Multicultural Heuristics

07 Apr 2011|Kalil Vicioso

The rapid growth of Hispanic, African American, and Asian American populations is driving a shift not just in the demographic composition of the U.S., but in the very culture—the look, feel, flavors, and sounds of the country. The idea of minority segments leading cultural transformations is not new. The African American community has led trends in music, fashion, dance, language, and political activism.  Latino foods, music, and even TV genres like the Telenovela are growing in popularity among non-Hispanic consumers. Similarly, LGBT consumers have continued to grow in visibility and cultural influence, often nurturing major pop artists such as Madonna or Lady Gaga.

What is new is the ability of these communities to broadcast their ideas, preferences, and styles and make them part of the dominant culture. Multicultural audiences, particularly younger generations, are overcoming the long-standing digital divide and becoming leaders in technology adoption. According to the Pew Internet and American Life study Latinos and African Americans lead the charge when it comes to mobile internet usage and even tend to use more of their phones’ functionality.  Further, these audiences frequent social networks more than non-Hispanic whites, including Facebook and Twitter.  For many Hispanics, “friends” include family and other people who live in Latin America. Global networks (or at least hemispheric) are becoming common place.

Brands that wish to stay relevant and forward thinking can address the needs of this growing multicultural audience and develop marketing strategies that integrate their sensibilities and experiences at the core. To do this, though, requires moving beyond traditional ways of thinking about multicultural audiences and acknowledging the realities of today’s diverse audiences. Strategies and tactics will naturally be dependent on category and context.  It is possible however to lay out what I believe to be some heuristics or best practices.

1. Keep communications efforts focused on what you have to offer. You don’t have to sell multiculturalism; rather you need to reflect diverse experiences in expressing your brand/offer. Diverse audiences today are already proud of their race/ethnicity/ancestry and now they see themselves as part of a broader American context. 

Campaigns that focus on multiculturalism and that target segment-specific media outlets exclusively position these communities as “other”, outside the mainstream general market. In essence they work against the sense these audiences have that they are part of the fabric of the US. There was a time when ads that cheered multiculturalism broke new ground and gave voice (and face) to diverse communities.  In the 1990s, United Colors of Benetton advertising celebrated multiculturalism at a time when few if any other brands featured diverse casting.  Time has passed however and the bar has been raised.

Today diverse audiences want more than honorable mentions and cheerleading. A more effective approach for today’s culture can be seen in the Optimum online ads that incorporate a young Hispanic sensibility as part of a broader campaign. The reggaeton music and curvaceous dancers succeeded in part because they ran on mainstream channels and because they used the music to communicate the offer in a memorable way. If you have seen it, you can probably recall the number to call to get Optimum – even if you did not necessarily love the spot.

2. Focus on values and scenarios that authentically reflect genuine experiences and/or aspirations. Consumers in general have become savvier about marketing and are looking for communications that reflect a genuine investment in understanding who they are, what their lives are like, and what they aspire to. AT&T with their Rethink Possible – Ripple Effect spot successfully combines scenarios that a broad audience can identify with: needing to make and/or change reservations on the go, finding love in an unexpected place, and a deep cultural aspiration – the first Latino president.

3. Reflect diverse experiences – their own and others. There is a growing appetite for reflections of genuine truths – their own and others’. Increasingly they experience diversity at home, among their friends/family, in their neighborhood/community, and/or at work. This appetite is born of the ongoing dialogue happening at the interpersonal and intercultural levels through conversations and the interchange of cultural artifacts such as music, fashion, speech patterns, food, etc.

4. Intercultural dynamics can be a wellspring of dialogue, learning, and humor. Living with diversity involves negotiating difference and seeking common ground, consciously and subconsciously. The process is often seamless, sometimes awkward, and rich in humorous scenarios arising from misunderstandings or unexpected juxtapositions.  In other words, a rich source of inspiration for marketers. Xbox’s DJ Hero Mix Together spot is a great example of outreach that integrates these themes by focusing on the benefits of the offering, utilizing diverse casting, and creating an authentic scenario as part of a broader campaign.

Multicultural audiences see themselves as valuable to brands and marketers – consumers with money to spend. They want to hear what you have to offer. At the same time, they are influential cultural actors aware of and proud of the impact they have had on American society. Growing numbers will amplify this impact and necessitate greater intercultural dialogue. Brands, through communications and even offerings, can play a role in furthering this dialogue. Brands that do so will ensure their cultural impact and relevance. They will also foster a stronger relationship with these audiences.  Key to these efforts is grounding outreach in deep understanding of their lived experiences because increasingly to reach a broad audience you have to reflect a very specific one.

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