But when my team at Villanova University studied consumers' perceptions of various national brands, we found uncanny similarities in minorities' responses to advertising; this, despite their deep-set cultural differences. Contrary to popular belief, it's not their racial or ethnic identity that determines minorities' response to a brand, but rather, how welcoming they feel the brand is toward them.
The dominating factor that unites minorities in the marketplace is their treatment as outsiders who are not invited into the advertising process. This alienation stems from the way minorities are depicted in ads, as well as from the fact that the advertising world often overlooks them altogether.
Gone are the days when "Pickaninnies" starred in overtly racist advertisements. However, subtle elements of discrimination persist. An example can be found in last year's "Re-civilize Yourself" blunder by Nivea. Beyond doing so negatively, there are still many campaigns that depict no minorities at all.
In research to be published next year I, along with two colleagues at the Villanova School of Business, analyzed data from a nationally representative survey of 948 consumers. Consumers gave their perceptions of 20 national brands, in categories that included: All-American brands (Campbell's, Coca-Cola, Hershey's, Ford and Johnson & Johnson); troubled brands (Citibank, BP, Marlboro, Exxon and Toyota); luxury brands (Mercedes, Rolls Royce, Rolex, Cartier and Gucci), and nonprofit brands (Habitat for Humanity, The Salvation Army, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, The Humane Society and Disabled American Veterans).
We fully expected to find that African-American, Latino and Asian consumers held perceptions that were different from each other and from the Caucasian consumer majority. The patterns we actually found were not so simple.
The All-American brands were perceived the same way by all four groups. The troubled and luxury brands were perceived similarly by all the minorities, but differently by the majority. In the nonprofit category, we found distinct differences among the minorities, as well as minority versus majority.
The All-American brands, like Coca-Cola, have been at the forefront of inclusive advertising. Consequently, minority and majority consumers likely have similar experiences when interacting with those brands, leading to similar perceptions.
Alternatively, when responding to luxury and troubled brands such as Gucci and BP, minorities reported drastically different perceptions than the majority. This is likely due to the tendency of brands from these facets of the marketplace to overlook minority consumers in their marketing communications.
One interesting side note: We found that lack of inclusion in a brand's advertising -- and the associated lack of experience with these brands -- produces a more optimistic perception of the brand. Much in the way that we often want what we cannot have, lack of experience with a brand may result in consumers presuming that it is desirable. This benefit is a short-term once; once consumers experience these brands, their optimism tends to drop.
Differences in responses to nonprofit brands, like the Salvation Army, were the most complex. Overall, minority consumers reported lower feelings of warmth for these brands than their majority counterparts. This may be because interactions with these brands do not involve purchases or much advertisement, but rather, require that consumers assume the vantage points of either benefactor or beneficiary. Differences between perceptions held by minority groups were also revealed for these brands, suggesting that different groups may be assuming different perspectives.
Overall, our findings suggest that the way brands interact with consumers, in part, through advertising, impacts consumer perceptions. Brands that are equally welcoming and warm to all consumers share universally similar perceptions. However, brands that are less welcoming and warm to some consumers compared to others, are subject to disparate perceptions. Results indicate that most categories of brands fall in the latter category.
I am in no way saying that minorities are never positively depicted in advertising, nor am I discounting the amazing strides that we have made as an industry toward a model of inclusion. What I am suggesting is that there is still work to be done, that minorities often still do not feel part of the consumer club and their brand perceptions reflect this sentiment.
If we intend to sell products and ideas, as the face of this country shifts to reflect a broader racial and ethnic spectrum, advertisers and marketers need to shift with it. Failure to do so is failure to court consumers with exponentially growing purchasing power. Our economy cannot afford this failure.