23 September 2006

The coloured nature of the future American consumer

Much to my dismay, Americans are rather fond of the word ‘ethnic’ (I prefer ‘multicultural’), using it to demarcate the white Americans of European origin – defined as the mainstream population – from ‘the rest’. ‘The rest’, as you can guess, is ‘ethnic’ – people of non-white race, culture and skin-colour. This, of course, has cultural, socio-economic as well as political ramifications; but, for the sake of this post, I’ll stick to the marketing point of view.

From the marketing point of view (which includes demographics and consumption patterns), ‘the rest’ of the American population is made up of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Even Native Americans (the original ‘Red’ Indians) don’t have enough purchasing power or command over the marketplace to make a difference to the American economy – and be counted.

This means, American marketing has primarily had an Anglo bias. Marketing strategies and communication campaigns, historically, have been targeted to the white American audience, and white Americans were by far the dominant consumers in the marketplace. Consumers of ethnic origin were ignored because of their lack of purchasing power.

It’s been some 40 years now that advertising targeted specifically to African-Americans have appeared in the mass media; with the Hispanics coming into focus in the mid-80’s, and the Asian-Americans more recently, probably from the beginning of the new millennium. Today, American marketers are clearly aware of the growing power of ethnic consumers – coming from ‘the rest’ of the population – and responding to the need of the hour with targeted marketing efforts.

The need for ethnic marketing is not a sudden phenomenon, but has grown over the last 40 years. Predictions were made about the growth of the ethnic population and their purchasing power, but were ignored by mainstream American marketers. It’s only in the last 10 years that any serious attention has been paid to understand this market. Here’s an excerpt from a 1999 article by Lisa Skriloff and Dawn Cornitcher of Multicultural Marketing Resources Inc.:

“Population growth and economic force tell a powerful story. The African American, Hispanic and Asian populations have a combined buying power of over a trillion dollars and minority populations are fast becoming the majority population in major markets. Not only is this trend fuelled by the growth of traditional ethnic segments but a growing influx of immigrants from Russia, Poland, and the Middle East continues to shift the mainstream view of how to define ethnic markets.”

There’s been a big hue and cry about this in America. Billions of dollars have been (and still continues to be) spent on researching and understanding ethnic groups, their culture, their media habits, their behaviour in response to targeted marketing, their brand associations, and their consumption patterns. To complicate the issue, differences have been found in the characteristics of immigrants (new on American soil) compared to their second and third and subsequent generations.

Questions abound: What language to use? Which cultural symbols have relevance? How to avoid controversy and not offend the audience? Are their communication and/or cultural pitfalls to guard against? Are there differences in consumption between or within groups for the same brand? What kind of communication stimuli generates the most favourable response? Etc.

To find answers to these questions, research is littering the streets and entering the households; studies and reports are being filed; monitoring tools and tracking devices are being created; specialised advertising, marketing and communication agencies are being set up. The mandate is clear: reach out to ethnic audiences, gain their approval, and sell to them. For, therein lies the future American consumer – the consumer of a different race, culture and skin-colour.

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