Casting Alone Won’t Cut It

Is your brand just paying lip service to multicultural marketing?

By Lindsay Rittenhouse Published on August 18, 2020

Casting Alone Won’t Cut It

Is your brand just paying lip service to multicultural marketing?

By Lindsay Rittenhouse Published on August 18, 2020

Alysia Nicely was “the voice in the room making sure Black consumers were represented,” when she joined General Mills’ dedicated multicultural unit in 2013, charged with managing the company’s $6 million ad budget dedicated to African American and Hispanic consumers. 

Among the accomplishments highlighted on her LinkedIn profile during that period, Nicely led a multimedia partnership with Steve Harvey that yielded 2.5 million in targeted impressions. It says she also orchestrated an activation including a sampling partnership with Walmart for a new Nature Valley product at the Essence festival attended by 600,000 target consumers.

What wasn’t specifically listed: Nicely, who is a Black woman, says part of her team’s responsibility was to ensure “the brand didn’t do anything offensive because the general marketing teams were not diverse.”

Then, in 2015, General Mills decided to disband the dedicated team in favor of a total-market approach despite research that Nicely personally presented to the company indicating the approach would be a mistake—one that the industry too often makes. “When marketers and advertisers say ‘general market,’ they’re talking about a ‘majority’ that doesn’t exist anymore—a segment that doesn’t include Black, Hispanic, Asian + consumers. It ignores what the world looks like today,” says Nicely.

“Dedicated multicultural marketing leadership is needed to ensure that Black and Brown consumers are seen, understood, and represented authentically and fully as people,” she says. “Casting alone isn’t enough.”

The marketing industry as a whole “was never ready for the total market approach,” says Nicely. Teams on the agency and client side weren’t—and still aren’t—diverse enough to be entrusted with creating a strategy inclusive of consumers they don’t understand.”

General Mills spokesperson Rob Litt declined to comment specifically on Nicely's account, but said "At General Mills, we believe in multicultural marketing because we believe in serving a multicultural America," adding, "We have a long history of marketing to diverse consumers, and we are always evaluating and evolving our approaches to marketing. We know the fastest growth in the family demo is being driven by multicultural —so we have a focus on these consumers to drive growth for the company."

Nicely’s experience isn’t uncommon. It is, in fact, part of a long-simmering and increasingly heated debate in the industry over whether marketers and “general market” agencies that are not truly diverse can market effectively to consumers who are. 

It’s not, says Deadra Rahaman, founder of Society Redefined Consulting, as simple as “sticking a person of color in [an ad] and ‘boom!’ you got a multicultural spot." Rahaman, an ex-strategy exec and account director at agencies like Spike DDB and IPG’s Jack Morton Worldwide, says that general market shops don’t recognize that casting is only one part of a much larger equation. The strategists rooting out the insights, the copywriters penning the scripts, the team charged with hair, makeup and wardrobe, the media people who place the ads, the social media managers who seed the posts—in fact, everyone who touches the campaign—should reflect the diverse audiences clients are trying to reach, she says. If not, the cultural nuances are lost and the marketing comes off as inauthentic.

The minority majority

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of American Gen Zers are part of a minority race or ethnic group and, by 2060, just 36 percent of all people under the age of 18 are expected to be non-Hispanic white. The U.S. population as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is set to become “majority-minority” in 2044 with the minority population rising to 56 percent in 2060.

This shift in the nation's racial makeup raises an even larger question of just what constitutes a general market—and if there is any such thing anymore. “Why is general market called general market?” asks Kiana Pirouz, head of marketing at We Are Rosie. “It always has rubbed me the wrong way. … General market is a veiled way of saying white people, so it’s not problematic.”

Given the Census statistics, it would seem like good business sense for marketers to invest in the talent and marketing spending necessary to authentically target multicultural audiences—or to reward agencies that do. But nine separate multicultural experts interviewed for this story claim that’s often not the case. And, in fact, these experts all tell Ad Age that multicultural budgets, already woefully under-resourced, are one of the first areas to be cut when brands are forced to reduce costs.

Michael Roca, global director of multicultural at Omnicom media agency PHD, says he often encounters clients who say they don’t have time for multicultural marketing, and who use excuses like “I need to get my general market right before I get multicultural. But 40 percent of your general market is multicultural,” he says.

And when they do commit, Roca says clients often shortchange it. They “give you measly small budgets [that] they know [are] going to fail, but they can then say we tested it and it didn’t work and we are moving on,” Roca says. A third bucket of clients, Roca claims, “are doing multicultural as an efficiency play. These are the ones at ANA saying we are doing multicultural the best, but it is just spots and dots."

A 2019, an Association of National Advertisers report found that multicultural media investments comprised only 5.2 percent of total advertising and marketing spending in 2018. The study, conducted by PQ Media on behalf of the ANA’s Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing, found that overall multicultural advertising and marketing spending totaled $25.9 billion in 2018. Spending targeting Hispanics, according to the study, totaled almost $18 billion, a 5.3 percent increase compared to 2017 and “far ahead of the amount of spend aimed at African Americans,” which remained at $7.2 billion in 2018, or Asian Americans, at $722 million.

When that study was released, ANA CEO Bob Liodice pointed out how “companies are missing an opportunity by not focusing more of their marketing efforts on multicultural consumers.”

Not having a seat at the table

We are Rosie's Pirouz says that multicultural marketing is often brought into the planning process as “an afterthought," tied to systemic racism in the advertising industry that agencies and their clients have only recently started to confront in meaningful ways following the protests and civil unrest that have emerged from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Pirouz says the problems come down to not having enough people of color at the table making the right multicultural marketing decisions.

“If we had better representation in leadership, we wouldn’t even have these problems because [leaders] would be mindful of the type of decisions that need to be made,” Pirouz says, noting that there should be a multicultural team in strategy sessions. “For brainstorms or whiteboard sessions, make sure the team in the room represents the demographic. Ideas come from life experience.”

Pirouz—who has worked for UM, Google’s Creative Lab and Vice Media—says she has walked out in disgust from some planning meetings for brands trying to target African-Americans “where no person in the room was Black.” 

Nicely says that when she pitched to keep her team at General Mills intact, a director, a white woman who she declined to identify, told her with the total market approach, “we are not marketing to Black consumers anymore.”

General Mills' Litt declined to comment on this specific alleged incident but reasserted that the company does "believe" in multicultural marketing and said "we support the Equal Justice Initiative with Serena Williams and actively elevate the voices of Black creators on Tik Tok."

Still, Nicely claims that she “had to intervene several times” when she felt the company’s brands were being culturally insensitive or missing the mark. For example, she says an external agency once created an ad for General Mills’ Pillsbury Biscuits and cast Black actors to play a family, baking biscuits on a Saturday morning. 

“The ad agency delivered an ad in which the Black brothers [of the family] were in striped pajamas,” Nicely says, presumably evoking prison stripes. “It was so cringe-worthy. Striped pajamas? What world is this? I had to call [the agency] to say ‘no.’”

She says the ad was ultimately pulled but there were other cultural missteps that the predominantly white team who created the spot didn’t catch, such as how the Black mother was depicted looking like she just rolled out of bed. “Black moms run errands on Saturday morning,” Nicely says, explaining why the character wouldn’t still be in her pajamas.

That said, Nicely, who worked for the marketer for several years in other roles after her team was disbanded, says she "ultimately got a lot of good experience at General Mills.” She praised former Chief Marketing Officer and Senior VP Mark Addicks as "someone who was truly invested in multicultural marketing." Addicks retired in 2015.

General Mills has demonstrated a commitment to diversity in 2016 in its a U.S. creative review that required all participating agencies be staffed with at least 50 percent women and 20 percent people of color within the creative department, which was unprecedented at the time. And General Mills has been lauded for "Gracie," its touching and groundbreaking 2004 spot that portrayed interracial marriage.

‘Egregious mistakes’

Cheryl Overton—former president of Egami Group and executive VP of Zeno Group before that—is chief experience officer for consulting firm Cheryl Overton Communications. She says that without multicultural experts having a say in marketing decisions, “egregious mistakes” can appear. She cites the now infamous 2017 Kendall Jenner-Pepsi ad that trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement that was pulled by the company soon after it aired. 

At the time, general-market agencies used the Pepsi-Jenner ad as an example of why external partners need to be included in internal marketing decisions (the spot was created by Pepsi's in-house creative team). But Overton believes it may have been the fault of not having multicultural experts—internal or external—involved in the campaign's creation.

“Stereotypes are still being relied on in ads people enjoy,” Overton says. “African American people dancing, even if it’s a place where they wouldn’t be dancing. Ads depicting the African American woman finger-waving. We see these stereotypes all the time.”

That's not to say that everyone gets it wrong: Rahaman says two of the biggest and most visible brands that have gotten multicultural marketing right are Nike and Procter & Gamble. Both Nike and P&G have long championed diverse voices as well as supported causes for racial reform long before it was expected of companies to do so. Nike, for example, supported Colin Kaepernick in his decision to kneel during the national anthem while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, even though the NFL itself originally did not. P&G has tackled racism and unconscious bias head-on through spots including “The Talk” and “The Look.”

“Some brands are doing it right, some brands are not doing it at all and some brands are trying to do it but don’t know where to start; but at least they’re trying,” says Andrea Diquez, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi New York.

The ‘Idol’ effect

“Total market was really the demise of multicultural agencies,” says Society Redefined Consulting's Rahaman, who blames the big shift to lump multicultural marketing into the general market bucket on the early-2000s heyday of TV shows like "American Idol."

“The thought was, ‘Well, Black people watch 'American Idol', too, so we’ll get their eyeballs. The nuance to that is, ‘Yes, you will get our eyeballs but as soon as the Black people are voted off, we’re out.’” She says “total market was really a way to keep the multicultural budget in the general market” budget.

“Multicultural agencies were once very robust,” says Rahaman. “They had traffic departments, media. They developed their own creative and did their own shoots. There was plenty of talent being hired [by multicultural agencies]. Somewhere down the line, it just started decreasing. The idea was with a total market approach, general market agencies would start hiring Black and Brown talent. As we’ve come to learn, that didn’t happen.”

During her time at Spike DDB, Rahaman says clients’ general-market agencies she worked with would “forget” to include her agency in meetings or “the date and time would change but we weren’t told that it changed.” She adds: “When I started bringing [these issues] up with my agency’s leadership, he and I got labeled as the troublemakers for not getting along with our sister or partner agencies.”

“I want to see a level playing field,” Rahaman says. “I want to see Black talent being hired. I want to see Black talent creating their own opportunities. I want to see multicultural agencies at the center of everything we do.”

Aaron Walton, co-founder of Walton Isaacson, delivered a searing take on the total market approach in an opinion piece for Ad Age, calling it "a brutal affront to our communities." Writes Walton: "Total market became a tool of disrespect. It pitted cultural groups against each other for a piece of the fictitious pie while giving general agencies continued control of budgets, narratives and, in most cases, leadership roles–never requiring them to recognize that just because they aren’t  comfortable celebrating distinct cultures doesn’t mean that we aren’t."

And in an Ad Age Ad Lib podcast, Mark Robinson, a 40-year ad veteran and author of "Black on Madison Avenue" denounced the encroachment of general market shops on multicultural work as a pure greed play. “I have not in my years in this business found a general-market agency that has done even a passable job at multicultural marketing. They could do it, but none have,” he says. “The condition is that you have to be committed, make a full-throttled commitment that this is what I do and invest in the business. I have not witnessed a general-market agency making that commitment. They do it as a diversion, a way to claw back dollars for their clients they lost to minority agencies, and they do it with a level of cynicism and disingenuousness.”

Yet there are those that maintain multicultural marketing shouldn't be siloed, such as MDC Partners-owned Anomaly’s founding partner Jason DeLand. "There is no general market. To think that there is, is to be stuck in the past that never was. Is there such a thing as a general idea? Are there different iPhones for different cultures? Can a Hispanic American create music for all cultures of the world? Would the inverse mean that multicultural marketing agencies were only equipped to work on projects directed at a specific cohort of non-native speakers and could never possibly perform at the brand level?"

DeLand argues the "false desire to silo" is "100 percent the problem with the industry."

What is the future?

Pete Lerma, principal at The Richards Group’s multicultural arm Lerma, says a major factor in “multicultural” marketing going forward may not be race or language as much as it is age. Recent research by the agency uncovered that Gen Z is “moving past” the notions of past generations who claimed to “not see color. Instead, this generation is saying 'I see and celebrate diversity.' This generation will drive brands to truly take a multicultural approach in the way they engage with audiences,” Lerma says.

“It’s fair to say the total market approach has been, in a lot of instances, misapplied,” Lerma adds. And then there’s Orci. The 34-year-old Orcí had focused on marketing to the growing U.S. Hispanic community until 2020, when it shifted away from multicultural marketing to expand into “multi-segment” marketing to reflect the changing general market, which the shop says encompasses all diverse cultural groups.

“For us, it’s a matter of respecting the past while welcoming the future,” former CEO Andrew Orcí explained at the time of the shift. “Culture does—and always will—matter, but the future is about multi-segment marketing as a means of targeting varied consumers in ways which acknowledge all that which makes them distinct.” 

“There’s a reason we call it unconscious bias,” says CEO Marina Filippelli. “A lot of agencies and clients don’t realize they’ve been doing [things wrong] their entire lives. A lot of people have an open mind. We just have to change the mindset and the process a little bit.”

That is, generally speaking. Adage End Bug

Web production by Corey Holmes.