Respect—for yourself and others—is an important message in the black community, Lopez said. But it’s a message best conveyed indirectly, by showing respect rather than by invoking the word. Buford likens the tactic to the understated American Express ads that “never told you that its product is classy. It’s in the art direction, lighting, and portrayal. In marketing to multicultural communities, it’s mastering multiple levels of communication and understanding.”
If companies and advertisers hope to understand the nuances of any culture, experts say, they first need to listen. That can involve focus groups, in person or online, or research panels composed of hundreds or thousands of individuals thought to represent a market. Panel members may answer questionnaires about products and services, to guide a company in the right direction, Buford said. For greater depth, researchers may visit the home of people deemed to personify the target consumer—for a few hours or even a few days—to see how they live.
“You can tell a lot just by what’s on someone’s refrigerator,” Buford said. “Are there pictures of the family or children’s drawings? What events are they planning to go to?”
Companies may also help themselves by helping the target community, such as by sponsoring or donating to its organizations, said Andrea Hoffman, founder and CEO of Diversity Affluence, a marketing research company that helps manufacturers of luxury goods sell to affluent African-Americans. “You can’t just say, ‘Hey, come into our store and spend money.’ You need to do something back,” she said. “Customers say, ‘If you want my money, you have to spend money.’ ” But taking a table at a fundraiser isn’t enough. “The company should be actively involved,” she counseled. “It has to be done with trust and authenticity.”
Hoffman’s advice holds for other minority groups, too, even those that aren’t racial or ethnic. Volvo, for example, ran a campaign in 2003-04 in which car buyers could mail in a sticker and the Swedish automaker would donate to the Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies for gay and lesbian rights. The response, Buford said, was far beyond Volvo’s expectations.
A vital tool for reaching scattered audiences has been, of course, the Internet. This is especially the case for Asian-Americans, who use YouTube and social-networking sites far more than other groups, according to Nita Song, president of IW Group, a marketing communications company in Los Angeles that specializes in the Asian-Pacific community. Also, advertisers have become much less naïve and patronizing. “Twenty years ago, there had to be a dragon and sword in advertising to Asians,” she said. “Today, it’s so much more sophisticated.”
A major hurdle in tackling the Asian market, Song said, is its multiplicity of subcultures. Wal-Mart, she said, is considered a value brand that is attractive to South Asians, Vietnamese, and Chinese, but less so to Koreans, who are more focused on brand names. The biggest problem Song sees now is that companies are curious “but not operationally ready.” She recalled advertising campaigns aimed at Chinese-Americans, “but when they arrive [at the store], no one can help them in their language and the products aren’t applicable. And that first experience is critical, because there is huge loyalty with Asians. Once they have a place they trust, they keep going back.”
That’s the holy grail—customer devotion that is passed down through generations. And the way to do that in the multicultural context, Buford said, is to “really understand the level of conversation. It’s like going to a party, and two people are talking. You have to wait and listen and come in when appropriate. It’s arrogant for a marketer to come in and say, ‘I know what they want.’ ”
The author writes the ShortCuts column for The New York Times and recently published a book, Better by Mistake. She’s at twitter.com/atugend.