Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation (Updated 2018)

Early in his 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Republican candidate and billionaire real estate mogul, Donald Trump, won popular support promising to build a wall along the Mexican border, throw the Mexicans back, and ban Muslim immigration.  In support of Trump, self-described “race realists” popped up on conservative talk radio, television, and internet decrying blacks for “playing the race card” and accusing President Barack Obama of policies favoring blacks to the detriment of whites.  Said one Long Island housewife in a New York Times interview, “Everyone’s sticking together in their groups, so white people have to, too.”  By David Morse / New America Dimensions

In a May 2017 article in the Financial Times, Linda Lane Gonzalez, [former] President of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies (AHAA), is quoted as saying: “a growing number of companies in the US are shying away from marketing efforts aimed at Latino consumers for fear of offending “racist” supporters of President Donald Trump.  Gonzalez continues: “We are all talking about three to four clients that we have lost in this new political environment — which I describe as open racism.”  According to Gonzalez, some clients worry that customers and employees, specifically those who backed the President, would be angered by efforts to reach Latino customers such as bilingual signage and cultural diversity training. She cites an example of a client who asked whether their call-center menu should continue with a Spanish-language option.

Piggybacking the Times’ piece, an article in PRWeek contended that many company champions of multicultural marketing are facing more internal resistance since the election of Trump. Said Pablo Miró, Vice President of Newlink, a consultancy firm specializing in multicultural marketing, “Under the Obama administration, no one would have questioned the importance of this growing minority group…now people feel like they can disagree with that notion.”

Did America indeed become more racist in 2016?  Not likely.  America has always had an issue with race, and it might always have an issue with it. What the long and combative election did was expose racial and cultural divides that have existed for a long time.

America is going through cataclysmic social and demographic change.  During few other times in our history has the future direction of the country been less clear.  Peter Salins, an immigration scholar who is a professor at Syracuse University, expressed a common frustration among those trying to figure out what we are to become: “I do not think that most Americans really understand the historic changes happening before their very eyes. What are we going to become? Who are we? How do the newcomers fit in — and how do the natives handle it — this is the great unknown.”

As the scholars and writers weigh in on the question of what is to become of us, we marketers must, at minimum, try to understand the new America of today, and what each new wrinkle in the fabric of society means for products, our brands, our companies. If we get it right, if we are able to crack the code on complex issues like assimilation and ethnic identity, we stand to make a lot of money. If we miss it, we risk becoming as meaningless as the buggy manufacturers of yesteryear who failed to see the emergence of the internal combustion engine.

Multicultural marketing is based on the idea that there are discrete cultures in America, ethnic or otherwise, that have distinct identities that separate them from the mainstream. It assumes that they have unique needs when it comes to the types of brands or products they buy and that they need to be communicated with differently in order to be persuaded to become customers. It is based on the premise that they do not respond to advertising the way the mainstream does, either because they do not speak English or because their culture and history are different.
If the words of the 19th-century philosopher Auguste Comte, “demography is destiny,” still ring true, then it is the destiny of America to be a country of predominately brown people. The convergence of two forces, an aging white population and explosive immigration from Latin America and Asia, is leading to what many have called the “browning of America.”

The statistics are impressive. The three biggest hyphenated segments, Hispanic-, Asian-, and African-Americans, make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population — almost half if you look at just those under 18. Since younger Americans tend to be brown, it is expected that by about the year 2040, white non-Hispanics will drop to less than half the population. Barring any remarkable reversal of current trends, Hispanics will outnumber Anglos sometime in the early 22nd century.

In economic terms, these demographic shifts reflect big changes in terms of who has and spends dollars. Multicultural consumers mean big money. Hispanics, Asian Americans, and African Americans made up about $3.5 trillion in purchasing power, according to a 2015 survey by the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth. Add openly lesbian and gay adults to the equation (and allowing for some double counting) and the total goes beyond $4 trillion. That’s larger than the gross domestic product (GDP) of every country in the world except China, Japan, and of course, the United States.

Multicultural marketing is a fluid thing. Those of us trying to hit the multicultural bull’s eye are constantly confronted with a moving target. There are emerging multicultural markets that are getting more attention today — Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Africans, for example, and there will be more in the future. Today’s multicultural groups may assimilate into the mainstream or change it so profoundly that they will no longer be considered part of multicultural marketing’s sphere of interest. Just where that bull’s eye is today, and where it will be in the future, are the two fundamental questions that the following chapters will endeavor to answer.
The problem is that there are scores of marketers who don’t understand what makes the new Americans tick. Some are daunted by the prospect of marketing to an unfamiliar consumer group; others make stupid mistakes.

In my experience, some of the world’s best marketers, the large global corporations, are whizzes at marketing around the planet. They source materials around the world, have plants and labor forces in multiple countries, sell their products via sophisticated distribution networks, and seamlessly adapt their marketing campaigns to the idiosyncrasies of local markets while remaining faithful to a core marketing strategy. Yet when it comes to marketing to gays, or African Americans, Hispanics, or Asian Americans, they go glassy-eyed. It is my sincere hope that after reading these pages, you will have a deeper, richer understanding of today’s newest consumers, and what it means for your business. Ultimately, my goal is that you will be sufficiently armed with the rules of the new America to not fear it, but to support and nurture it. If you can make an honest buck in the process, even better.


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