Too Many Marketers Get Total Market Totally Wrong

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If I were to give last week's ANA 2016 Multicultural Marketing and Diversity Conference a title, it would be: "12 Steps to Cultural Competence and Confidence." Over three days in Los Angeles, industry leaders acknowledged that they are playing cultural catch up and recognized that, while well intended, misuse of the "total market" concept combining so-called mainstream plus diverse segments is suppressing culturally-specific voices and vision -- the very perspectives necessary for brands to make targeted consumer connections.

A total market course correction is in order and Association of National Advertisers' CEO Bob Liodice wasted no time in bringing this concern to the forefront at the conference, attended by about 700 people. Mr. Liodice cited at least eight examples of "what happens when the industry gets together" -- pointing to ANA-led initiatives that have had an impact, from the Ad Council's consumer-facing social responsibility work to an industry-focused stop to digital ad fraud.

In this spirit, Mr. Liodice announced the formation of The Association of Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM), a coalition designed to "build a community of multicultural champions, advocates and experts."

Gilbert Davila.
Gilbert Davila. Credit: Erin Becker

Conference chair Gilbert Davila, president and CEO of Davila Multicultural Insights, and a founding AIMM board member, explained the coalition's goals: "Our intention is not to speak to the choir. With the support of ANA's executive leadership, we intend to elevate the conversation and bring it to corporate C-suites so that multicultural and inclusive marketing becomes the business imperative that it deserves to be."

Lizette Williams, multicultural marketing leader at Kimberly-Clark, did not mince words when, during one of the first panels of the conference, she said, "Total market strategy has been largely misunderstood. Total market strategy was never intended to be a cost-cutting measure to drive efficiencies. It was actually quite the opposite. It was designed to drive inclusivity and effectiveness of messaging."

Over the past few years, many marketers and agencies have been concocting their own total market scenarios, adopting the approach as a check-the-box strategy that brings to mind an old Total cereal slogan: "1 Bowl. 100%." In these cases, total market has really been more like a sugar substitute: all the taste of inclusiveness but only half the involvement.

A few future-focused marketers, however, did understand total market as a "yes, and" proposition -- one that encouraged culturally insightful total and targeted ideas to take shape. You might say, these marketers went the Wheaties route, becoming total market champions by getting their strategies off to the right start with upfront investments in insights and with collaborative processes that nourished culturally attuned ecosystems. Never expecting a magical fix to a complex pursuit, these marketers set their priorities and re-engineered processes, not always succeeding but always learning and never turning back. And these were the marketing champions selected to share best practices at this year's ANA conference.

Case studies consistently demonstrated the value of using a culturally specific lens in tandem with the wide-angle get-everyone-into-the-picture approach. Marketers underscored the importance of getting close to what consumers care about, particularly where social issues are concerned. No stranger to social causes, Macy's Director of Multicultural Customer Strategy, Maria Rios, shared a perspective that was echoed by fellow retailer Lane Bryant in a presentation on body equality. "The marketer is in a position to listen and lead," said Ms. Rios. "We can take conversations to places that align with brand values."

Ivan Pollard, Coca-Cola's SVP-strategic marketing, stated that brands need to stand "for something beyond themselves," adding that "millennials are demanding brands take a stand and support social causes."

His Coca-Cola colleague Lauventria Robinson, VP-Multicultural Center of Excellence, moderated a compelling panel titled "Speak Up or Stay Silent" and focused on the role of brands regarding social injustice. Philanthropist and entrepreneur-artist Tyrese used a Titanic analogy to point out ways in which corporate America is "out of touch" and is suppressing the kind of diversity of thinking that could, in fact, keep brands from sinking. The conference closed with a powerful presentation by Saturday Morning, a coalition forged by advertising creatives in service to societal change.

The tip of the iceberg isn't the problem. It's our fear of what lies below the surface and our resistance to facing that fear. What the ANA's Bob Liodice said bears repeating: "When our industry gets together we can …"

With the content of this conference and AIMM, the new coalition, it seems marketers are ready to go deep, which would be aiming in the right direction.