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  Ola Mobolade Back to the Future – Marketing to the New Majority
by Ola Mobolade
September 16, 2011

There’s an old Ghanaian proverb that, loosely translated, states that one must look to the past to know where one is going in the future. The same is true within the marketing landscape. In my new book Marketing to the New Majority, co-authored with David Burgos, VP of Multicultural Marketing for Millward Brown, we devote an entire chapter to the history of Multicultural Media and Marketing. Why spend an entire chapter on history, for such a forward-looking topic? Good question. As the African proverb touts, I too believe that to understand the future of marketing in a multicultural nation, we have to look to the past.


Here are three important lessons we marketers can learn from the history of multicultural media and marketing in America:

  1. It’s impractical to address African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American marketing, with one sweeping ‘multicultural marketing’ strategy. Ever wonder why there’s no Association of Minority Advertisers, while such organizations exist for each individual ethnic segment? The varied histories of each of group help explain the sometimes strained and competitive relationships between African American, Hispanic, and Asian American ad agencies today, especially as they struggle for their fair share of an often-tiny slice of brand marketing budgets. These three largest US minority segments have all continued to make great strides in the past 30 years; however there are significant differences in the path each has taken toward fair and balanced representation in advertising, and differences in the timeline that each group’s progress has followed. As a result, the business of marketing to each group carries with it quite distinct dynamics and unique challenges, that must be addressed with individually tailored strategies. (NOTE: This only applies to initiatives that call for ethnically targeted efforts. There are many situations in which a transcultural strategy is appropriate, depending on the sector, and the saliency of ethnic identity within it.)

  2. Just because minority consumers have become part of the new mainstream, doesn’t negate the importance of ethnic media. The very first African American, Hispanic and Asian newspapers were founded to give voice to these then-marginalized groups. They cultivated strong, trusting relationships with their ethnic readers, and helped foster a sense of ownership of experience and freedom of expression. However, there was another, less-discussed purpose which persists today, even as these segments continue on the steady path of integration into mainstream society: Ethnic media was then, and is now, equally committed to uplifting and motivating its various minority constituencies. Decades of disenfranchisement aren’t easily erased by relatively recent advances. And for many minorities—especially those who have lived through a time prior to having the same rights as Whites— seeing people who look like you as part of mainstream media depictions simply isn’t enough. Today’s ethnic media channels serve an important psychological and sociological purpose in righting the imbalance that these groups’ historical disenfranchisement created.

  3. When it comes to mainstream brands communicating with ethnic consumers, separate is very rarely equal. While this may seem to conflict with the previous point about the importance of ethnically targeted media, consider the difference in context. When we speak of ethnic media, we’re talking about the messenger being of the same culture as the audience. On the contrary, when we’re talking about a major brand communicating with a minority segment of their audience in a targeted way, ethnic consumers generally perceive the messenger as White. Leading brands have sought to engage ethnic consumers through targeted marketing since the 1960’s. At the time, their representation in advertising mirrored the social segregation that persisted far beyond legal dismantling of ‘separate but equal’ doctrines. For example, Black ads featuring Black talent were featured in Black media. And because there were far fewer ethnic media channels, the ingoing assumption that still exists today, was that a brand could reach ethnic consumers for pennies on the dollar spent to reach White consumers. It’s not realistic to think that a strategy that’s executed for $200,000 can be as effective as one that has $2 million dollars to work with. Yet, very few brands spend more than 10% of their marketing budgets on reaching ethnic consumers.

Today, we live in a society where one-third of all consumers and half of Youth consumers are non-White. While some brands have internal initiatives to increase their multicultural spending, I would propose a more appropriate game-changer: The general market is multicultural – stop segregating budgets and focus resources on what this means for your overall strategy. Understand the extent to which your brand can engage with a diverse general market in a meaningful and culturally intelligent way, and adjust marketing budgets accordingly. Will there still be a need for some targeted efforts? Quite possibly, but this depends on how each ethnic segment engages with your brand and category. If and when an ethnically targeted initiative is necessary (which research can help determine), make sure the message is well-aligned with the mainstream communication, and that the execution is adequately funded.

   Ola Mobolade is the co-author of "Marketing to the New Majority" (Palgrave Macmillan, August 2011) and a managing director at Firefly Millward Brown, the qualitative research practice of Millward Brown. Her knowledge of multicultural markets, trend-leader segments, and youth demographics allows her to bring exceptional strategic marketing capabilities to Firefly’s clients, which include dozens of industry powerhouses.

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