Originally, the establishment of separate units focused on the sensitivities of Hispanic, African-American and Asian consumers was a quest linked in spirit to those groups' larger struggles for recognition and equality in the daily cultural and business life of the U.S.
In recent years, however, as commerce, media and marketing communications organizations have broadened to address the enormous spending power of those ethnic consumer groups, the logic and benefits of maintaining segregated ethnic marketing departments have come under increased scrutiny.
A recent AdAge.com online poll on this issue drew an unusually high number and diverse range of thoughtfully written responses. Fifty-eight percent of the online voters were in favor of maintaining separate multicultural marketing departments; 42% were not.
The poll, and many of the passionate letters, were prompted by the news that one of the largest and savviest multicultural marketers, Sears Roebuck & Co., is shutting down its multicultural unit and merging its operations into the retailer's general marketing department.
Nancy Cruz-Sabedra, office manager at Omnicom Group-owned Hispanic agency Dieste Harmel & Partners, Dallas, wrote, "This step by Sears is a huge threat to Hispanic marketing."
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, CEO of Enlace Communications, Los Angeles, said, "Clients shouldn't have to maintain a separate multicultural marketing department. The need for separate departments comes from the need for `watch dogs' and `specialists' to focus on a critical area of business that so many marketing departments choose to ignore."
Jeff Shirley, director of e-marketing at Georgia-Pacific Corp. in Atlanta, noted that because "Hispanics and African Americans collectively make up 25% of the population, a [marketing] department focused on building brand loyalty with this group seems a very good investment."
Shirley Brendlinger, new-business development manager at the Spanish-language Al Dia, a newspaper in Philadelphia, said that by moving the Hispanic marketing budget into its general marketing department, a larger marketer like Sears made it possible for "mainstream dollars to be diverted to Hispanic print media."
Jackie Bonner-Farnham, national sales director of Overstock.com in Salt Lake City, argued that "Hispanics are not aliens and it's time we stopped treating them as such" by using segregated marketing techniques.
Jim Speros, chief marketing officer of Ernst & Young, chairman of the Association of National Advertisers and the former chairman of the ANA's Multicultural Marketing Committee, wrote that he was "surprised by the fact that 42% of AdAge.com voters still believe multicultural marketing ... can be covered by a general marketing department instead of a department dedicated to the discipline."
"While there is no question marketing departments must embrace multicultural marketing as part of their mainstream efforts," he said, "many don't and lose focus on important multicultural segments. Specialists and dedicated marketing personnel are needed who deeply understand the various cultures and markets with whom marketers wish to communicate. More importantly, internal champions are needed who are willing to make the appropriate investments and have the courage to change conventional general market thinking."
Among the 58% of poll respondents who favored keeping separate departments, Andres Sullivan, a multicultural marketing consultant at LINC, in Playa del Rey, Calif., said, "More often than not when multicultural programs are lumped together with the general market ones, they end up being treated as an afterthought. It still boggles the mind that you see this happening all the time with companies that one would hold to be savvy retailers."
Further illuminating the debate, preliminary data from a new ANA survey of its members found that 50% of the ANA respondents said they had separate multicultural marketing departments, and 36% said their marketing department or brand groups handle multicultural marketing.
The ANA broke down the 50% figure into companies whose separate multicultural unit has its own budget and profit objectives (32%) and those who don't have a separate budget (18%).
A common theme among respondents to the AdAge.com poll was that a separate multicultural marketing unit is a good idea for companies just starting more diverse marketing, but that in an ideal world such a unit would become unnecessary.