Just as People Adapt to Cultural Shifts, So Must Brands

In a Multicultural World, Brands Need to Be Re-Engineered to Keep Up With Changing Consumer Habits

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In the wake of Barack Obama's re-election by a wide multicultural coalition, evidence is growing that Latino influence on mainstream society is growing far beyond the consumption of tacos and salsa music. This has important consequences for marketing by multicultural and general-market professionals alike.

Non-Hispanics residing in Latino-dense urban areas are emulating consumer behavior traits of Hispanics. That is the finding of a recent study by Wing /WPP in partnership with Experian Simmons. Besides above-the-usual consumption of Latin food, music and sports, as might be expected, these mainstream consumers are heavier users of mobile technology, alternative medicine, entertainment and communal and recycling practices, when compared with counterparts residing in ethnically homogenous neighborhoods. Another recent survey by Conill/Publicis found that across eight major cities the general population now believes that the Latino influence on mainstream culture, art and politics has become quite significant.

A logical forecast based on this data? As ethnic populations grow and spatially disperse across the country, mainstream America gradually will adopt a number of minority ways and preferences.

This is a twist on the usual pattern of cultural diffusion. Urban sociologists have long examined how ethnic populations inadvertently borrow forms of behavior, values and preferences prevalent in surrounding neighborhoods (assuming some minimally harmonious co-existence). What is new in these recent studies is that the mainstream is also undergoing some degree of acculturation, as it adopts and adapts to a more multicultural world.

We often forget that brands also can acculturate. Products and services are created to attend unmet needs, evolving and innovating in the marketplace. But in multicultural marketing, the ossified practice still is to look for consumer segments that will retrofit into a brand that remains static in the marketplace. It is often said that this situation derives from "general-market" mandates, but how long can this model persist in face of the complex demographic and cultural shifts?

As America increasingly becomes multicultural, we need to think in terms of how to re-engineer brands to adapt (acculturate!) to the emerging multicultural reality. Major marketers are more proactively determining that brand and product innovations be tested in emerging minorities (nationally) and emerging markets (overseas) before being introduced in the general market, even as crosscultural mechanisms and terminology are not yet fully understood.

Nike , Virgin Mobile, McDonald's, Goya, Havaianas and Hebrew National are examples of brands that have successfully acculturated to mainstream and minority audiences alike. In this process, instead of looking for a consumer target that fits the brand, we seek to identify and adapt particular brand attributes that powerfully connect with people as the new American "general market" becomes multi-ethnic both demographically and culturally.

The next step is to recognize that consumer acculturation is a two-way process. It involves both consumers and brands in a fluid conversation (as already happening in digital spaces) while continually (re)adapting and growing in an ever-changing landscape. As much as multicultural consumers adapt to mainstream environments, mainstream brands must also learn to adapt to multicultural consumers.

Tony D'Andrea is Planning Director at PACO Ideation, in Chicago.
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