The Art of Cultural Correctness

By Published on .

THE LABEL “MULTICULTURAL? IS, IN A WORD, loaded. It's been borrowed from politics, the land of the loaded word, and has been inappropriately applied to the practice of marketing to specific ethnic and racial groups. Used politically, its purpose is to describe a society in which white, Anglo cultural hegemony has been broken — forever — by the rise in numbers and thus power of people who are not white and Anglo.

In fact, mainstream advertising and marketing are multicultural in nature, based on the notion that if one wishes to sell products to the largest number of people, one then approaches people of all races and cultures within a given society. Identifying and reaching members of a specific community, on the other hand, is anything but multicultural.

Still, as much as one would love to banish the word from the lexicon of business, one must realize that in business speak, words do take on a life of their own (think, for example, of “prioritize,? which was at one time considered merely corporate jargon but is now listed in the dictionary). The point here is that in order to succeed, marketing and advertising campaigns directed at a specific group of people that are culturally connected must be culturally relevant. This may seem obvious, but after reviewing many directed marketing efforts over the years, we've noted a decided lack of attention paid to this concept.

We set out to find recent successful marketing and advertising campaigns that put cultural relevance first. We found six that, through research and the application of the simple powers of human intuition, made the grade, sometimes with a dramatic twist or two. What characterizes all is success.

Allstate Courts the Chinese Market

There's nary a U.S. born citizen who doesn't know that you are, in the realm of insurance, in good hands with Allstate. The brand is considered high-end, with prompt, knowledgeable service, and rock-solid integrity (sorry Prudential!). But to Chinese Americans, Allstate was not the first company to come to mind when buying auto, homeowner's, renter's or other types of insurance. Word of mouth in the Chinese community most often led prospective customers to low-cost providers. It fell to Kang & Lee Advertising to reverse this impression. Of course, Allstate, having relied on the “good hands? image it had cemented over decades, looked to translate that concept into the Chinese market. Problem was, it doesn't. Kang & Lee, a New York-based agency, set out on a research sojourn with a benchmark study of Chinese Americans and Chinese American agents for Allstate. The trick was to somehow make the company's longtime brand identity relevant to this group.

The dilemma centered around the fact that the English slogan doesn't make sense in any Chinese dialect. According to Larry Moskowitz, vice president of strategic marketing services for Kang & Lee, Allstate, was “very nervous, understandably,? because the slogan is “an iconic thing in American advertising.? Yet, the insurance company gave the OK to pursue an effort to try to convey the same notion in a culturally relevant way. Kang & Lee, having conducted focus groups with consumers and agents, came up with a Chinese-language version of the tag line, which, roughly translated, says “turn over to our hands, relax and be free of worry.? (There were more than 30 executions, culled to three, the other two being the literal Chinese version of “control the way to protection? and the middle ground “protection is completely held in our hands.?) The first slogan was the overwhelming favorite of the focus groups. But then it had to go to the legal department, where the concern focused on the idea that one could drive into an accident and be free of worry. Further examination assuaged the legal misgivings since there were many slogans that were similar in tone, which meant that Kang & Lee had hit upon a culturally significant message. The client went for it. The campaign started in Seattle and New York last year, and has since expanded to California. Based on a study done six months after the effort was under way in the first two cities, awareness of Allstate had doubled. The campaign continues, now moving into specific types of insurance. “Hats off to Allstate, for going the whole nine yards,? says Moskowitz, using a phrase that may not be familiar to many Chinese Americans. But Allstate understands it.

El Pollo Loco — A Double Play

El Pollo Loco is a restaurant chain that traces its roots to Mexico. While it has been out of the hands of its founder, Pancho Ochoa, for two decades, what sets El Pollo Loco apart is that is came here from south of the border, where its first location was established in 1975. The chain is now working to both sustain its Latino base and gain ground in the fast-food business on the West Coast and soon, in the city of Chicago. El Pollo Loco has been sold several times since Ochoa brought it to the U.S. and is now owned by a New York equity firm. Nonetheless, it is expanding. Therein lies the twist in this case study. The chain's claim to fame is based on a uniquely Mexican and Central American way of cooking chicken. It's grilled, whole, after about an hour of marinating in a proprietary mixture of citrus juices, garlic and other unspecified ingredients. This concoction may be well known to folks from Mexico and Central America, but to the rest of the population, it remains a mystery.

