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Ep. 9: Why Differences are Profitable with Gelaine Santiago

Key points:

  • The tangible and intangible benefits of leaning into differences into your marketing
  • Why many underrepresented communities struggle between standing out and fitting in when it comes to their cultures
  • A common and detrimental misconception about leading with differences in media and marketing
  • Who decides what is mainstream and what isn’t
  • The role of marketing in shaping popular culture
  • Where true inclusive marketing starts
  • How to authentically be representative and inclusive in your marketing

Cambio & Co 

Sinta & Co


Sonia: Okay. Hey, Gelaine thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Gelaine: Oh, I’m so honored to be here. I’m doing well. How are you?

Sonia: I’m doing well. Thanks for stopping by. Let’s dig right into it. Cause we’ve got a fun topic to cover today, but before we get too far into it, just tell the people who are you and what do you do?

Gelaine: Yes. So my name is Gelaine Santiago, which is like Elaine with a gene. That’s pronounced like a J so Jolene I am, I’m a speaker, I’m a writer. I am CEO and I am also a content marketing coach for black indigenous people of color. And I am CEO of two e-commerce businesses. So both of them called or they’re called Cambio and coincidence co. And both of them are ethical fashion companies that use fashion as a way to create sustainable livelihood or traditional artists and simple themes while also empowering Filipinos around the world to celebrate our culture, celebrate our heritage on a day-to-day basis and during our special occasions as well. So that’s really what I’ve been doing. I’m Philippina, porous, and very proud. And I am tuning in today from the indigenous territory of Toronto, which is colonially known as Toronto. Yeah. And I’m really honored to be here to talk to you about inclusive marketing and content.

Sonia: Well, we’ve got a lot of good stuff to dive into. Now we’ve talked a couple of times before, and I know about how growing up. It was interesting people who looked like you, once you moved to Toronto, can you talk a little bit about the impact that media brands have and influencing and shaping how people feel about the parts of them that are different from

Gelaine: Yeah, for, so I’ll speak first from my experience. So I grew up in a very white dominant spaces, so I was one of the few people of color, particularly one of the few Filipinos as well. And I didn’t know many Filipinos my age growing up. And so for me, a lot of the representation that I did see if you can call it representation was through media. And oftentimes it was pretty scarce. Those opportunities to see myself represented on, you know, on TV or in ads, or just different, just different forms of media and content. And when I did see myself represented, well, I can’t even call it representation, but what I did myself, it was often like as the role of like the token Asian kind of like feeling like they just needed to like throw someone in. And, you know, we often in shows or movies like we given speaking lines. And I just remember like being a kid and really, you know, growing up in the nineties and being really into clueless, for example, and there was like one Asian character and she was part of the cool friends group, but she like literally had one or two lines the whole time. And I just remember like loving that movie, but also just like wishing that I could hear her speak. And I think that is really encompassing of like how my experience has been is like just waiting for the chance to speak. I think that’s how it has felt so much of my life until my twenties when I began to, you know, begin to be exposed to different kinds of spaces and different ways of doing business. And really also just like meeting other entrepreneurs of color and the ways that they were showing up in their spaces and sharing their stories. So it really did feel like for most of my life, I just felt like that invisible person who was a side character in my own story and not really feeling like I had, you know, I had any control over what I could do or just not really limited and just really small and invisible. And I think that that’s my experience. So I can’t speak to everyone, but I think that’s how many of us feel is that the images we see on media and through brands it’s like often we just see such a small slice of what we could view or such a small slice of what we are. And if you don’t have people around you who can, you know, expose you to different ways of being or that who see you as your full self, then we can grow up really thinking about that’s all we are is that small slice that media and brands.

Sonia: Wow. Such a insightful way of viewing it. And I think it’s just a reminder for people, especially if you’re part of a community that is accustomed to being represented, just giving them a glimpse into what it’s like to be on the other side of that and what that feels like and how it can impact you. So I love the way you articulated that the, now you’re not waiting on the sidelines to speak, you are using your voice in a, in a very profound way that is given voice, I think, in the process of your work. So right now your, both of your businesses lean quite heavily into your Filipino heritage. What role has leaning into this aspect of your identity? How has that impacted your businesses and your success?

