Multicultural Marketing

Why One Size Doesn't Fit All

The changing demographics in the U.S. have led to a new understanding of marketing within the country.

As the general population in the US continues to become more diverse, with ethnic Americans of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent making up 25% of the population, the days of one-size-fits-all marketing are gone forever.

Today, marketers are much more aware of the significant opportunity that the varying demographic groups present. What's more, they realize that they can no longer afford to neglect the combined buying power of ethnic Americans who, according to estimates, make $ 1.3 trillion, or 18.5%, of all US buying. To appeal to these highly lucrative and diverse audiences, marketers are abandoning traditional mass-marketing practices in favor of laser-focused, multicultural marketing efforts.

Multicultural marketing is defined as targeting and communicating to ethnic segments based on their own cultural framework. The opportunity cost of not creating a multicultural marketing strategy can translate into staggering losses for businesses, through the misinterpretation of marketing messages, the loss or damage to the brand image or, worse, the risk of customer alienation and defection.

Given that the ethnic diversity in the US is far more reflective of a global landscape, it is even more imperative for marketers to fully understand cultural differences, language treatments and purchase-drivers and to integrate those variations into their everyday marketing strategies and tactics.

While it has always been second nature for marketers to leverage surveys to quantify everything from general product interest to pricing and packaging, these surveys are even more valuable in creating and supporting multicultural marketing efforts. Before engaging in your own initiative, be sure that you understand the following issues?and ensure that you leverage this knowledge to develop strategies that appeal to each unique demographic.

Show me you know me

Multicultural marketing is no different from other marketing in that marketers must research, plan, develop and execute their campaigns based on feedback from their various audiences. After all, what may be appealing to one culture might have the opposite effect on another. To avoid alienating customers, marketers are now applying Web survey technology to pre-test everything from overall messaging to creative layout in order to appeal to a variety of audiences.

However, language is just one part of the overall communication process. To facilitate cultural adaptations, the savvy marketer starts with awareness and understanding something that can be easily achieved by surveying and pre-testing assumptions to better define and use the right mix of cultural variables.

These variables could include something as simple as using multicultural faces in your campaign photography in order to increase the rapport between your organization and your audience, or adjusting color preferences and graphic presentation forms to increase the effectiveness of your Web site presentation. To achieve a competitive edge in campaigns, marketers must understand the cultural differences and lifestyle characteristics of Latino versus Asian versus African, and so on.

Another lifestyle variable that marketers must also consider is timing, particularly because holidays vary according to both country and culture. Targeting a campaign around a holiday often requires timing adjustments. For example, Mother's Day is observed on a different day in Latin American countries than in the US. While some US-based Latinos have adopted the local date, others have not. To meet the needs of various Latino audiences, savvy multicultural marketers may choose to spread the campaign over a longer period to cover the date range based on the preferences identified in their survey research.

Finally, variables such as language can affect the market research process itself. For instance, when Leica Surveying and Engineering (a global provider of high-end surveying and measurement equipment) sought to gather competitive intelligence in its industry, it initially deployed surveys only in English, because the company's business was typically conducted in English, even across several different European countries.

However, the response rate was dismal, even though the sample comprised individuals who had an affinity with the company. Closer review showed that the in-country sales representatives conducted business in their native languages. Consequently, the company redeployed the survey in various languages, such as Spanish and German, and the response rate doubled almost overnight.

However, the response rate was dismal, even though the sample comprised individuals who had an affinity with the company. Closer review showed that the in-country sales representatives conducted business in their native languages. Consequently, the company redeployed the survey in various languages, such as Spanish and German, and the response rate doubled almost overnight.

Talk to me in ways I will understand

Certain brand names or taglines have completely different meanings when translated into various languages. For instance, the Dairy Association's huge success with the campaign titled "Got Milk?" prompted them to expand their advertising efforts to Mexico. Unfortunately, it soon realized that the translated version of the popular slogan said "Are you lactating?"

Alternatively, the absence of language can also be the barrier. For example, when a major consumer packaged goods manufacturer started selling baby food in Africa, the company decided to use the same packaging as in the US, with a smiling baby on the label. Later, they learned that in Africa, because many consumers are unable to read English, companies routinely put pictures on the labels of what is inside.

So before inadvertently insulting or alienating people due to innocent, yet damaging, language errors, be mindful of some basic rules and use surveys to validate messages and language prior to execution:

1. Conduct local background research for each market and for every language that you plan to target. After all, one Spanish-speaking country will have words and interpretations that are different from another. For example, Portuguese in Brazil is different from the Portuguese in Portugal, and Parisian French is different from the French of Belgium, Switzerland and Quebec. The language differences are even further exacerbated when working with the languages of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and beyond.

2. Never underestimate the importance of translation. At a minimum, marketers must ensure that their translations are done by translation experts who understand how to write marketing copy. It is no longer enough to use a native-speaker, journalist or other professional writer. Today, the translator should be a trained copywriter as well. Before executing a campaign blind, be sure to validate through focus groups and surveys.

3. Test, test and test again. Before spending time, money and resources, make sure that both you and your customer are in synch. It is better to leverage surveys and measure the effectiveness of your efforts prior to launching a major campaign. Not only will this maximize your efforts and save money but also, and more importantly, it might preserve your brand from a multicultural misstep.

Appeal to my instincts

One of the most common mistakes of multicultural marketing is to assume that a specific call to action will appeal to all targets. With online surveys, marketers are able to identify how one culture might respond stronger to a certain offer or value proposition, while another may be more motivated to buy based on manufacturer's reputation or product feature-set.

Sometimes you learn this by accident. For instance, a global manufacturer of GIS and mapping equipment wanted to survey customers and prospects to find out how it stacked up against competitors. As a part of this questionnaire, it wanted to ensure that specific demographics such as country of residence were included, in order to track survey response rates. As a result, and because researchers are curious by nature, they performed a subsequent segmentation analysis that found stark differences in preferences for product features across geographic regions (e.g., respondents from Asia and the Pacific Rim were much more likely to think depth of features was important in making purchase decisions, whereas their European counterparts favored ease of use).

Another consideration for marketers is whether to incorporate humor into the marketing message. The appropriate and effective use of humor is a particular challenge in multicultural marketing, because what might be considered hysterical in one culture could be deeply offensive in another. However, remember one simple principle, and you are likely to avoid the pitfalls of misplaced humor: Use humor about situations, not people.

It really is a small world after all

When marketers attempt a one-size-fits-all approach, they fail. Multicultural marketers know that they need to talk the talk and walk the walk in order to be effective.

For instance, the United Nations Federal Credit Union (UNFCU), which traditionally conducts surveys mostly by mail, decided to leverage the Web. It realized that as a result of the various distribution mechanisms, it needed to statistically weight the data to correct for a potential response bias from checking-account users. To avoid this potential bias, it used a respondent authentication filter that enabled it to discover that members outside the US were significantly more likely than their US counterparts to respond to the Web-based survey. Without this insight, the research results would have been biased, potentially leading to some poor decisions by the credit union's marketers.

By leveraging the global reach of Web surveys, marketers can identify key drivers that exist in various cultures and grow their business by appealing to discrete segments and unique audiences. With a little bit of knowledge and know-how, marketers can create extremely effective messages that resonate on a personal level with each consumer.

About the authors

Jim Stachura and Meg Murphy: Jim is director of research and analytics at, an Alpharetta, Georgia-based consulting company; reach him at Meg Murphy is a vice-president at, an Austin, Texas-based provider of online survey technology; reach her at

Republished with permission

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