BUILDING BRANDS AMONG ETHNIC COMMUNITIES IN THE U.S.

 A Speech given to the American Marketing Association

 

 

 

 

If Census predictions prove correct African Americans, Latinos, and Asians – rates of growth and influence will soar such that by year 2050 together they will in aggregate be the “majority” rather than the minority – we must, as marketers reaching out for new and viable consumer markets now and in the near-term, re-examine the time-honored philosophies of “Branding”.

We must re-examine them to see if the rules still apply when the language spoken isn’t English, or if the world view espoused isn’t Euro-centric, or how decades of segregation, prejudice, and denial might make this new consumer’s perspective on what constitutes a “brand”, a shade different from our own.

 

What does it mean in a general sense to “build” a brand? 

 

Like any structural undertaking, it takes a clear vision of what the final outcome is to be.    It requires a solid plan, years of solid plans really, since we know no single marketing plan by itself ever turned a mere product into a brand.  More than anything, branding takes time. 

 

Time enough for the totalities of a thing – all that a product is – its price, packaging, distribution, and advertising to become so time honored and engrained in our consumer psyche that the product transcends its utilitarian function as soap, or shoes, or shavers to become the brand Tide, or Nike or Gillette.

 

And it takes money.  A lot of money.  The good news is that the millions of dollars invested in creating a solid brand franchise for the general market is the terra firma needed to begin the task of building a brand among an ethnic consumer segment.  So if all the things needed to create a brand already exists, why do a significant number of companies fail at the task of translating brand equities so revered in the general market to an ethnic consumer group? 

Arrogance and ignorance.

Marketer's Biggest Mistake

The biggest mistake most marketers make when seeking sales from niche markets is they rigidly adhere to a strict translation of their general market approach -- assuming the success matrix in one market automatically translates and assures success in another.  This is often the case when multinational companies attempt to enter foreign markets.

 

Arrogance is perhaps at fault when they wrongfully assume a one size fits all mentality in the development of marketing strategies intended to motivate a “specialized group”, ethnic consumers, to purchase.  And yes,  this approach may work for a time but ultimately sales results will be less than expected, because the task of “brand building” will not have begun. 

 

Looking for the cause of their brand’s lackluster performance among ethnic customers, those ”strictly-by-the-book” marketers start to question the value and worth of the target consumer group itself as opposed to the appropriateness of the “general” strategy they employed.  But they’re learning…slowly.

 

Often, the most disastrous ethnic faux pas unfortunately occurs in marketing’s most-publicly-scrutinized arena – mass communications, particularly in advertising.  This situation is also the most easily averted.   Seek the advice and counsel of an expert.

 

Employing a communications company that specializes in marketing communications to niche groups, like Targeted Advertising Group is the first step to insure sensitivity to cultural cues and prevailing ethnic customer attitudes.

 

When you start to speak his “figurative“ language, the ethnic target is able to ‘hear’ what the product has to say about what it is and how it’s attributes can satisfy a need or want.  What results are communications that have the distinctive ring of authenticity to them. That’s the first step – the beginning of a meaningful marketing dialogue.

A Word of Caution

When brand building in ethnic markets, the marketer should be prepared for the brand’s general market attributes to be subjugated in favor of other product benefits that the ethnic target group deems as more important.  Competitive pricing, for example,  might win out over some other feature that gives the product a superiority claim in the general market.  

 

The status-engendering aura of a product might prove more motivating to an ethnic customer than a mere recitation of the superior quality of its manufactured parts.  Product factoids that might dominate general market communications may be relegated to supportive secondary copy points in ethnic targeted messages.  Don’t despair.  You’ll get those superiority claims in the copy - somewhere.

Rather than forcing the brand’s general market gestalt on the ethnic customer, allow the product to seek its own identity - find its own place - and ultimately it may earn a spot in the consumer’s highest place of honor - the shopping cart.

 

The challenge for the marketer is, while allowing for differing product faces to be revealed to differ consumer groups in the marketplace in order to court their favor, we nevertheless must be the fierce guardians of the brand’s core identity.  

 

Otherwise, the brand might lose the essential part of itself, that which is at the core of its brand being, and thus jeopardize its hard-earned status as a Brand. 

 

Consumer research such as focus group testing can uncover that special niche that the product can fill that might allow it to become an integral part of the ethnic customer’s life.  Once that special place is discovered, you’re on your way toward brand building. 

 

But there always seems to be those who doubt the rightfulness of the natural product selection process for ethnic groups.

 

A Case In Point

Take African Americans for example. Given that Blacks have been in America for more than 400 years and they speak English exclusively, the recalcitrant marketer will question, from time to time, if they’re really so different from the ‘average’ consumer to merit a separate targeted communications effort to aid in brand building. 

 

The question really is mute.  Research has confirmed that Blacks are different product and media consumers. Published lists of the most popular television shows among black and whites demonstrates that out of the top 10 shows for both groups, there is little consistency across these groups in terms of their TV viewing.  The pattern of the inconsistencies has been confirmed for years.  Even in something as basic as media, there are distinctions that have implications for marketing and advertising.

