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The pandemic that affects multicultural marketing can be healed.

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

As if three simultaneous pandemics (a health related, the social tension of racism and inequality and the global economic recession) weren’t enough, over the last ten years or so, our industry has gone through a “pandemic“ of our own. This “virus” has affected mainly multicultural marketing and branding, and ultimately, companies who have suffered from sales, share of market, and other KPI’s declines. It is known as “Total Market” and it’s both dangerous and damaging! The main symptoms are indifference, lethargy, laziness, shortsightedness or even blurry vision, which result in overall brand weakness and connection fatigue.

The last few years this “pandemic” has generated a lot of debate and buzz around marketing and branding “specialists.” There are multiple points of view on the issue, and I’d like to offer my very own based on experience. Not only am I a firm believer in multicultural marketing but an advocate of the concept. I can safely say that, over the years, our clients have reaped the benefits of “healthy”, well-planned and structured segment- specific campaigns on behalf of their brands. If you need “a second opinion” just take a look at brands the likes of McDonald’s, State Farm, Sprint, MolsonCoors or Pepsi, among others, and observe their performance when they do things right.

So, you might ask what does “doing it right” entail? It all starts with the right mindset and attitude, a commitment from the top that cascades down across all levels, and the understanding that cultures are cultures for a reason. While we all have commonalities as human beings, our upbringing, our customs and habits, our life experiences and our lifestyles establish subtle differences and cultural nuances that might go a very long way when targeting multicultural segments.

In an era of one-on-one communications, the tried (and failed) “Total Market” approach is lazy and even absurd, and many advertisers learned this the hard way. It was almost a decade wasted by marketers driven mostly by short-term efficiencies. Several credible research studies showed that if you were looking for growth (which every brand is), “Total Market” was the wrong “treatment” and the savings or pseudo efficiencies were marginal and not really worth it. Most brands that adopted that approach showed drastic declines in brand attributes among multicultural consumers who happen to be the fastest- growing segments in America—not just in terms of the size of their populations, but growth in their spending power.

Given the current context, now more than ever it’s time to stop kidding yourself if your brand efforts have been token as it relates to multicultural marketing! Brands must return to the fundamental marketing practice of audience segmentation. For the past decade, marketers have used the money-saving idea of "universal" insights to drive marketing strategies. Our industry needs to move away from "Total Market" and the one-size-fits-all approach, and truly embrace U.S. multicultural consumers as segments that, now more than ever, deserve serious attention, their fair share and serious investment levels, and, above all, the hard-earned respect these consumers should be granted.

This also applies to multicultural marketing professionals and multicultural media partners. We are emotionally, financially and professionally vested. This is our top priority and we live the culture day in and day out. We understand these consumers like nobody else, and we are better qualified to connect your brands with them in authentic, relevant, meaningful and unique ways.

While marketers can fall in the ill temptation to think that taking a deeper look at consumer segments is a momentary reaction to the social movements of today, truth is that very few brands enjoy fair share of market across these key consumer segments and even fewer enjoy leadership positions with these consumers to a degree that they don’t need to “treat” them right.

The “vaccine” starts working when the underlying belief that humans are cultural beings in that we are interdependent and influenced by our origin and heritage. We hold beliefs and attitudes which shape our experience and behavior. We are not an age, a geography or a household income; however, it is common to rely on demographic data to paint a picture of the WHO. By segmenting consumers by cultures, brands can uncover how best to connect with them. Understanding a specific segment’s mindset when engaging with your brand or category is crucial to “health” and success because it allows for more specificity in messaging.

Pay attention to the consumer segments that are leading the conversations in your category and engage with them. They can teach you more than you think about what you need to do. After all, they are what keeps your brand alive and kicking. What people do matters but why they do it is where we can start to understand, empathize and ultimately motivate them to action. In-language and in-culture research is key to unlocking these deeper insights.

We should flip the old adage “it’s not just what you say it’s how you say it” to help guide us. While nowadays we focus a lot of effort on how we tell our stories with detailed journeys and comms plans, we need to give just as much attention to what we say. It’s not only the stories we tell, but how we tell the stories! The intangibles can play a huge role when it comes to emotional storytelling.

An ongoing universal approach is dangerous - it has caused backlash and negative campaigns against brands and the like. On the other hand, specificity drives authenticity. Telling a specific story about a person or consumer segment that may not be EVERYONE, is the closest you can get to true, real and authentic. And that is the “vaccine” in this particular case.

Purpose driven marketing is about doing the right thing and not about selling. Fundamentally believing this is why brands like Ben & Jerry’s have been the center of conversations among the black community over the past few weeks. Their actions today around the BLM movement are authentic not only in execution, but because it builds on the company’s existing record of speaking up on civil rights and race issues.

The reality that we are living today in 2020 is a potential turning point in American society and deciding on how you want to emerge from this time is in your hands. People remember brands that do the right thing, especially when emotions are high. A “healing” new approach should really look at multicultural opportunities beyond token efforts just around Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and/or Pride Month. Besides, it is very important to emphasize that this new approach will not make minority segments compete against each other for a limited size of the investment pie. Instead, they will consider redistributing the whole pie according to the growth opportunity and our country’s population composition.

ANA AIMM’s 2019 "Cultural Insights Impact Measure" study found that ads perceived to have high cultural relevance doubled brand perception and tripled ad effectiveness compared to those with low cultural relevance. This held true across ethnicities. In other words, the study proved that “universally appealing” ads were less appealing than ads telling nuanced, insightful stories.

By unlocking cultural insights to inform marketing and advertising strategies, brands will connect much more strongly with consumers and prove that they care about them beyond the potential dollars they can contribute to the bottom line. Segmentation allows for this, taking you beyond the universal and into the specific and authentic.

To access the pockets of the fastest growing consumer segments in the U.S., advertisers must go ideally through the heart, or at least through the brains or the guts. Eyeballs won’t cut it, because contrary to what most media companies led them to believe, yes they’re probably reaching them, but most likely they are not connecting.

As Marc Pritchard, the Chief Brand Officer at the behemoth advertiser P&G says: “If you are not doing multicultural marketing, you are not doing marketing at all.”

Let the “healing” process get back on track! Multicultural marketing done right is certainly the prescription for healthy, culturally relevant and constantly growing brands!


By Luis Miguel Messianu

Founder-Creative Chairman-CEO at Alma. Messianu has played an influential role in the evolution of the Multicultural market.

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