At its best, multicultural marketing celebrates diversity, uplifting and inspiring the communities it targets. At its worst, multicultural marketing plies unhealthy products and habits, exacerbating health disparities and perpetuating the cycle of poverty in those same communities.
This year, however, we stand at a crossroads. We face a unique opportunity for conscientious marketers to differentiate themselves by going high as others go low.
This Super Bowl, Anheuser-Busch romanticizes the immigrant journey of its founder via an evocative campaign based on the perseverance and triumph of the mid-1800s German immigrant who was bullied by xenophobes exhorting him to "go back home."
On the bright side, it is timely for a big Super Bowl advertiser to roll out more than fake football teams comprised of animated beer bottles battling on a computer-generated gridiron. The winner in this ad campaign is clear from the get-go: beer and, yes, immigrants. It's a classic marketing ploy to coopt an audience's values and align them with your profit motives. Is this execution timely or opportunistic? Is it idealistic or controversial? Or, like so many things American, is it all of the above?
Celebrating a common thread
It's wonderful to celebrate the immigrant experience, as Anheuser-Busch does. After all, while debates over immigration are tearing our nation apart, the hardships and rewards of the immigrant experience actually should be a common thread tying us together. At one time or another, most of our ancestors came here from elsewhere. At one time or another, each immigrant wave has faced prejudice and discrimination. And, in the end, each group has slowly gained acceptance and success through great sacrifice and persistence. As descendants of immigrants from different parts of the world, we are diverse; but as immigrants, we also have been largely treated the same upon our arrival. In that shared history, we should discover empathy, and strive to be more accepting than past generations.
But what is the primary message in Budweiser's ad? Is it that we should be more like Adolphus in his perservance and ambition or less like his detractors? Or, again, is it all of the above?
That brings us to brands as corporate citizens, members of the larger community with more than their fair "share of voice." Armed with megaton budgets and brilliant strategists, brands can emerge as powerful voices of inspiration and encouragement. They can do more than target by culture, they can shape culture. Backed by earnest action, companies can make not just an ambiguous impression but a defining difference. What should marketers do in this era of Trump, nationalism and anti-immigrant fervor?
A multicultural opportunity
Marketers can definitely take a cue from Anheuser-Busch in highlighting the All-American nature of the immigrant experience. But they must not stop there. They must not simply tug at our heartstrings to sell unhealthy products. They must take a clear stand, rather than paint in strokes so broad they can claim to be apolitical. They must undergird their advertising genius with substance. Branded programmatic content and concrete, long-term initiatives can engage, educate and empower multicultural and immigrant individuals and communities to fully maximize their American experience.
There exist a multitude of opportunities for non-traditional multicultural marketers to step up to the plate IN this time of crisis. If major brands in categories like technology, fashion, healthcare and financial services rise to the challenge, they will make 2017 a watershed, this era's window of opportunity to define their brands as innately multicultural, while also rooting their promises in sincere action.
Progressive companies have an opportunity to back up their pro-immigrant PR and the headline-worthy tweets of their charismatic founders with more than multi-million dollar ads featuring cute creative. They can embrace the hard work of advocacy marketing, creating grassroots initiatives with culturally relevant content to build capacity within multicultural communities, sharing opportunities for education and growth in ways that genuinely engender not only consumer loyalty but community partnership. Trailblazing corporations must align the prosperity and inclusion of multicultural contributors and consumers with their own sustainability. Meat on the bones -- a vision for progress, rather than a knee-jerk cry of protest.
Facing border walls, demeaning rhetoric and immigrant bans, America needs all of its people to speak up. As corporate citizens, major brands should stand up and be counted. This is their responsibility, not only because they can express themselves, but because they have the bandwidth to be heard.
I'm tempted to quote Budweiser's new tagline in closing, but instead I'll defer to the real deal. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Corporate America, this is our chance to build loyalty by showing love. Celebrate multicultural and immigrant communities, yes. But bring the substance it takes to truly lift those communities up, not just in words but in deeds. In the end, not only will you be rewarded with loyalty, you will be remembered through the march of history as having done the right thing. Now that's something worth toasting with an ice-cold Budweiser.