Who Are We Really? And Why Marketers Should Care

As America Redefines Itself, Cross-Cultural Reality Comes Into Focus

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Chiqui Cartagena
Chiqui Cartagena
All of a sudden, it seems like Americans are really into discovering their roots. First there was "Faces of America" on PBS, now followed by "Who Do You Think You Are?" on NBC. Between the two shows, over a dozen celebrities (of all races and ethnicities) have allowed television audiences to share with them their American story by tracing their family roots and histories, in some cases back to the Founding Fathers.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. eloquently put it in his PBS series, "America's legacy of immigration is our dual identity," meaning that where we came from will always be part of who we are as Americans. Curiously, while America voyeuristically discovers its own "roots" on TV, the Census is mailing out over 120 million letters to American households to remind them of the importance of being counted and filling out the 2010 Census form which should be in mailboxes across the nation by April 1.

As we all know, Census data is used to allocate annually more than $400 billion to states and communities across the country and to determine boundaries for state and local legislative and congressional districts. According to Dr. Jeffrey Passell of the Pew Hispanic Center, next year we will probably see a shift in the House of Representatives due to the dramatic population growth in the Sunbelt states -- growth driven largely by Hispanics.

Some experts are predicting that Texas could gain up to four seats in Congress. Other states possibly gaining one seat are: Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Washington. (Again, states where Hispanics have been migrating to). The biggest loser, apparently, will be Ohio, which stands to lose up to two seats in Congress, followed by eight other states in the Northeast which may also lose one seat each.

Beyond politics, however, the other thing the Census helps determine -- and why you should care -- is the location of schools and hospitals which, in turn determines the locations of new retail stores and housing developments.

"It's not a secret that the demographics are changing hugely, and what is considered a majority or a minority population is going to be in flux over the next five to 15 years," says Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed, who teamed up with Stefano Puntoni and Peeter W.J. Verlegh from Erasmus University's Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands to conduct a study on marketing to people with bicultural identities. "It is incumbent on marketers to address these differences."

We have been saying it's time for marketers to start addressing these differences for over 30 years, and yet they don't! And I think it's because they are used to just putting us all in simplistic buckets that don't make any sense anymore. We need to stop using old, stereotypical definitions of groups -- such as "general market" and, yes, "multicultural market" (neither of which mean anything, really) -- and start thinking about consumers and treating them as real people going through real life stages whose cross-cultural identity affects the way they consume products or services, communicate and behave.

When you look at your consumers for who they really are, the color of their skin or their ethnicity has very little to do with their ability or desire to buy, use or promote your product. But if you use simplistic brand messaging that really doesn't tell the story of your brand in culturally relevant ways, then you could easily turn them off as potential buyers. What's more, if you understand who your best audience is, then your marketing efforts can be more efficient. Who doesn't want to save time and money these days? Your brand audience is composed of highly complex people that are crossing traditional marketing boundaries. So you must follow suit.

I say this in an effort to help improve our marketing efforts overall and help marketers focus on what's really important, which is to get more out of your marketing dollars and increase profits. It was sad to see a study released a few weeks ago by Los Angeles-based agency, La Agencia de Orci, which surveyed 9,300 companies across the nation and found that 82% of marketers said they had no plans to start or ramp up existing Hispanic marketing efforts. That's when I realized we have a "label" problem.

How can a senior marketer of any company not want to market their products and services to a huge swath of U.S. consumers who are, by the way, 10 years younger than the average American and rapidly moving into the middle class sweet-spot of family formation and buying homes? That's just plain crazy. Then it dawned on me. Maybe it's the label "Hispanic" that drives them away?

So let's get rid of the labels and look at the reality. And the reality is, as far I can see, that you are not doing your job as a marketer well if you choose to ignore the fastest growing segments of our country and don't make any effort at all to market to them in culturally relevant ways. When the Census results come out next year, we will once again see a flurry of activity in the space. But what you should keep in mind is that these populations will keep on growing year after year and decade after decade, in essence changing the fabric of America, just like they have in the past.

So as you think of how to grow you bottom line in the future, I suggest you redefine your marketing strategy in order to properly capture the "emerging" markets in the U.S. Maybe that label makes you more comfortable, I don't know. What I do know is that you just can't say you're not going to do anything at all.

Comprende amigo?

Chiqui Cartagena is the senior VP of multicultural marketing at Story Worldwide. She is also the author of Latino Boom!: Everything You Need to Know to Grow Your Business in the U.S. Hispanic Market.
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