Culture Club

January 1999


Culture Club

Marketing to ethnic groups is more important than ever, but it's dangerous if done improperly

Companies taking the extra step to reach specific ethnic groups need to be committed and very careful. Marketing Tools magazine stresses marketers should check assumptions at the door and hire someone sensitive to cultural nuances.

During the next 50 years, people classified as ethnic minorities will come to represent 50% of the U.S. population, up from 25% now. Moreover, 60% of this growth will take place because of immigration. Companies will face a customer base that represents a wide range of languages and accepts marketing messages in very different ways.

You will miss the mark if you try to translate your ads from English literally or substitute ethnic actors for white actors in TV spots, the article says. Some audiences may be offended by the directness of U.S. marketing messages, while others may associate colors, symbols and words with superstitions, politically charged issues or negative cultural icons. Occasionally, a slogan translated carelessly can result in disastrous misunderstandings. ("Come alive with the Pepsi generation" translated into Chinese read "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave," for example.) Consumers also will turn their backs if they feel the marketing attempt "lumps" them inappropriately with other groups – Cuban Americans won't appreciate a message with a Mexican colloquialism.

Retailers in particular need to understand the groups in their particular markets. One St. Louis, MO, jeweler is particularly successful with the city's large Asian community, but the group is suspicious of businesses outside its community that advertise in the local Asian language newspaper. The jeweler relies on a handful of customers to spread the word about his services.

Here are more suggestions for retailers interested in reaching an ethnic population:

  • Get involved in the community and stay visible over time. Participate in community and charity events, and provide a friendly shopping environment and employment opportunities for minorities.
  • Hire a marketing specialist who understands the ethnic audience's priorities, taboos and ways of communicating.
  • Don't force cultural appeals where they're not relevant to the product; understand the scope and significance of cultural customs and holidays before building promotions around them. (Don't parallel Hanukkah with Christmas, for instance.)

– by Stacey King

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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