. Sometimes it’s difficult to accumulate things if you don’t have housing security or hoarding is a mental health issue. 

So when you tell people I am inclusive, it means I will be delivering services in a way that considers your circumstances and if these are appropriate for you. It’s not just selecting stock images for your website that show diversity.

When you tell people I am inclusive, it means I will be delivering services in a way that considers your circumstances and if these are appropriate for you. It's not just selecting stock images for your website that show diversity. Click To Tweet

It’s interesting because I think a lot of people have that question where they’re like, well, I don’t see how what I do applies to this issue. But this issue of diversity or inclusivity or performative marketing, it applies to everyone in very different unique ways depending on what it is that you’re doing. But it certainly applies to everybody in terms of how you’re incorporating that into your business delivery. 

Specifically, one thing that I noticed a lot is transcripts for podcasts. The number of people who did not provide transcripts on their website for their podcast episodes is huge. There are a ton of people who don’t do that. And I know that because I cannot absorb content, by listening to it. I either have to watch it or I have to read it and not enough people provide that stuff. So I miss out on a lot of podcasts because I can’t go find a website and read the show notes to see what the conversation is. I can read a transcript for a 45-minute podcast episode in about 20 minutes, but I’m not gonna be able to sit through and listen to a 45-minute podcast episode all the way through. 

Then you also have people who are hard of hearing or deaf and who want to consume that content but can’t. For me, that’s a learning modality but then you actually have people who have a physical disability that prevents them from consuming that content if you’re only providing it in one modality, which is unfortunate because, the people from those communities could absolutely be amazing clients, and you’re leaving them out because you’re not thinking about it in those terms. 

Yeah, and when you don’t consider some of these accessibility needs, then are they going to feel valued? Are they going to feel like you’ve considered what their life is like? Are they going to feel like you have empathy for them? How is that going to impact your relationship with your audience if you don’t make yourself accessible to them? 

I’ve spent a few years in the beginning of my career transcribing podcasts and summits so that listeners could be able to access that. That was something that I really believed in doing. I still believe in it but I don’t do it anymore because my body doesn’t agree with it. But it’s definitely important.

Yeah, there’s a lot of great services, too. If you don’t have the cash flow to pay a person to transcribe it, you can use automated service. They’re fairly affordable, we use one for this podcast. If you want to make it more inclusive, there are ways to do that that fit into your budget. 

I’ve had a lot of conversations about performative marketing with different friends and colleagues over the last year and one thing that we always come back to is, how comfortable are you in having these conversations? Because there will always be moments, especially for the people who are perpetuating harm, or systemically in a position of power, where learning something new will be slightly uncomfortable. 

As aware as I am, as open as I am to learning new things and shifting my own perspective, and honoring the lived experiences of other people, there are moments where I learned something that makes me uncomfortable in the moment and I have to be open to allowing that discomfort. So I was curious as to your thoughts on how you feel that feeling of discomfort plays into your perceived awareness of how you can further this learning? 

I encounter a lot of that, too, in terms of people who either find learning about things like this difficult emotionally or they don’t want to put in the effort. My favorite one is hearing, I don’t have time to learn about racism. And I always say, I don’t have time to experience it but here we are, having this conversation.

If talking about something makes me uncomfortable, then imagine what it’s like to live with it. That’s even more reason that it should be done. Because it shows that you have empathy for your audience. When you make these statements, you’re literally telling them I care what happens to you. I care that you can get up, go to work or school, love the people you want to love, do the things you want to do with your life, and not get shot in the process. 

It’s a pretty low bar. You’re not pledging your financial support for the rest of your live. You’re just saying, I hope you don’t die, right? What is political about that? We say, Have a nice day all the time. It’s just a slightly larger extension of that.

If talking about something makes me uncomfortable, then imagine what it's like to live with it. Click To Tweet

Exactly. I think you’re a human being worthy of value and you shouldn’t die just from walking to the grocery store, or whatever it is. There’s a long list of ridiculous shit that happens to people for no fucking reason. But yeah, it is a very low bar in terms of I think that you deserve the right to life, period.

At the very beginning of my journey, many years ago, I learned that I was centering myself. I don’t think that’s what I called it at the time, but I learned that that’s what I was doing. And once I realized that discomfort meant growth and learning something new, it was almost like when that discomfort cropped up, I could go, Okay, here’s a learning experience for me. How can I sit with this and dig into it and learn more about it and educate myself so that I’m more prepared next time to handle this situation? 