A little more than two years ago, the chain took a close look at its customers and deduced that while the Latino diners it served were well acquainted with its fare, the general market was not. “Our Hispanic consumer is very heavily Mexican oriented; the way the chicken is cooked is very Mexican and, to some extent, Central American,? says Karen Eadon, chief marketing officer for El Pollo Loco. In order to expand further, she says, the company needed to enhance its offerings as well as increase awareness among the general population. The menu was expanded to include Mexican fare that was more familiar to the general population, and the decision was made to split the marketing effort into two parts, one directed at Latino customers and the other at the general public. For the Latinos, a campaign that emphasized the original El Pollo Loco recipe and the family dining experience was chosen. For the wider audience, a campaign featuring a human character, first dubbed “El Caliente? (the hot one) then later the “Master of the El Pollo Loco Flame,? was introduced, with the idea that this segment needed to be informed of how the food was prepared and of the restaurants' authentic Latino origin. This two-track approach is illustrative of the idea that marketing campaigns must be culturally specific to be meaningful, even to different markets at the same time. In El Pollo Loco's view, one message doesn't always suit all. The result has been a doubling in awareness in both communities, according to Eadon, and that is based on preliminary tracking studies. This is especially significant since she made the decision to cut the Latino portion of the budget to shift the media weight behind the general effort after realizing that half of the Latino audience is bilingual anyway and would be receptive to the English-language message. Latino awareness still increased at the same rate as the general market.

Gay & Lesbian Greetings from Asbury Park

The city of Asbury Park, N.J., while it may be revered among Bruce Springsteen fans, has been in decline for most of the past three decades. Once a sparkling seaside resort, the region fell on hard times in the 1960s, with its nadir perhaps coming in 1971, when civil unrest resulted in fires that destroyed much of the west side. The famed boardwalk became a ghost town, even in midsummer, when the beach should have been packed with vacationers and residents alike. The casino, Madam Marie's fortune-telling stand, indeed all but the convention center and a theater that had been renovated by the state, lay in ruins. In the early 1990s, the city began to be discovered by gay and lesbian investors who were interested in the relatively cheap but architecturally worthy housing stock and vacant storefronts that were on offer. They were welcomed by the authorities, and over the next decade, Asbury Park became an even more diverse locale than it had been previously. It already had a large black and Latino population, but that population was mostly working class. The gays brought money and local business. In a testament to the idea that marketing does not necessarily mean advertising, promotion, distribution etc., the city earlier this year made a bold statement that served as a galvanizing event for the gay population and most certainly solidified its reputation as a gay-friendly place. It was in Asbury Park, in early 2004, that the first gay marriage in New Jersey was performed. Dozens followed, but the statement made with that first marriage, even though it has not been officially recognized by the state, consolidated Asbury Park's place as a resort and permanent residency destination for the gay population that surrounds New York City and Philadelphia.

It is too soon to gauge what the ultimate effect of that action may be, but city manager Terence J. Reidy sees it as a watershed in Asbury Park's efforts to reestablish itself as one of New Jersey's premier shore resorts. He points to development that is now taking place on and near the shoreline, which includes residential, recreational and retail establishments the likes of which have not been seen in the area for a generation, as evidence that the area is on its way back. He can't say how large the gay population there is since there are no available government surveys that request and report information on sexual preference. But he does allow, “You can't walk down a street in Asbury Park without seeing a rainbow flag hanging in front of a house or business.? The policy has clearly helped the region's redevelopment. And for those of you who are Springsteen purists, yes, the Stone Pony, the fabled dive where the Boss, Southside Johnny and countless other Jersey shore bands have played, is probably not going to survive in its current form (the land on which it sits — about a block and a half from the boardwalk — is simply too valuable now). But Reidy assures us that there will always be a place called the Stone Pony, probably included in one of the new developments along the shore.

