Having worked with a wide range of clients over the years, my colleagues and I at Environics Analytics have seen multicultural marketing go from “everyone’s talking about it but nobody’s doing it,” to “a lot of people are talking about it and some are actually doing it.” That’s positive news, though marketers often express their struggle—and occasionally some guilt—associated with multicultural marketing. We hear that budgets are really tight, making it difficult to support these niche markets; that the markets are so splintered and small that it’s hard to achieve a positive ROI; and that multicultural populations are not well understood. The guilt seems to come from marketers’ realization that while these markets are growing rapidly and will affect brand health now and in the future, they’re not getting the attention they deserve.

So I’ll pose the question that is undoubtedly on many marketers’ minds: “Do you have to do something tailored to cultural markets?” I would say the answer is: not necessarily.

If we adopt a statistician’s point of view, we would think about different consumer attributes that drive the consumption of products. These might be demographic characteristics such as age, number of children, income, urbanity and dwelling type, or psychographic attributes like technology orientation and environmental consciousness. A statistician would view cultural identity as just another attribute that could have an impact on consumption. It is one that’s gained importance in the past few years because there is more variation in culture on a large scale in Canada than there used to be. But it doesn’t always matter, just as environmental consciousness or presence of children doesn’t always matter for every product or service.

So when does it matter? The trick is to identify when cultural identity in and of itself actually drives consumption of a product. This could be caused by habits or customs in a cultural market, or an inherent brand affinity within a culture that may have been built halfway around the world, but still impacts behaviour here in Canada. Habits and customs could be religious or social, such as Jews buying Kosher foods or South Asians’ preference for Scotch whisky. And affinity for a brand could be due to the brand’s market position in the native country. For example, Chinese consumers favour many western luxury brands, including BMW, Coach and Burberry, among others. Affinity for those brands also tends to exist among Chinese Canadians. These examples are fairly obvious opportunities for marketers.

If there is no inherent affinity present, a brand may try to create affinity in a cultural market because the market’s other demographics represent an important part of the brand’s target. If the brand can connect with these consumers emotionally, it may be able to beat the competition and establish a lasting affinity and market advantage. Building equity from scratch is much trickier, requiring a brand to break through and connect with consumers in a relevant way. If the brand does not communicate an understanding of the market, its attempt to create affinity could fall flat or even drive some consumers away.

One campaign that has attempted to connect with a cultural market is Ikea’s effort to reach South Asians in Canada. A few years ago, Ikea created a TV ad that I thought was a perfect play on language, and the household furnisher’s strategy seemed to be driven by the insight that South Asians are a growing segment of the population that is disproportionately represented among newly minted households that require all the furnishings that Ikea sells: in other words, Ikea’s perfect market. The tagline in Hindi was “Yeh kia, woh kia: Ikea,” which translates roughly to “I got everything done at Ikea.” And “kia” in Hindi means “did,” which is a nice play on words with “Ikea.” When I first saw the ad, I was surprised by its quality and the fact that it was created specifically to cater to South Asians, complete with its clever wordplay. It had all the ingredients necessary to build brand affinity among the target, positioning Ikea for leadership among South Asian consumers.

So when does multicultural marketing not matter even if a significant portion of consumption comes from these markets? If other drivers of consumption are paramount (presence of children, income, environmental consciousness, etc.) then maybe a multicultural strategy isn’t necessary. If there is no cultural insight that you could use to create an emotional connection to, say, orange juice consumption, mainstream marketing might be just as effective. Culture doesn’t drive product decisions around orange juice, or if it does, the potential return from developing a separate strategy may not be worth the cost.

Admittedly, these days a whole new dynamic is emerging. I was discussing the merits of multicultural marketing strategies with a marketer whose target is young urban adults as they socialize with each other. His view was that in his target—one that represents the leading edge of change in Canadian society—multicultural is actually just the norm; his target isn’t multicultural in the sense of South Asians as a bloc or Chinese as a bloc that he is marketing to. It’s more about reaching a South Asian socializing with one friend who has an Anglo background and another who is half Vietnamese and half French—all together. So the challenge is how to be relevant to a very new and diverse, fluid mix of cultural identities all at the same time. Success in this world is, of course, an emerging art, but one that can be informed by the insights that analytics offers.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Direct Marketing. 

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Rupen Seoni

Rupen Seoni, a senior vice president at Environics Analytics, leads its government, health care and not-for-profit practice.

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