Gelaine: Yeah, it’s has been everything like, I think as context when we first started our business, so our first business can be on COVID, which we launched six years ago. The first three years of this business that we were running was really not focused on Filipino community at all. And the, you know, that was always the vision is it always wanted to create something that was celebrating Filipino culture and really celebrating Filipino craftsmanship and products made by artisans and connecting them to Filipinos here. But for the first three years, I didn’t have like the conviction. I didn’t have the confidence to really trust that vision. And especially cause a lot of people also told us like, this is not a good idea. No one’s gonna want to buy products from Philippines. No one’s gonna want to support a business. That’s just focused on Filipino stories. I feel like, you know, customers. And so the first three years of our business was really less like trying to kind of cater to this quote unquote mainstream broad appeal. And it was so hard and it was only after, you know, we decided to let go of that and to go into our own vision, that things really changed. And so really leaning into, you know, embracing, being Filipino, embracing the questions I have as a Filipina, it just changed everything. It just changed. Obviously our sales, like our sales, since we launched in or relaunched and rebranded our company to focus on Filipino products in 2018, we’ve doubled and tripled almost, almost tripled every single year. It’s been quite like exponential growth in terms of just like the pure revenue side. But also what it brought us was just better quality customers. Like just customers who truly love our stories, who just like loved our brand and who were so passionate and just became like our best and fiercest fans. And that just was purely from us sharing stories in a genuine way and not even, you know, we barely spend money on ads really and have been able to cut our ad spend over the last few years, but we’ve continued to grow so much exponentially year after year just because people already know what we stand for. And so it’s obviously had a big role in terms of revenue, but also just connecting us to community and connecting us to like really good customers, love us. And then that’s also like opened up pathways and other ways, like really big media opportunities like being featured in Cosmo and Huffington post and really these channels that I never thought would have been ever accessible to us. Like it’s just been mind blowing.

Sonia: I think it just goes to reinforce congratulations on all your success. I think it just goes to show that for, I think people of color, people who are part of communities that are often in the minority have been sort of that I’m focusing on is focusing on the heritage doesn’t stand point, whether that was an intention, that’s just what people believed and they were imposing or people, but your success proves that that’s not true, but it’s not. We’ve seen it in other places where, you know, let’s just understand. It’s like, we’ve talked about, talked about crazy rich Asians. We talked about wonder woman. Like there are a number of things whenever characters or roles or underrepresented groups are put in the forefront and they’re the lead of the story. It has a rise rather than just like the sidekick or the silent person. That’s like the token. It makes a tremendous difference in not only the people who finally are able to see themselves, it makes them feel, but they are supporting with their credit cards. But also they’re still attracting the mass market at the same time. Whenever it’s something that’s done well,

Gelaine: Yeah. 100%. And it’s just like, who also, I think it’s also like the gatekeeping gets to decide, you know, what is going to be popular, what is going to work? And the reality is you don’t know until you try, but there’s just been so much gatekeeping that we haven’t even been able to see what the potential is for so many of our communities.

Sonia: Yeah. Yeah. We got to get rid of those gatekeepers. All right. So let’s switch gears slightly and talk about this whole, because I think going back to what you were just saying about gatekeepers, it’s like, they are trying to decide who gets in the door for what is mainstream and what isn’t, but who really does decide what is mainstream and what is it? It’s not necessarily the job or the role or the power. So we ride reside with these gatekeepers, right?

Gelaine: Yeah, for sure. Like I think something that is really it’s just like has really blown my mind is this idea that so many of us buy into that idea, but like mainstream is the only way that we can be successful as business owners or to get even like mainstream quote unquote approval. But the reality is like, what, when you think about what mainstream is, it’s really just what’s popular. And so when you think, and you unpack it, it’s like, well, what’s popular in one community is really different. You know, it’s like, for example, there’s, there are celebrities like Filipino celebrities that are really popping the Filipino community, but like that you wouldn’t hear of, you know, necessarily outside of the Filipino community, but it doesn’t mean that that’s not mainstream. It’s just mainstream to different group of people. And I think that’s something that I learned is like that mainstream is not an absolute, but it’s really a relative concept. Right. And so once we can really realize that, then that opens up so many things of like, there are so many ways for us to grow and eventually, you know, and then eventually be able to reach more people. Yeah.

Sonia: Yeah. So we don’t have to just settle in to what everybody already thinks is the path. Right. Cause it’s, yeah. It’s, it’s, it’s broader basically. It’s kind of like let’s, let’s recalibrate what we think the center of the universe is, or what we think is the, the north star or the way, because there isn’t one way there are various avenues means of wing of doing things or various things, ways to determine what is popular depending upon who you’re asking.

Gelaine: Yeah, exactly. All right.

Sonia: What role do brands play from your point of view in helping to shape what is considered cool?