 

Blacks’ grateful acceptance of,  what even black critics view as relatively mediocre programming because of its heavy comedy skew, clearly demonstrates an anomaly exists for African Americans in their choice of TV programming that must be respected.   They don’t fit the mold and that’s perfectly okay.

 

But beyond their choice of TV programs, Blacks’ taste in music, food, their language systems, divergent political and social views, even how they dress, more than qualifies them as a consumer sect meriting the status of an ethnic group.

 

The Language Factor

Language dominant ethnic groups, like Spanish-only speaking Latinos and the myriad number of Asian groups to be found in pockets across our nation, tend to fair a bit better with the unschooled marketer, who intimidated by his ignorance of a foreign language and culture, readily throws resources between himself and the ethnic challenge.

 

With assimilated Hispanics and Asians however, again the marketer, reverting back to thrifty arrogance, ponders if a communiqué in English will get the job done since, after all, “they speak English”.   The risks have to be carefully weighed before committing to a course of action that might prove costly.

 

But beyond the issue of what language to use, other subtle, sometimes even minor, but often extremely important cultural cues mishandled in communications intended to create a favorable environment for a sale and have just the opposite effect.   Ethnic people quickly intercept these blunders and the result is a situation that is the antithesis of successful ethnic brand building. 

 

Those subtle cultural cues – the role relationships among ethnic talent in an ad, the use of certain colors, the misuse of humor, skin color, hair texture, misunderstood metaphors, the dishonoring of deities, pandering to taboos – little things - that signal to the ethnic target an authentic depiction of their, when innocently but ignorantly used can have costly sometimes irreparable consequences. 

 

Language is but one factor to be considered in developing branding communications for ethnic communities.  You can learn passable Spanish in a public high school in Iowa but that doesn’t make you an expert on the living culture and lifestyle of Latinos. Trust me, seek the advice of an expert on those markets to know what is and isn’t acceptable.

 

Because as Americans who invented high-speed printing, color TV, and satellite communications, we tend to forget that right here in our own backyard, there are customer groups whose targeted channels of mass media are years behind what’s available in the general market – in quality and quantity. 

 

I had referenced the comedic programming that dominates African American TV programming.   Because it’s so dominant, we tend to think every African American is laughing his way through primetime.  They aren’t.

 

Many tune-away or tune-out.   And so we know we are still in the infancy stages of finding TV programming, and print media in some instances, that begins to approach the standards and selection available in the general market.

 

A Final Word

As marketers anxious to penetrate these markets, we must sometimes exercise patience as we pursue ethnic brand building.  The means and the methods pose challenges to us that may require that we stretch ourselves professionally and personally. 

 

Take on the learning of a new language, or be an active participant  rather than a spectator at a special event for these groups that you yourself might have paid to sponsor.  Get to know your target beyond the data, beyond the stereotypes.  You and your brand will be rewarded.  I guarantee it.

 

Grassroots marketing often becomes a viable way to accelerate the acceptance of a brand among ethnic consumers.   Once physically in their communities,

you’re able to form relationship bonds that will serve your brand well for years to come. 

 

Always mindful of how the ethnic end-user views the product, the marketer is nevertheless able to sample, disseminate information, or demonstrate the correct use of a complex feature, all the while making sales, taking orders and making loyal customer- friends.   That’s a key component of brand building, creating the loyalty.   

 

Having a good product certainly helps foster the repeat use that leads to loyalty but being a good corporate friend, a corporate supporter of the community institutions and initiatives that matter to the ethnic customer, is important too. 

 

Be generous in your consideration of participation in special events and sponsorships, as well as in philanthropic contributions to community causes. Your support demonstrates your willingness to give something back to their community in exchange for their having purchased your product. 

 

It recognizes that, as American consumers, they have a choice in the marketplace.  They chose your brand, and you’ve profited by their choice, and now you’re willing to share some of those profits back with them on the things that matter to them.

 

Your company’s willingness to support, and your brand’s presence at grassroots endeavors, truly puts a human face on your product.  And that’s the final step toward the goal of being accepted as a brand in ethnic communities.

 

The challenge for the marketer seeking to brand-build in ethnic markets is a complete surrender to the rightfulness of ethnic marketplace dynamics.   You’ve heard the old saying “when in Rome”, well, when marketing to ethnic consumers, “do as they demand.”   It’s as simple and as complex as that.

 

Often the right answer is a moving target, dependent on the product, the goals of the marketing program, the customer group with their whole set of perspectives, prerequisites, and sensitivities, the political climate, the geography, you name it.  

 

Marketing’s still an art, not a science.  Again, defer to your resident expert.  And above all, give it time.

 

Desiring to brand build means that you’re willing to take the time to acknowledge, understand, and respect these consumers’ heritage as ethnic people.   Once done, the marketer has secured a place for his product as a Brand that values the differences that make each ethnic group a unique and integral part of the American consumer marketplace.

 

 

Written by:  Marla D. Currie

                 President & CEO, Targeted Advertising Group