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Campaigning for Unity: How to Make All Americans Feel at Home

This piece was originally published in Ad Age.

Last week the Ad Council launched “Belonging Begins With Us,” a new campaign that aims to make all communities more welcoming places for everyone, regardless of their background or where they were born. Ad Council President-CEO Lisa Sherman sat down with campaign partners to discuss the purpose and strategy of this new effort, and how it takes politics out of a frequently politicized issue.

Joining her in the conversation were Wendy Feliz, director of the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council; Kasha Cacy, global CEO of Engine; PJ Pereira, co-founder and creative chairman of Pereira O’Dell; and Michelle Hillman, chief creative development officer at the Ad Council.

Lisa Sherman: Wendy, could you talk a bit about your background, your work at the American Immigration Council and the perspective you hoped to bring to this effort?

Wendy Feliz: I come from a working-class background and have always believed that we are at our best when we are looking out for each other. I’m also deeply patriotic and believe America’s superpower is our ability to work, live and collaborate across our differences. My work has always focused on bridging differences and finding common ground—and in this campaign, we are doing just that.

We brought together a group of people from different backgrounds, co-created a campaign using everyone’s unique talents and we made magic together.

Sherman: This campaign was conceived when we didn’t know how the election would turn out, and even in a normal election cycle, immigration can become such a highly politicized issue. Kasha, PJ, Michelle, how did the background affect your thoughts on the best approach for this campaign?

Kasha Cacy: The politicized aspects of immigration were in the front of our minds throughout the project. We committed to thoroughly doing our homework and knew that our research couldn’t cut corners and inadvertently introduce bias to the analysis.

PJ Pereira: I am a highly political person. When we began to dive deeper into the nuances of red and blue [divisions], it seemed clear that the largest group was fairly independent and open. If we can help this larger group see their neighbor born abroad as a person, not a political issue which their own identity depends upon, we will at the very least make our communities much more welcoming. And that’s a great start.

Michelle Hillman: What I love about Pereira O’Dell’s creative approach is that it taps into a universal emotion and turns that into a call to action. We all know what it feels like to be left out, which means we all know how to keep someone else from feeling that way. It takes an issue that could feel big and overwhelming and really zeroes in on how each and every one of us can do something about it.

Sherman: PJ, beyond the election, what were the extra challenges that we’re facing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Pereira: The pandemic added a lot more fear to our communities. Period. Suddenly, you look around and everyone is a threat to your health, a competitor for the hard-to-find job, an enemy that may elect the wrong person or use the little relief resources left for their family or business. That made things harder.

At the same time, we are seeing endless examples of community love—people applauding essential workers on the street, neighbors shopping for groceries for one another, co-workers covering for each other when they have issues coping with family and work. It’s everywhere. So I am hopeful. I am always hopeful.

Sherman: Kasha, could you elaborate on the decision to focus the campaign’s messaging on the 40% of Americans who are conflicted on social and political issues? Why was that an important target for this issue, and how did you approach reaching them?

Cacy: Our goal was to educate and motivate while making the greatest impact possible. We saw the conflicted group we were targeting as a critical opportunity. Our research suggested that many in this group see themselves as active participants in public policy—they are eager to learn and influence the people around them and are rooted in their faith. We saw them as open to possibilities and important carriers of the discussion we hope to encourage.

The media placements needed to meet our target in trusted environments where they would connect with the authenticity of the story, thus social media and premium video environments were key to delivering the message.

Sherman: Michelle, at the Ad Council, we’re always big believers in the power of convening for a cause. In this case, we worked to build a broad coalition that included not only the world of marketing and communications, but also community-based organizations that are activating programming on the local level. Why was that so important for this effort in particular?

Hillman: Our local communities are really the first place we come together, especially with people who may not share our background. The coalition behind this campaign includes organizations that are already part of the fabric of people’s lives and who can uplift this message on a local level.

And the wide range of partners involved—from Walmart, to foundations to community organizations like the YMCA—reinforces the idea that fostering belonging is a concept we can all get behind.

Sherman: The message of this campaign is “Belonging Begins With Us.” Wendy, what does that mean to you personally?

Feliz: Our nation has gotten stuck in a dangerous “us vs. them” mindset, which is deeply damaging to us as individuals and to our future as a unified country. We must take seriously the work to repair our fraying social bonds. We need each other.

This is a campaign about asking people to consider who they include and exclude in their daily lives. This is about giving each other a sense of belonging, care, consideration and community. Everyone needs to feel like they belong. Everyone deserves grace.

Sherman: PJ, as a Brazilian immigrant yourself, what does the message mean to you, and what does it mean for the industry at large?

Pereira: The reality is most people love their countries, and if they came to the U.S., it was either because of a dream or absolute fear. We all come in a very fragile emotional state, and the way people react to us, the little gestures mean a lot and can determine how you label your experience in America. I know a lot of people who left after one year because they just didn’t feel welcome.

I am aware that I get the lighter side of the challenges immigrants face. I came here with a well-paying job, and I had a good creative reputation—I was a Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity Jury president that year, for example. But it still wasn’t easy. When I first arrived, everything was a challenge, including things everyone takes for granted. I remember calling friends during my first week to ask about their favorite brands of toothpaste or what kind of rice was the one I was used to?

Then you go to work and people mimic someone else’s accent, and you realize they must do the same when you’re not around and you start to become self-conscious. On a business trip, a crazy person tells you to speak English because “this is America.” You ask HR for support with paperwork, documents and health insurance decisions, because some things are too different from what you are used to, and they tell you everyone else figured it out, it’s not their job to explain life in America.

It compounds, mostly as little jabs, until the day someone gives you the real talk: “Hey, I know you were a big deal in your country. But this is America, it’s the most competitive country in the world, your credentials somewhere else don’t matter much here.” Even for a competitive person like me, that can be pretty shocking. It tells you how much you’re unwanted by default, how you need to earn the right to be here before you will be respected.

I don’t have any intentions of changing the performance-driven nature of this country. But I think we can help highlight its natural kindness too. We can inspire people to see how the little gestures matter more than they will ever imagine. And we can help them see that if people feel comfortable and confident, they can use all their talent, wisdom and grit to make their communities better and everyone wins.

Sherman: Thank you for sharing that, PJ, and thank you all for your open conversation, today and every day, in partnership on this campaign.


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