Something that I want to tell people who are on this journey and learning this stuff is that everyone is a product of a systemically racist and biased system. Everyone. Even the people who are at the top of the food chain. Everybody is a product of the system. And so everybody is raised up in this system. Anytime you have like a knee-jerk reaction to something, that is your societal conditioning at work. What you choose to do beyond that is who you choose to be. 

Everything is a journey. We’re all constantly learning something new and unlearning something old. You have to be willing to have those moments where you have those knee-jerk reactions or those thoughts that randomly pop into your head and then go beyond that. You get to choose what you do with that and you get to choose if you accept that as truth and you continue on in that way, or if you decide to choose something else and act in a different way and be a different person.

The other piece is that you need to be able to remember that this is something that is always going to happen. You’re not going to learn something, feel uncomfortable, and that’s the end of the story. I’m learning things every day and I do this as my job. So don’t wait till you’re an expert to do something about it. Don’t feel like the barrier for entering this work is that you have to have an extensive education. Even someone who’s worked in diversity and inclusion for over a decade, is still learning things. 

You’re going to continue to find things that other people find uncomfortable. The language that we use and the way people feel about it is going to evolve over time. Language that was well intended can now feel very uncomfortable and micro-aggressive. We need to learn how to manage this discomfort, because if you’re going to commit yourself to a life of being inclusive, that’s something you’re going to encounter consistently.

It’s important to remember that not everyone of a specific group has the same lived experience or the same takeaways from a lived experience as everyone else. We want to make sure we’re not using phrases like, I have a black friend or I have a disabled friend. Please don’t do that. When you do that, you’re invalidating the experience of the person right in front of you who’s telling you that they have an issue with what’s happening.

One person doesn’t speak for or represent an entire group and you have to remember that five people can experience the exact same thing and all come away with five different reactions and five different memories and five different traumas and responses. Everything is a learning experience because every person is different and how they react to something is different.

Being comfortable with the fact that just because you thought something was okay, it might not be and that’s something that you’re gonna have to work with and adjust from. It’s a data point, right? Failure is data that can drive your next evolution in terms of how you welcome people and how you interact with people.

Failure is data that can drive your next evolution in terms of how you welcome people and how you interact with people. Click To Tweet

Some of my best learning experiences have come from putting my entire foot in my mouth and just having to learn from that. Sometimes you just say something and you think that it’s right. You think that it’s okay in the moment and then you realize that you fucked up and you just have to learn from that experience. Rather than letting it stop you, you just have to learn how to do better the next time that situation presents itself.

In those moments, where you’re like, Oh, that’s not what I meant, remember that the focus on what you meant is the centering and focusing on the impact is the work that needs to be done in terms of looking at what I did that affected somebody? That is where you can reframe and refocus and recenter and have a more effective communication around what happened.

It’s not the job of the marginalized person or community to make you feel better about your blunders. It is your job just to acknowledge that they happened and then explain how you’re going to do better than next time. Or how you’re in the process of learning how to do better every day. 

Thank you so much for being here. I really enjoyed this. Before we wrap up, can you tell people if they would like some help on bringing that inclusivity lens into their business, to see where their own blind spots are, how can they reach out to you to learn more about working with you?

My website is www.alisontedford.com. You can use that to book a call with me. Currently, I’m providing copy content and messaging services. By May, I’ll be launching an offer where I’m working with businesses to look at their values, their mission around inclusion, what is their messaging around inclusion and developing a style guide for their organization. So implementing the style guide into new content, looking at what old content needs to be refreshed, to be more inclusive. I’m there at that point to be an advisor around what may be something to look at or that was a really good way to implement that. Or maybe we can talk about things differently in the future. To be a gut-check and have a friend by your side to help walk you through that transition and the language used to talk about things.

I love that because it’s all about learning how to continue doing it in the future. If you learn those skills, you can continuously apply them as things change. And as you grow, that’s great.

Thank you so much for being here. We’ll have all of your links on the show notes page along with our transcripts.

Thank you so much.

Important links:

About Alison Tedford

Alison Tedford is a marketer, author, and social justice educator. She has over a decade of experience in government and now supports the marketing of mission-driven brands.

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