In their recent effort to bring the subject of race—literally— to the table, Starbucks was seen by many as heavy handed. Our own Christal Davis wrote a blog about it that’s a must-read.
We have, at ST!R, had experience marketing to diverse cultures—take a look at our company photo and see why. However, marketing to a culture that’s not your own is not a task to take lightly, as Starbucks so famously found. The subjects of race, hierarchy and culture are so multidimensional that trying to tackle them with a tagline on a cup is a recipe for disaster. They should have asked us.
In my case, the most challenging and educational project that required a multicultural point of view was that of marketing natural gas in Miami.
I proposed a new approach, and so (to protect my credibility and paycheck), my boss and I did our homework, diving deep into the currents of Miami’s Hispanic culture. We partnered with a local bilingual agency and got educated via reps from three Spanish-language radio stations. We found that in Miami, and I suspect in other multicultural cities:
- There are many kinds of cultures where it may appear to YOU there is only one culture. One message does not resonate with everyone.
- Spanish, which looks the same when written, has significant nuances that can change the meaning or intent of a word when spoken. Know who you’re talking to and write/translate so the most people understand it.
- Find out where your targets get their news and information, and use those specific channels. In Miami, trusted radio personalities endorse products and services throughout the region. By making sure we introduced several such contacts on the benefits of natural gas, our phones rang off the hook for service.
- Your work represents your client. When marketing to diverse cultures, err on the side of caution (try not to make a mistake like this one) or learn all you can with local guidance before you design and launch your campaign.
- Cultures change as they mature and intermingle with other cultures in a particular region. What may appeal to an older or first-generation person may not to a youngster who’s grown up saturated by American culture. In fact, hipsters often run far and fast from the mainstream—think of that, too, as you craft your message.
- Finally, learn to distinguish cultural hot-button words, images or topics and stay away! You don’t know enough to engage using these trigger words or topics unless you’re of that culture.
When this blog came up in this week’s staff meeting I, who have always had friends of every color and type, stumbled in opening up the topic. What always had felt natural felt WEIRD. Finally everyone at the table yelled, “Just ask! Don’t sidle up to the conversation—that makes everyone feel uncomfortable!”
So the findings:
- Don’t ever try to sell Christal a product by featuring a singing, dancing African American man. She finds it offensive and asked me to put that in.
- Christal calls herself black. Not all African Americans do, so stick with African American unless you’re told otherwise.
- I’ve learned that Latinos (well, the ones I’ve asked), dislike the word “Hispanic.”
- Sean is a white, gay male born and raised in Alabama. He may love Lynyrd Skynyrd and S.E.C. football, but don’t automatically assume he’ll buy your product or respond to your message simply because you have a N.A.S.C.A.R. driver as a spokesperson or pepper your dialog with snappy, “Hey gurl!” catchphrases. Delivering your message in an intelligent, inclusive way goes much farther than drowning it in drippy stereotypes.
- Ashia is a black woman raised in Atlanta who likes science fiction, comic books and video games, but she doesn’t like pink. She gets frustrated at not seeing diverse video game characters and won’t buy your product if you make it pink.
My grandpa was Cajun. The joking “coonass” people sometimes tossed at him is actually an insult (hey, it’s a rodent’s behind, you’d think they’d get it), but that doesn’t keep people from marketing (or wearing) t-shirts with that emblazoned across their chest.
As with many things, there are words or names a group can use for themselves that others cannot. This English/Scottish/French white chick doesn’t understand why some folks would use some of those words, with the baggage they carry, but now seems a good time to ask.
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