By: Stephen Palacios
At the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency in "Mad Men," Pete Campbell urges a client to "take a look at the Negro market." In the TV show the year is 1961. It's a reminder that the push to understand and target consumers on the basis of their ethnic identity goes back decades.
Throughout that history, multicultural marketing advocates were hamstrung by the relatively small number of minority consumers and media outlets with national reach, as well as a lack of corporate expertise. There was little infrastructure for execution or metrics of evaluation and, of course, there was the issue of discrimination.
These issues remain, but to a far lesser degree. Changes in demographics, marketing tools and corporate expertise have made multicultural marketing more relevant than ever. In fact, multicultural marketing, particularly targeting Hispanics, has grown at a faster rate than overall marketing in the past 10 years .
Consider the contributing factors of the last decade:
So why is multicultural marketing finding itself once again in a highly visible defensive posture? Two factors make the traditional multicultural approach seem outdated and possibly unnecessary:
1) We know much more about the nuances of ethnic identity and 2) We are reaching a tipping point where such a large proportion of the "true" American consumer is African American, Hispanic or Asian that "minority-majority" is an oxymoron.
The multicultural argument has centered on the premise that ethnic identity is core to consumer attitudes and behaviors in commercial decisions. Being Hispanic is the most important dimension for a consumer buying Oreos, for example. But with more sophisticated market tools and analysis, we understand the need to sub-segment ethnic identity consumers into more specific groups. Less acculturated vs. more acculturated, African American single head of household women decision-makers vs. African American young influencers, Cantonese vs. Mandarin (let alone Vietnamese, Thai, Korean). A study of People en Espanol conducted by Cheskin in 2010 showed, for example, how reliant Latinas are on their Hispanic identity in their fluid roles of mother, daughter, lover and friend.
Some read this nuance as either too complicated to deal with, or as justification to subvert multicultural marketing entirely. This is a lowest-common-denominator approach, tempting for mass marketers but ultimately heading on the wrong track. The necessity is to know your customer more deeply, to use customization on a grand scale. Market-leading companies like McDonalds have institutionalized this philosophy by having all marketing filtered by Asian, African American and Hispanic consumer segment leaders.
With over half of all U.S. economic activity coming from the top 15 Designated Market Areas (according to the Federal Reserve) and most of the organic growth (new customers) coming from ethnic consumer segments, marketers more and more recognize that "getting ethnic consumers" is vitally important.
How, then, do you shift your general market strategy to be more culturally relevant? Several approaches are developing:
Is multicultural marketing dead? Hardly. An updated version, call it cultural marketing, with a more refined understanding of identity fluidity and underlying values, is the future of marketing.
NORM BOND is a global marketer, digital strategist, speaker and consultant who splits his time between Bangkok,Thailand and the U.S. He conducts workshops and social media training for entrepreneurs, small business, nonprofits and multinational corporations. He has a MS in Information Science and is an ex-IBM marketing rep.
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