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Multicultural marketing today is generating more buzz than ever before. But to talk about it effectively, you need to be comfortable talking about race. And that's a subject few are at ease discussing, at least in mixed company.
It's understandable that any well-intended executive would be reluctant to engage in the ethnic conversation, since we've seen national figures make a single misplaced remark, only to ignite either legal action or negative coverage by an eager media machine--or both. However, the alternative is a dialogue that, if it exists at all, is so diluted it lacks the kind of forward thinking that would appeal to any customer base, either black or white.
Is it any wonder that so many multicultural initiatives seem tired and predictable, with programs relegated to a few events out of the year, such as Black History Month, Lunar New Year, and Cinco de Mayo?
The challenge is partly that there are too few executives with sufficient understanding of the issue to lead a meaningful and authentic conversation within their organizations. Messages that resonate can come only from a champion who understands the consumer and is empowered to make things happen.
The African-American impact
The African-American population deserves a much closer examination by the retail industry. Saying that African-Americans represent 14 percent of the total U.S. population diminishes their true contribution. Just one example: Young black Americans have influenced popular culture like no other group has before in the history of our nation. As marketers and merchandisers, we do a disservice to our organizations when we try to measure impact on our store banners by simply describing the African-American market in demographic terms, rather than as an experience.
Occasionally, segmentation models intended to strengthen reach actually get in the way. If you're not careful, segmentation is just another way to label, and to lull executives into a belief that consumer segments are absolute and unchangeable.
Even more detrimental to unlocking the relevancy code is when key opinion leaders within the organization assert, "We're already doing enough."
Gatorade and Michael Jordan broke with convention with the memorable campaign, "I Wanna Be Like Mike." Michael Jordan simply transcended all segmentation models and appealed to people of every color, gender, religion, and economic scale. Michael Jordan was aspirational--it wasn't just a "black" thing, but an "everybody" thing.
Yet another example: The well-known McDonald's theme, "I'm Lovin' It," was chosen to reach the mass market, but has its roots in urban black sensibility.
In essence, all of us have "black" moments every day whether or not we're African-American. Our effort to be contemporary requires us to reach outside of ourselves, and in this case ethnic culture provides the segue.
Nowhere can ethnic lifestyle sampling potentially be explored more comfortably than in the aisles at your favorite market, making food, entertainment, and beauty choices that are derived and inspired by ethnic sensibility. The entertainment and fashion industries don't just showcase this in ethnic-dominant stores, so why as grocers do we relegate diversity to the "ethnic food aisle," or to certain time periods?
Still wondering about whether you've had a "black" moment? Consider these:
- If you saw the NBA All-Star game, you may have had a black moment.
- If you talked about the recent episode of Oprah's Big Give, ditto.
- If you listen to your teen's iPod while you're in the car by yourself, you're getting your daily dose of urban culture.
All in the family
This summer is a great time for retailers to test their intent to be relevant, by combining "doing the right thing" for their company with the commercial prospect of getting out of the box.
You can leverage that great American pastime of family reunions with a large-scale merchandising and communication platform. A family reunion theme will provide an opportunity to speak to your entire consumer base, but also has special appeal to African-American families, who value reunions in a time-honored way.
Even though each of us has our own attitude toward race, as marketers and merchandisers our driving agenda should be generating more profits through initiatives that resonate with the largest share of our customer base.
Armando L. Martin is devoted to helping retailers maximize their ethnic initiatives. To that end, he has worked in retail marketing and merchandising in the grocery industry, discount department store channel, and financial services industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.