Blind alley or door opener?

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When ruth gaviria joined the Hispanic and Asian marketing group at Colgate-Palmolive Co. seven years ago, it was a low-profile area mostly overseeing local promotions and community events.

By the time she left in 1999, the group had become a coveted assignment even for non-minority managers, with responsibilities that included media advertising and brand development as well as the successful expansion of two Mexican brands into the U.S.

CURSE OR BLESSING?

While she has been successful, Ms. Gaviria says other minority executives continue to fear that working in multicultural marketing can be as much curse as blessing if the skills learned there aren't seen as transferable to the general marketplace.

"Right now there are a lot of companies recruiting for [multicultural marketing], and people are very scared of being pigeonholed," says Ms. Gaviria, who left her position as director-Hispanic and Asian marketing at Colgate late last year.

The executive now is a VP-marketing and sales for North America at IDM Corp.'s Fusion Networks (www.latinfusion.com) in New York. The Internet portal plans Spanish- and Portuguese-language sites for the U.S.

Ms. Gaviria says she did not decide to leave Colgate because she feared her career would stagnate. In fact, she chose to stay in multicultural marketing because she enjoys it and decided to parlay her experience into a new opportunity in the dot-com world.

STARTS OUT POSITIVE

But at companies that don't value multicultural marketing orfail to integrate it into the marketing mainstream, it's a career path that could turn into a blind alley, say Ms. Gaviria and other multicultural marketing executives.

The initial move into multicultural marketing is usually positive for most managers, says David Thomas, professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, who has studied career paths of minority executives. He co-authored the book, "Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America."

"Very often, those individuals are given opportunities that appeared to be slow in coming while they were in the main market," Mr. Thomas says. "And because the corporation sees a connection with that individual's own cultural or racial background, it's often more open to them presenting novel ideas, developing business strategies, etc."

Frequently, however, multicultural marketing managers get pigeonholed later in their careers, and can't move up in general marketing or management assignments, Mr. Thomas says.

As a result, they often leave to start their own companies or go to other companies that have a better appreciation of their skills.

When companies go so far as to set up multicultural marketing teams in a separate location, the way Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. moved headquarters of its multicultural marketing to San Juan, P.R., last year, that can exacerbate the problem, Mr. Thomas says.

CHAIN OF COMMAND

"I understand what he's saying, and I understand the risk, but I don't see it as a risk or an issue at Procter & Gamble," says Robert L. Wehling, global marketing officer.

"It's very important that all of the people now working in multicultural marketing in North America [for P&G] are now reporting to one of our strongest general managers," says Mr. Wehling, referring to Graciela Eleta, general manager of P&G's Multicultural Marketing Development Organization.

"One of any general manager's responsibilities is training and advancement of his people. I think you'll see over time the best and the brightest of that organization moving forward the same as they would if they were in the dishcare business.

"I'm as convinced as I could possibly be that [multicultural marketing] is going to grow in size and significance and importance to . . . our overall business exponentially over the next 20 years," Mr. Wehling adds.

"The people who are associated with that growth are going to have gold stars on their foreheads. This is not going to be a bad place to be, at least at Procter & Gamble."

The Multicultural Marketing Development Organization at P&G has been given a challenge: To erase the average seven-point market share deficit for P&G products in ethnic communities compared with its overall share, a move that would boost sales by $750 million.

PROMISING CAREER PATH

Multicultural marketers agree the career path is much more promising in companies that view their field as a legitimate discipline integral to the success of the entire enterprise.

"At Sears, [Roebuck & Co.], we understand the importance of what the multicultural customer delivers in terms of sales . . . We have elevated the [top multicultural marketing position] to an executive-level position," says Gilbert Davila, VP-multicultural and relationship marketing.

"Today, there are still some companies that refuse to give proper credit to multicultural marketing or the multicultural career, and some managers can still be at risk of being pigeonholed [in those companies]."

Rotating non-minority executives through multicultural marketing programs is another tool, says Mr. Thomas. "The targeted market shouldn't become the province of a particular ethnic group," he says.

"In my view, companies that are going to be most successful are going to rotate their high-potential people through targeted markets regardless of race and ethnicity."

PART OF THE ROTATION

Colgate now includes a stint in multicultural marketing as a standard career rotation, much like international assignments, Ms. Gaviria says. But even prior to a formal policy, she says her group was getting applications from top MBAs who were neither Hispanic nor Asian.

Formal rotation or not, companies owe managers coming into multicultural marketing departments a clear view of the way back out to prevent pigeonholing, says Steve Rutledge, former VP-general manager of Hispanic advertising and VP-advertising at Kraft Foods and now president of consultancy Chicago Associates.

"It would be a round-trip ticket," Mr. Rutledge says. "If [candidates] were coming from the general-market part of the business . . . part of the deal would be that if they didn't like [multicultural marketing] or even it they did and wanted to get back into the general market, that ought to be an option."

Another key to preventing pigeonholing is overcoming the perception that multicultural marketing isn't the big leagues, he says.

"A person may have to be a better marketer in a multicultural capacity," Mr. Rutledge says, noting the complexity of dealing with various country-of-origin groups and both acculturated and recently arrived groups among Hispanics. "The bottom line is that it's a myth that you don't have to be as good in multicultural marketing."

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