Culture Mosaic

Intraculturalism a Challenge to Marketers When Kids Try on Different Ethnic Identities as Easily as They Switch Their T-Shirts

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From urban to "hurban," there's no shortage of terms to describe marketers' efforts to reach today's culturally diverse youth. Now make room for one more concept: intraculturalism.

The concept comes from consulting company Cheskin, where Exec VP-Partner Stephen Palacios defines intraculturalism as the tendency for American youth to adopt traditions and attitudes of cultures other than their own in "a fluid process of identity formation." Young people shift back and forth among cultural sensibilities continually -- not just from year to year or month to month, but even sometimes from hour to hour.

Think beyond the obvious example of the white, middle-class kid who emulates hip-hop culture. Intraculturalism is seen in young people of all ethnic backgrounds -- encompassing children, tweens and teens, and is most prominent among Hispanic youth, Mr. Palacios says.

A Hispanic child, for example, might speak Spanish at home with his family and English at school. In turn, his non-Hispanic peers of all ethnicities are increasingly "picking and choosing from the cultural sensibilities that they find attractive," says Mr. Palacios. Intracultural kids "can be Asian at home, bicultural at school and something entirely different with their goth friends."

This fluid notion of cultural identity differs from multiculturalism, in which distinct ethnicities are celebrated -- and in the case of multicultural marketing, targeted -- separately.

Celebrate diversity
Mr. Palacios cites U.S. demographics as a driving factor. Children's social peer groups are more diverse than those of their adult counterparts, giving rise to "increased social permissibility" to be culturally unique, he says, adding, "Whereas in the past there was a push for acculturation and assimilation, today's kids celebrate diversity."

According to U.S. Census data, for every black, Hispanic or Asian person 65 and older there are five "non-Hispanic whites" in that age bracket. That ratio shifts dramatically with the 9-and-under segment, where there's one person of color for every 1.5 non-Hispanic white.

The long view on population trends indicates that intraculturalism will continue to gain momentum. Marketers have their eyes trained on the "tipping point" year of 2050, when non-Hispanic whites will no longer comprise the majority of the U.S. population. But for kids, that shift is projected to occur in 2029, when Hispanics aged 2-11 will comprise 22.9% of the kids population; African-Americans, 15.4%; and Asian-Americans, 5.3%, based on Census Bureau projections featured in Nickelodeon's "New Normal" research study. (The "Other" classification will push the non-white total to just over 50%.)

That today's kids try on different cultural identities with the ease and frequency of T-shirts makes the youth segment even more challenging to reach. Mr. Palacios is quick to note there's no one-size-fits-all response for marketers, but in the case of certain products and services, Cheskin advises marketers to appeal to commonalities instead of making segmented pitches according to ethnicity.

"Marketers make a distinction between the general market and its sub-segments, but today, the general market is the intracultural market," says Mr. Palacios. "We argue that if you don't have a response to that, it's a problem."

Starting at 6
The term itself might still be new, but the concept rings true to marketers. At MGA Entertainment, CEO Isaac Larian, creator of the popular Bratz dolls, says his 6- to 14-year-old female consumers "are tolerant of differences and interested in other cultures. What they're saying is 'I'd like to own a portion of these different cultures that I'm in touch with.'"

Mr. Larian's group is tapping that cultural curiosity with its spring 2006 launch of Bratz's Genie Magic collection, featuring a Moroccan-inspired wardrobe. Bratz's TV advertising on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and ABC Family features ethnically diverse talent, "but we have one marketing campaign that keeps kids of all backgrounds in mind," Mr. Larian says.

In line with that inclusive ethos, Bratz dolls have skin tones and eye colors reflecting diverse cultures, but their specific ethnicities aren't disclosed, allowing more girls to identify with the dolls.

Last July, MGA released a Bratz music album, "Rock Angelz," in partnership with Universal Music Enterprises. With "Se Siente," a Spanish-language song on the otherwise English-language album, "Rock Angelz" appeals to Spanish-speaking Bratz fans as it simultaneously leverages the uptick of general-market interest in Latin-influenced music, says Mr. Larian.

