cross cultural marketing

Three Keys to Ensure Your Brand Gets Its Multicultural Marketing Right

The popularity of DNA-tracing services like MyHeritage.com highlights contemporary Americans' interest in uncovering their racial and ethnic roots. These companies promise to unlock personal mysteries through science: "send us your DNA, and we'll help you figure out who you are." They promise to use trustworthy, reliable methods to help people in the very human project of discovering themselves. But what happens when the answers surprise us?

One charming ad for AncestryDNA features an Ancestry.com user named Kyle Merker. He explains: "Growing up, we were German. We danced in a German dance group, I wore lederhosen...". But after getting his DNA tested, Kyle found that "the big surprise was we're not German at all ... So, I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt." The ad works because it shows the utility of the potentially surprising information that exploring your ancestry can uncover: leading you to explore new cultures you never knew were your own.

We would argue that Kyle's German-ness is just as authentic as his newfound Irish/Scottish/Welsh heritage. Those years he spent wearing lederhosen and practicing German dance were very real, and even though his DNA may not signal German heritage, he's embedded in German-American culture. Both his German-American experiences and his upcoming Celtic cultural exploration are valid, and both can help him uncover who he really is. We would also argue that Kyle, more than anyone else, is in charge of his own self-discovery. It's up to him to decide whether to keep the lederhosen in storage for special occasions.

Contrast Kyle's experience to that of Rachel Dolezal. Her motivations became the subject of much speculation, but ultimately it is clear that on some level, the black culture felt more authentic to her. What separates Dolezal's experience from Kyle Merker taking his lederhosen out for a spin despite his recent revelation about his Celtic heritage? Is the difference appropriation or appreciation? Ultimately, Rachel Dolezal's actions seemed to deny her own personal reality (in inventing a new ethnicity for herself, she disavowed her own).

Creating your own personal culture can be successful - but it can also be catastrophic. This is just as true for brands as for individuals, and the stakes are even higher given that brands act on a much bigger stage. As brands engage in cross-cultural products and general market fusion strategies, it's essential to be mindful of what's okay - and what isn't.

There are ways to adapt trending cultural phenomena without watering them down or divorcing them from context. Although authenticity is key, it can also be slippery. So we have compiled some tips for brands to reach today's multicultural audience in a way that's meaningful, honest, and engaging.

1. Make your effort a celebration, not a spectacle.

  • Simply put, be respectful. The aesthetics, traditions, dances, music and flavors of American subcultures all reflect the way real people really live. We all have something to learn from one another, and the things worth sharing are worth celebrating.
  • Part of that celebration is deferring to the experts. For example, it's good and valid to reach out to consumers of Mexican descent as well as general-market consumers using Day of the Dead aesthetics (including sugar skulls and papel picado) - as long as that aesthetic is accompanied by an appreciation of the history of Mexican folk art.
  • It's important to defer to the experts when making decisions about imagery choices and placement. This means talking to consumers and really hearing what they have to say.

Urban Outfitters, for example has had some ongoing legal troubles regarding their use of sacred headdresses as fashion accessories. In contrast Walmart's representation of an affluent black family preparing a traditional holiday meal portrays warmth, joy and authenticity.

2. Know why you're targeting this market: Establish connections that go further than the bottom line

  • By developing products and advertising to reach multicultural and general market audiences, brands are, to some extent, inviting consumers to partner with them. In order for those partnerships to last, they must be built on mutual respect and trust.
  • By truly understanding multicultural markets that go beyond stereotypes and "common sense" into real, life experiences, brands can successfully establish relationships that are symbiotic: beneficial for everyone.
  • These relationships need to be marked by longevity and loyalty. It's important that brands are responsible for investing in the culture of their target, not to treat elements of custom and music like a mask or a trend that can be discarded at will.

3. Build empathy and empower through representation.

  • Issues of identity-creation and discovery are especially high-stakes when reaching out to people of color and other historically disadvantaged groups. Traditionally, these groups feel they have been stripped of their voice.
  • To gain the trust of people who have not had their voices heard historically, consider giving them a platform to speak. Indeed, sharing the microphone is the only way to come to any kind of understanding of the way people truly live. Each individual is more than the sum of his or her demographics, and every story has the potential - and the power - to surprise and uplift. Brands can increase the visibility of people through traditional advertising as well as by highlighting the successes and contributions of their own team members.
  • Seeing that a brand truly respects and listens is motivating to consumers, especially Millennials. Greater representation also allows for a wider range of perspectives to be heard - including the crucial knowledge that cultural minorities are as full of joy, celebration, and love as everyone else. The exploration that follows from there is a reward in itself. There isn't just one story; there are millions. And while as human beings our similarities bring us together, our unique differences keep life interesting.

Ultimately, the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation is respect. When interacting with a culture that is not their own, individuals and brands have the responsibility to act like invited guests. They are responsible for learning, listening, and honoring traditions that came before them. In so doing, they have the amazing opportunity to authentically connect with others, establish and build trust, and cultivate meaningful relationships that last. Furthermore, there's the intrinsic joy of cultural exploration at stake: just ask Kyle Merker how he felt putting on that kilt for the first time.

C+R has over 15 years of dedicated multicultural experience. Our trained and in-culture moderators leverage a broad range of qualitative methods to identify salient differences in the lived experiences of people from different backgrounds - and understand that people don't fit in a box.