Aligning Brand Messaging With Cultural Diversity

Michael SolomonAugust 15, 20183 min

Until fairly recently, in a business sense many marketers thought in terms of a very simple racial dichotomy: White vs. Not Interested. If ethnic minorities appeared in a TV show or commercial, they played subservient or comical roles like the Aunt Jemima “Mammy” character. Advertisers focused exclusively on their (white) bread-and-butter –so-called “general market” (code for white consumers) that held the purse strings in the U.S.A.

It took some simple financial data to wake up much of the business world to the overlooked economic clout of non-Caucasian consumers. The combined buying power of African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans was $1.4 trillion in 2007, a gain of 201 percent since 1990. Meanwhile, the economic clout of Latinos rose by 307 percent, to $862 billion, over that span.

Predictably, as the word got out advertising agencies began to fall all over themselves to develop or acquire multicultural specialists who could talk to nonwhite consumers. Soon we were blanketed with targeted ads, shows and products that spoke exclusively to African Americans or Hispanics. The “Not Interested” segment splintered into very specific ethnic and racial groups, each with its own unique subcultural advertising references and images calculated to heighten identification with mainstream brands. Suddenly there were a lot of categories to contend with. Each segment was put it into its own tidy little silo and pursued by specialized agencies.

Finally these overlooked markets got the attention they deserved. But ironically, it looks like many American consumers – even minorities who were ignored or rejected before – are growing weary of the silos in which the marketing industry has placed them. They are starting to crave more of the “melting pot” vision of America than a neatly compartmentalized world where each group gets its own separate (even if equal) attention. A recent study that surveyed over 2,000 people reported that 80 percent of parents like to see diverse families in advertisements. Sixty-six percent said that brands that showed reverence for all kinds of families was an important factor when they chose among competing options.

The Shift For Brands

The U.S.A. is coalescing as a multicultural society, despite the political rhetoric about the impact of immigrants on our economy. We’re far from consensus on this shift obviously, but there’s cause for optimism. When Cheerios ran a controversial commercial featuring a biracial family in 2013, the company had to shut down the comments section on its YouTube channel due to racist posts. In sharp contrast, General Mills ran a sequel featuring the same family in the 2014 Super Bowl, and the ad was a huge success with over 5 million YouTube views recorded.

The rapidly growing diversity of American culture is one of the most important drivers of change in this century. The U.S. Census Bureau projected that this year it would not be possible to place a majority of children under the age of 18 into a single racial or ethnic group. That helps to explain why about 6% of people who filled out the last Census didn’t select one of the race categories the form provided.

The Census Bureau also predicts that by 2050, people who identify themselves as multiracial will make up almost four percent of the U.S. population. Among American children, the multiracial population has increased almost 50 percent, to 4.2 million, since 2000, making it the fastest growing youth group in the country. The number of people of all ages who identified themselves as both white and black soared by 134 percent since 2000 to 1.8 million people. As you can see, people aren’t just thinking outside the box. They’re jumping out of it!

The walls that separate ethnic and racial subcultures continue to come down, as Americans increasingly regard themselves as members of multiple groups. The millennial generation is the most diverse our country has ever seen. Consumers increasingly take for granted that products and advertising will blend these identities rather than cater only to a specific subculture. Don’t be afraid to blend subcultures in your brand messages.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon. Excerpted and adapted from his book “Marketers, Tear Down These Walls!.”

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