Coke Finds Crossover Magic

When a campaign is created to reach Latinos, it is generally intended to do simply that. But sometimes these days, those campaigns are so relevant to everyone that they go wide (to borrow a term from Hollywood). This has happened twice recently to Lapiz Integrated Hispanic Marketing, a unit of Leo Burnett in Chicago. The first was a TV commercial featuring actress Salma Hayek. As the spot opens, a group of Hollywood moguls are gathering outside an L.A. restaurant, waiting forHayek's arrival. Unbeknownst to them, she is in the kitchen, sharing tacos and Coca-Colas with the kitchen staff, bantering in Spanish. When she emerges to meet them at their table, she sits and is served a dollop of nouvelle cuisine, which she promptly refuses, saying in perfect English that she is watching her weight. The spot ends with the words “Latina de Verdad,? which means “true Latina.? The spot was intended only for Spanish-language TV, but was later extended to regular spot TV in heavily Hispanic markets. The same thing happened with a second spot, this one featured two Latino men and a blonde “babe,? in which the men are egging each other on to eat hot chile peppers, while the woman is drinking a Coke. As they battle, she drinks, and as she finishes the soda, the two men, sweating and obviously in need of liquid fortification, look to her as she innocently says she hopes neither of them wanted a sip. According to Dolores Kunda, president and CEO of Lapiz, there was no thought of making commercials that could be used in the general market. “These spots were based more in the reality of Coca- Cola as a real beverage…and real Hispanics speak in English and in Spanish. You have to go where the consumer leads you. It really is kind of simple.? The general population, at least in heavy Latino markets, apparently thinks so as well.

Pepsi Connects with Black History

Approaching the African American market is becoming increasingly more difficult as black culture affects more and more of the nation's general popular culture. But one area in which black Americans lag the general population is in home ownership of a computer with Internet access — the so-called digital divide. Pepsi, through Dallas-based Tracy Locke Partnership, cooked up a promotion for February, which is widely celebrated as Black History Month, dubbed “Write your own history.? It asked students to do just that, and the agency created a Web site featuring black history and art on which entry forms were readily available. Retail tie-ins with major chain stores also provided entry points for the contest, which awarded 10 college tuition scholarships of $10,000 as first prizes, Dell computers as secondary prizes, as well as software and 12-packs of Pepsi. The program began in 2002, grew in 2003 and 2004, with 167,000 essay entrants this year. In 2005, Pepsi will continue to celebrate Black History Month with a contest among this segment, but will switch the format to a straight sweepstakes program, with Apple computers as prizes (not surprising, since Apple is a client of fellow Tracy Locke agency BBDO, both of which are owned by Omnicom).

Mun Dos Wants More Among Latinos

The cable television business in markets with significant Latino populations has long been faced with a peculiar problem: Take-up rates among Latinos have traditionally run much lower than those for the general population. NBC Universal, which owns both the Telemundo TV network and the cable network Mun2 (Mun Dos), decided to help its cable system partners solve this riddle. It hired Miami-based Blanco-Lorenz, a firm specializing in marketing media to Latino consumers, to conduct a baseline survey of this group to find out exactly why they were not cable-ready. What it found was that about half of the Latinos in large Latino markets are fairly recent arrivals to the United States, and, in the countries from which they came, cable television is nonexistent. In Latin America, satellite is the media of choice for those who want more programming options. “It became clear that most of the battleground is where the new arrivals are,? says Mark Hotz, senior vice president of marketing for NBC Universal Cable, “and they don't know what cable is.? Together with Blanco-Lorenz, NBC Universal cooked up a campaign that is called internally “Mas,? which means more in Spanish. The tag line is “Quiero Mas, Quiero Cable,? which means “I want more, I want cable.? The campaign then highlighted the programming choices offered by cable, which include on-demand movies and features, something that is not offered by satellite. The effort also encourages Latinos who subscribe to analog cable to upgrade to digital service, which offers many more channels. Ads were produced in both Spanish and English, and the Spanish spots were done in different dialects to appeal to specific populations. NBC spent about $2 million in media, including time on the Telemundo network, and made spots available to local cable systems for cross-channel promotion. Hotz estimates that the latter provided another $10 million in exposure. It is too early to determine how effective the campaign has been, but one indicator is that it won an award this summer from the industry marketing association, Cable Telecommunications Advertising and Marketing, which represents cable operators as well as networks.

In most of the preceding cases, an understanding of the consumer came first. Research was designed with that in mind and creative executions followed. If there is a moral in this story, it is that successful marketing always begins with the consumer, not the company, not the shareholder. Or, as Kunda of Lapiz puts it about her area of specialty, “Spanish-language advertising is not about the language. It's about the culture.?

In this article: