How U.S. Assimilation Is Changing Marketing Rules

Growing Group of Multicultural Consumers Is Making Segmenting Increasingly Complex -- or Impossible

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Credit: *Projected. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, University of Southern California Estimates

BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- When Najoh Tita-Reid was a multicultural marketing director at Procter & Gamble Co. launching the "My Black Is Beautiful" marketing program, one of the realities she faced was that many of the women the effort was targeting were Hispanic as well as black. Today, as senior VP at GlobalHue Africanic, she sees a growing group of multicultural consumers who may not fully identify with any one box they're asked to check on the 2010 Census.

Call it assimilated America, one where Spanglish may be the emerging national dialect and the U.S. population is in many ways multiethnic, making future distinctions and segmentations increasingly complex or even impossible.

"More people are embracing more of their bicultural [status] and the country is increasingly embracing people who are bicultural and multicultural," she said. "They'll increasingly represent the new America."

You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Despite, or perhaps because of, rapid ethnic-population growth on the way to a projected "majority minority" in 2050, ethnic polarization seems rampant -- look no further than the Arizona border controversy. The legendary American Melting Pot seems like history.

There's just one problem, however: It's wrong, according to some people who've studied it either as academics or marketers. The heat around immigration and ethnic tension may just be what the melting pot throws off as it simmers like it always has.

Anti-immigrant sentiment has a long history in America, going back to Benjamin Franklin openly wishing German immigrants would go home, according to Duke professor Jacob Vigdor. They didn't, of course, and Mr. Vigdor's living proof.

Mr. Vigdor's assimilation index measures how well immigrants resemble native-born populations based on a variety of economic and cultural factors such as education and language, and it shows today's immigrants are less assimilated than those a century ago.

But looking closer, that's largely because of the size of the immigration spurt since the 1980s, unprecedented in absolute numbers and roughly similar to that of the early 20th century in terms of how it's remade the ethnic landscape of the country. The increased ratio of newer immigrants to older ones seems to slow assimilation.

In fact, immigrants of the past quarter century -- and especially since 1995 -- are actually assimilating more rapidly than their counterparts a century ago, according to research by Mr. Vigdor, largely along cultural lines such as language acquisition, marriage and childbearing patterns.

What's more, the recent slowdown in new immigrants could actually foster assimilation, and evidence from the University of Southern California supports that view, according to Dowell Myers, professor of urban planning and demographics at the university.

People are slow to change their language or their food and clothing tastes when they immigrate, Mr. Myers said. But the second generation is often bilingual and acculturates rapidly, adopting a blend of their parents' and their home country's habits. By the third generation, many offspring of immigrants don't even speak their grandparents' language.

Hispanic actress Jessica Alba is a good example. When a reporter asked her a question in Spanish on the red carpet of an awards ceremony, this granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant had to admit she couldn't speak the language.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center earlier this year found a record one in seven, or 14.6% of all new U.S. marriages in 2008, were interracial or inter-ethnic. Among all newlyweds, 9% of whites, 16% of blacks, 21% of Hispanics and 31% of Asians married someone whose race or ethnicity was different than their own.

While she believes assimilation and acculturation will accelerate in the years ahead, GlobalHue's Ms. Tita-Reid doesn't see that as rendering multicultural shops obsolete. In fact, she sees it as a reason they should increasingly lead marketing efforts. "It's even more important for people to get cultural insights across regions and generations," she said. The general market, she said, is an increasingly multicultural market.

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