Can We Escape the Morass of Meaningless Multicultural Marketing Phrases?

The Words We Use Rarely Mean What They Should Mean

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If you have ever been in a long-term relationship -- and I mean a really, really long-term relationship -- but have never gotten married, then you understand the need for new language insofar as cohabitating opposite-sex adults are concerned.

You're too old to be calling someone boyfriend but, since common-law marriage is only recognized in nine states, the word husband carries no legal weight. Lover? Too personal. Long-time companion? A little geriatric. Partner? Begs same-sex or opposite-sex clarification. POSSLQ? Really? Spousal equivalent? Sounds like a sugar substitute. "He's my spousal equivalent. All the great taste of a husband, but only half the commitment."

No, language has simply not kept up with the times we live in when it comes to human relationships. Computer technology? We're all over that . There's a word for things that haven't existed five minutes ago. There's a texting dictionary too. So LOL is now part of all of our collective consciousness.

Right about now, you are probably asking yourself something along the lines of "What does this have to do with the state of multicultural marketing as we know it?"

Glad you asked.

I have been in a long-term relationship with multicultural marketing. And I feel like I'm still stuck with the word boyfriend. I have grown tired of the euphemisms and stagnant language that surrounds our industry and society as a whole. And I know that I'm not alone. At a recent Hispanic marketing conference that I spoke at in Dallas (and I have no doubt that it mirrors countless other conferences around the country), a room full of wise and forward-thinking people went to painstaking measures to avoid the use of the phrase "general market."


Because let's face it. If we are honest, "general market" has become synonymous with "marketing that doesn't really care what anyone but English-speaking, (non-Hispanic) white America thinks about products and services and the messages used to market them."

I believe the term "general market" gained favor back-in-the-day, as a quick and easy way to differentiate those agencies that were marketing to (non-Hispanic) white America vs. those that were focusing their attentions on African Americans, Asians or Hispanics. By calling one agency a "general market" agency and the other agency a "Hispanic" agency, for example, it only made sense that these words were also being used to define consumer groups.

There are some who might say that earlier on, Hispanic agencies were really Spanish-language agencies, and that general-market agencies were actually English-language agencies. The general-market agencies, however, didn't really care about English-speaking Hispanics. In large part, neither did the Hispanic agencies.

Marketing to the total-Hispanic market, both English and Spanish speaking, was an underappreciated business model that has only recently become commonplace. Now "owning" this bilingual/bicultural target is a tug-of -war between culturally attuned Hispanic-marketing specialists and those agencies that realize that they're better off going from being perceived as general market to "total market" -- another one of today's up-and-coming catchphrases.

Now, let's take a look at the word multicultural. I don't like it. Doesn't mean I don't use it, but it's lacking. I don't like it because it, too, has become code. It has become code for people who fit one or all of these criteria: 1) their skin color isn't white; 2) their family history traces back to one of three cultural groups (African-American, Hispanic or Asian); 3) they identify as a member of the LGBT community; 4) their first language isn't English.

It's not exact, but you get my drift.

Truth be told, Hispanics, as an example are in and of themselves multicultural. The Black community, which is not well-served by only recognizing the African-American segment, is in and of itself a multicultural community. As is the Asian community. And the LGBT community. In fact, (non-Hispanic) white America is in and of itself a multicultural community. So shouldn't all consumer marketing be multicultural marketing? Isn't it?

Why should there be a general market at all?

Unless what we are really saying is "majority" marketing vs. "minority" marketing. But that falls apart in many states across the country and in county after county for sure. And how about "mainstream." Is there a "not-so-mainstream" or a "minor stream"? Or are we implying that anyone outside of the "mainstream" is a fringe group?

Thought leaders like Cesar Melgoza of Geoscape have begun speaking of the New American Mainstream as a way of underscoring the obvious: We live in a new America, distinct from the America that existed when the mainstream was meant to embody America's majority and speak to pop-culture as a by -product of mass media. It's a phrase that serves as a powerful reminder. And many of us have started using phrases like "Cross-Cultural" instead of multicultural. I'll leave this to those more knowledgeable than I, but I don't think that they are really interchangeable. It's just a way for us to avoid giving power to the notion that all people of color should somehow be lumped together, when in fact their similarities are few and far between.

And finally, before I leave the subject of the word "multicultural," I need to rehash a thought I first addressed over a decade ago. I maintain that when most marketers call their work "multicultural," what they are really referencing is work that is "multi-color-all." Through the use of Benneton-like casting, they have convinced themselves that casting from a diverse talent pool endows their message with a cultural filter. Nothing wrong with diverse casting, but pigment alone doesn't automatically equate to cultural relevance when all too often the behaviors and storylines that dominate are not culturally aligned in any meaningful way.

So what's a marketer to do? What's an industry to do? We, the image-makers? We, who pride ourselves on sleuthing out consumer insights and transforming them into meaningful messaging? We, who have latched on to social and digital media because of its granular ability to speak to consumers directly and to engage in direct conversations?

Can we rewrite our own dictionary and dialogue so that it works for 2012 and beyond? And can we do it without resorting to culinary cop-outs like the melting pot or the salad bowl? Or quaint crutches like "a patchwork quilt" or a "collage"? Can we put a time limit on the notion of an "emerging market" -- akin to how long you can use the words "new and improved" in advertising. Haven't we already emerged? Or, are we afraid to come out for fear that upon fully emerging, we will be considered to be blended in -- like frozen yogurt once it melts and you smoosh it all about? (OK, that image is probably not going to catch on, but I thought it was worth a try.)

Which brings me to my final point. I don't come bearing a new dictionary. I've been too busy working in advertising to sit and ponder a new vocabulary that I would then have to teach and preach and hope catches on. So I continue to do the best with what's out there, occasionally stumbling on a new analogy that helps me speak to what I believe is valuable about culturally-specific marketing.

Some people believe the smoosh is coming. They point to "ethnically ambiguous" interracial children and the acceleration of the U.S.-born Hispanic. They point to whatever they can to support the theory that this thing some call "ethnic marketing" -- Hispanic or otherwise -- is going to fade into the distance and lose steam, as we all become more or less the same. And even if they don't ascribe to the great smoosh theory, they speak about the "cultural marketing specialist" as a dinosaur -- just holding on to a nostalgic notion of immigrants from the past.

Well, here's my final analogy on that subject. I see the role of advertising agencies as akin to doctors for brands. We are there to keep our finger on the pulse of what keeps our brands and consumers engaged. We help to keep brand health alive. And, as with doctors, it's all well and good for me to visit with my general practitioner for matters that are general in nature. But I'll always be glad that there are specialists. Specialists with the depth and breadth to really identify and key-in on opportunities for health that others may not have been able to diagnose or address. Would you tell an oncologist that he's wasting his time? A cardiologist? Or would you honor his decision to maintain a practice that is precision focused -- as do those who embrace a single consumer segment and explore how cultural values and influences translate into behavior and how culture can impact persuasion and, in doing so, purchase patterns.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco is chief Hispanic marketing strategist for Walton-Isaacson, Los Angeles. She has also served on several boards of directors including the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors, The Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies and the Los Angeles Association of Advertising Agencies.
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