Gelaine: Oh, it’s huge. I’m reading a book right now because I’m a huge fan of mad men. And just from like a marketing perspective, it’s so fascinating. But like one of the things that you really see in mad men is like not only the way that advertising and marketing reflects popular culture, but the way that it actually helps to shape it. And you really see that in like just cigarette companies and the cigarette campaigns, like they mentioned of the moral Bora mark. I can’t even pronounce it Marlboro man. And the kind of like campaigns that they had, you know, it really brands really do shape because we can reach so many people. We have the, like these big companies have the funds to also reach so many people through TV. If you’re a different media, that, of course the messages that brands are putting out there are not only gonna reinforce popular culture, but they’re actually going to change it. And one of the most recent examples that I can think of is actually like the natural gas industry, which is really fascinating if you like read more about it. But right now, like the natural gas industry is really struggling because people are moving towards sustainable forms of energy. And so for example, what they’ve invested a lot in the last decade is like making natural gas stoves. Cool. And you probably have heard it like they’ve partnered with a lot of influencers. You’ll see influencers on Instagram talking about their natural gas spills and how like it’s so cool. And like where the real chefs use natural gas and what you realized. I was like, this was a really recent campaign. Like people didn’t really have a thing for natural gas stove was until recently. And it was just because that’s what they realized, this is what they needed to do to like survive as an industry and even the term natural gas that we use. So like normally now was not, is like itself a marketing term, like it’s gas. Why is it natural gas? And I was like, and so you kind of really see that, like now people like rave about their gas stoves and how it’s like the beeping thing to have for cooks. And so you really see how they, how brands really have this big influence on what we believe. Right. So for sure, like we have a huge responsibility as brands,

Sonia: Right? I think sometimes brands don’t recognize the power they have. And, and a lot of times, I guess when they do, they’re doing it in a way and what impact it has on ultimately their bottom line, but because the impact on the bottom line, like it’s not compartmentalize, it impacts a whole ecosystem and a whole lot of people and a lot of ways. So when you’re recognizing your power, it’s important to recognize your power and the full, the full sense of the term and what you’re they’re able to do. Okay. So let’s say that a brand decides that they do want to use their power and they do want to do elevating underrepresented voices and cultures and, you know, showcasing and introducing other people within their community, their audience, their platform. Are there ways that brands can authentically represent differences, especially people on the team are part of These?

Gelaine: Yeah, I think for sure, sure. There’s so many different ways that we can do it, but I think it has to start first with the intention of like wanting to do it imaging and way. I think something that I often talk about is like the salt analogy, because I obviously cook a lot. So with the salt analogy, you know, when you cook, you can layer in the salt as you cook. So if you layer in, if you use salt at the start of the process, the middle, and then at the end, it becomes this really, it changes the flavor of the dish completely. It becomes so nuanced. It’s so rich and it’s not just salty, but it’s like has a lot of like richness to it. Versus if you just sprinkle salt at the end, you can see the salt, you can taste, the salt is salty. It doesn’t, it helps a little bit, but it doesn’t have the same impact. And so I really think of like that salt as the same thing between like representation and diversity. And when we talk about representation is storytelling. Because if you are a brand who’s really intentional about really authentically, you know, authentically, including stories and voices that are different from your own about really making your customers from different backgrounds feel seen and held, then you’re going to take the steps to layer. You know, you’re going to, you’re going to make sure that you are building representation in at different stages of your marketing process. You’re going to make sure that you do hire content creators from these different backgrounds. You’re going to make sure that you are working with influencers who have these different voices and backgrounds and appeal not only appeal to your audience, but that can help your, your team as well to expand your perspectives. And so you’re going to take those steps at the different stages of your marketing and content creation and ideation process from, you know, from the brainstorming to the actual execution. And so that’s what this, what salt is. That’s the equivalent of like layering the salt versus the other option or the alternative path, which is just like doing a photo shoot and then realizing at the end like, oh, we need, we need some like Asian people. Like we need someone like here, let’s just source whoever we can and then put, stick them into this campaign. You know? And that’s like full blown of just sprinkling salt at the end. That’s what, that’s what quote unquote diversity is, but that’s not the same thing as representation. It’s not the same thing as inclusion. And so if you want to be a brand who genuinely uplifts people and that genuinely and authentically shares these stories, like you can’t take it from the approach of just sprinkling things at the end and sprinkling in a bunch of people of color, there are your campaigns. Like that’s not what representation is. So that’s really how I, how I look at that. It has to be really layered in intentionally.

Sonia: Very cool, very cool. And a very vivid. So of all sort of example of that, we probably fall experience. So I love it. I love it. Gelaine, this has been cool. Any parting words of wisdom for leaders who are considering ditching their stream to win a broader base of customers?

Gelaine: I think that, I think that for a lot of leaders you’ll do it because it’s for the bottom line. But I think what you will also realize is that it’s not just about the bottom line, but it’s also, you know, it’s also just gonna make everything so much easier in the rest of your business. It’s not just going to bring you more sales is going to bring your customers a lot more joy. It’s going to bring a lot deeper connections with your community. It’s going to bring really, really great employees to your team who just like really genuinely love what you do. You know, I think it’s the sort of thing that it’s not. Yeah. I guess like, if you are really serious about and empowering people to embrace what makes them different? Like, you’re going to end up with something that’s so rich and that’s just going to help your business in so many ways. So yeah.

Sonia: Thank you for stopping by and sharing your ex us.

Gelaine: Thank you so much for having me.

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