Multicultural marketing is big – and growing – business in the United States. Marketing that doesn’t assume that English is the de facto language and advertising that speaks to people within their culture. According to a recent Claritas report, 131 million – or 37.5% - of Americans can be considered multicultural Americans
. The Hispanic population is set to grow from 58.9m to over 72m by 2030. And when it comes to the Asian American population, it may just be 20m strong
but if it were its own country, it would have the 15th biggest GDP in the world, with a whopping $1.3trillion of buying power.
Jay Kim is president at AAAZA (the All American A to Z Agency) and is also the serving president of the Asian American Advertising Federation, and he reckons that there are endless opportunities both within the US and globally for brands that appreciate cultural nuance and the immigrant experience.
“In 2010 I joined AAAZA, doing multicultural. I was sort of going backwards, going from a general market agency to multicultural. Going from digital to more traditional,” recalls Jay. “People were saying, ‘why would you do that, it’s so small…’, but I realised that while, yeah, we’re [Asian Americans] only 20 million people here in US but we’re very closely attached to a three billion ‘general market’ area of the world.”
The agency now sees itself as a bridge. On the one hand it speaks to a multitude of cultures within America, including the group of Asian American cultures. On the other it can help brands reach Asia. On top of that, the experience of being part of a diaspora is a very specific one in itself and requires research and data to truly get under the skin of it.
When it comes to multicultural marketing in the US, the biggest mistake that brands can make is to assume that integration means that specific cultures fade into the background. For one thing, it’s an assumption that somewhat arrogantly assumes that the white, anglophone experience is the default and the one that all other groups are moving towards or aspire to. For another, AAAZA have found in their own research that while young people who are second or third generation Americans do tend to want to fit into the dominant culture as teenagers, when they come to have families of their own they seek to revisit their heritage. And finally, there’s something viscerally delightful about been spoken to within your own culture and language.
“Someone who speaks your native tongue and understands your culture, you will trust more. They speak to your heart. That’s the biggest, most common mistake the US makes,” says Jay. “They say, ‘well they speak English’? I say, imagine you’ve been in China for ten years, you speak Mandarin fluently. But imagine you then saw one restaurant celebrating Thanksgiving, having turkey and speaking English to you, you’d be like ‘I’m there’. And it’s the same.”
In fact, although he’s using the example of the American worker in China to underline his point, Jay also thinks that the mobile 21st century workforce means that there many markets outside the US ripe for the multicultural approach.
“I think as the world is becoming smaller, I think what we’re doing is going to become more relevant. The US is a good starting point… Australia, maybe the UK. Maybe even Korean perhaps. There’s a population of Vietnamese people growing and Indonesians growing here. As the balance shifts, these things are going to happen. And there are many Americans living in China who are affluent, who have spending power, so how can brands accommodate that?”
Jay says that AAAZA is already doing work with Australian market, pointing out the historical and contextual similarities with America. Both countries are relatively young and, aside from indigenous people, both can be said to be melting pots of immigrant cultures. AAAZA has been working on a money transfer campaign for the Australian market that sees them creating targeted executions for 50 different ethnicities, including Filipino, Caribbean, South Indian, Samoan, Nigerian and Ghanian communities.
Sitting in South Korea at the Ad Stars festival in Busan, Jay says that even the traditionally monocultural country may see a growth in multicultural marketing in future. Korea is also seeing an influx of migrants, working in agriculture, care and manufacturing. It’s been a difficult transition and economic migrants to the country face more hostility
than more cosmopolitan Asian hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore – which in turn could make an understanding, culturally-relevant content an even more welcome sight.
While the effectiveness of the multicultural approach is impressive – what it lacks in reach it makes up for in conversion rates – it’s also a part of the industry that has to juggle an extra layer of complexity and practical challenges. Simply put, they’ve got to create a greater number of ads for a tiny fraction of the budget.
“The budget is low but they [clients] expect Cannes quality production values. We’ll have one day to shoot and we’ll have to cover four or five markets so we have to figure out what the commonalities are while maintaining the main communication strategy from general market while we have the same deadline,” explains Kim. “We have to work fast!”
Necessity, though, is the mother of ingeniously creative production solutions. The team is able to use their nuanced appreciation of universalities and cultural specificities to create a campaign that can talk specifically and directly to individual cultural groups while also being efficient to produce. With AT&T, for example, they created a campaign around the phenomenon of Saturday language schools, which was especially resonant with Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and French Americans who are keen for their children to learn their own language. With tweaks to script, set design and of course cast, they were able to produce three targeted ads from the same location and idea.
Indeed, with brands like AT&T AAAZA is also brought on to consult with their ‘general market’ campaigns, to ensure that the representation, casting and messaging is inclusive, accurate and relevant. AT&T, however, is on the more enlightened and invested side of the client spectrum and are, says Jay – and they’re really proud of their inclusive marketing
Telecomms businesses were early adopters of multicultural marketing strategies, explains Jay. He recalls that when his parents moved to Oregon from Korea in 1985, they ‘brought 1985 Korea with them’. Korean news would only be available from a store that would record Korean TV shows and movies via a satellite dish, and they’d pack on month-old news onto a VHS. The rise of cheaper phone calls, domestically available satellite TV and then, of course, the Internet charts a course for the development of Asian American-targeted marketing. Other clients and other sectors need a bit more education, but that’s what multicultural agencies can do and what the Asian American Advertising Federation, of which Jay is also president, strives to do.
At AAAZA, the agency uses data to create work that is relevant and insightful – and they’re also extremely targeted when it comes to media. For some cultures, community events and organisations can be particularly effective channels to communicate through, so AAAZA has an extremely busy events side to the business.
Paradoxically, the deeper you dive into multicultural marketing, the more slippery the term becomes too. One’s heritage, culture and ethnicity are formative and important parts of one’s identity and being. But ‘multicultural marketing’ isn’t a monolith. AAAZA works with cultures as diverse as Vietnamese, Korean, Russian. Middle Eastern, Indian and French. On top of that the experience of recent immigrants differs vastly from 2nd generation Americans (or even 1.5th generation, which is how Jay, who moved to the US as a child describes himself) – and those experiences differ from international students too. Add to that one’s life stage, and personal interests. It’s complicated. The unspoken and racist assumption that ‘general market’ is proxy for ‘white’ falls apart at the slightest prod. Go far back enough and you find communities that brought their culture from Europe too. Multicultural marketing is a model that is finding a footing in the rest of the world, it’s appropriate and, perhaps inevitable, that it evolved in the United States.
“In the US, 58 years ago interracial marriage was illegal. 58 years ago! 157 years ago, two sides fought over slavery. It’s got a really ugly history. In US, unless you’re native American, you’re an immigrant. Either you’re a refugee, and immigrant or you were brought there by force. So holding onto your country’s culture is of essence,” says Jay. “That’s why there’s Irish areas, Scottish- or German- town, Asian town. Every city has a China town – why? They want to hold onto their culture.
“People say, ‘why bother – you’re going to adapt to America.’ And now we say, no, you can adapt to us. That’s America.”