MGA promotes the album with print ads, handled in-house, in Bauer Publishing's teen-oriented Twist and J-14, while the "Se Siente" music video aired on MTV Latin America.

On Nick Jr., the 5-hour programming block dedicated to preschoolers, Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer" stars a Latina, bilingual character who sprinkles her primarily English-language dialogue with Spanish vocabulary. Reaching 2.3 million Hispanic households, the Dora cartoons give Latino children cultural cues to which they can relate, including an episode that featured a quinceanera, the big 15th birthday celebration for Latinas.

Dora is "pan-Latina" -- or unassociated with a specific Latin American country -- allowing Latino children of different national origins to identify with the character, says Brown Johnson, executive creative director at Nickelodeon Preschool Television.

The Dora balloon
But Ms. Johnson emphasizes: "We're creating the show for 2-to-5-year-olds everywhere, not a Latino population exclusively." For Nickelodeon, marketing Dora to Latino viewers vs. fans of other backgrounds is not an either/or proposition. The network used Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade -- in which Dora was the first-ever Latina character balloon -- to reach all segments within the parade's 2.5 million live spectators last year.

That Dora's balloon was a Latina first "was obviously extremely special for the Latino audience," says Karen Driscoll, senior VP-strategic and brand marketing at Nickelodeon, "but of course this is a mainstream event," bringing Dora "to a very broad audience as well."

When it comes to reaching young influencers, however, targeted appeals still make strategic sense, experts say. In Nick's "New Normal" study, kids aged 6-14 said they thought African-Americans know the most about music, fashion and sports, while whites were deemed to know the most about movies, the Internet/computers and video games. Marsha Williams, senior VP of the Consumer Insights Group at Nickelodeon, cautions that in certain cases, "if you cast your net as wide as you possibly can, you might still be missing [the influencers] that everyone else in your net is looking to."

As the distinction between the general youth market and its ethnic sub-segments continues to blur, "the days of marketing according to vertical lines of ethnicity are fading," says Tru Pettigrew, senior VP-urban lifestyle and multicultural marketing at Alloy Media & Marketing. Smart marketers appeal to youth through their lifestyle aspirations, "because kids from different cultural backgrounds have more in common in that regard," says Mr. Pettigrew.

Kids "don't want to be put in neat little boxes from a demographic standpoint," says Que Gaskins, VP-global marketing for Reebok International's RBK collection of fashion-forward footwear and apparel. A brand's capacity to align with kids' interests -- not their ethnicities -- is what motivates them to participate, he says.

RBK rounds out print advertising in youth-oriented sports magazines like Slam, Sports Illustrated for Kids and Dime Magazine with grassroots efforts that connect with consumers' interests in music and sports. McGarryBowen, New York, and Ad*itive, Philadelphia, handle RBK creative; PHD, New York, handles media.

Kids "aren't buying brands because they're meant for [specific ethnicities, but] because they tap into a psyche they believe in," Mr. Gaskins says. "Their attitude is 'Talk to me based on my lifestyle if you really know me.'"

Intra-sightful

Five strategies for marketers entering the world of intra-cultural youth from Stephen Palacios, exec VP-partner at Cheskin:
  • Be aware. These young people define themselves across cultural lines. Recognize these newly emerging identities-this is not a fad.
  • Get anthropological. Beyond demographics, turn to disciplines such as ethnography and cultural anthropology to understand culture-based consumer insights.
  • Stay current. This is an evolving conversation. Intracultural youth neither consume the same media nor hold the same cultural values that have been predominant in the past.
  • Seek feedback. Intracultural youth use ever more outlets to express themselves creatively. Marketers should seek involvement within legal constraints.
  • Think nontraditionally. Go beyond the obvious, whether that means advertising in new media outlets or simply keeping track of the communities that surround them.

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