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Mosaic marketing: appealing to multicultural customers

Mosaic marketingBecause they're nimble, small businesses are adept at marketing to niches. But many small-business owners overlook lucrative subsegments of their marketplaces: ethnic customers.



As the United States shifts from a white majority to a nation of numerous minorities, it makes sense to tailor marketing for specific groups. And a company doesn't have to be big to make such a move.

"There's no question that depending on the product or service, a small business can segment or do targeted marketing for different cultural groups," says Marilyn Halter, a professor of history at Boston University and a researcher on economic culture.

A good way to start is to examine your opportunities, says Andrew Erlich, president and CEO of Erlich Transcultural Consultants in Woodland Hills, Calif. "Stand back and ask yourself, 'Why do I want to do this? Does this make sense?'"

In other words, is there an unserved minority constituency in your market? Is this group a large enough source of potential revenue to warrant the effort necessary for specialized marketing?

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Get to know your potential customers
If you decide that multicultural marketing is right for your business, you need to find out as much as you can about the needs, desires, and culture of the group that you are targeting. There are several ways to research a multicultural marketing strategy, including:

  • Read local papers whose readers are members of the group your company wants as customers. Some of these periodicals may be in English, some may not. Even those in a foreign language can help you learn. See how your competitors and other marketers advertise in them. What do their ads look like? What message do they appear to be trying to say? How does the auto dealer's ad in a local Chinese weekly vary from his mainstream marketing?
  • Walk around the neighborhood. "Find out what's going on with this customer base and what your competitors are doing," Erlich says. Visit stores and see how members of the ethnic group that you are targeting interact with store personnel. What do they like or dislike?
  • Conduct informal surveys. Both Erlich Transcultural Consultants and Asia Link Consulting Group of New York City survey ethnic populations and perform other market research for big firms. If you can't afford to hire a firm to do the necessary research, do it yourself at a level that you can afford. That could mean an informal survey that you or an employee conducts to determine what services or products people want and how your company can meet or exceed their expectations.
  • Hire a company to do your research. If you have the budget, consider hiring a firm that specializes in devising multicultural marketing or advertising campaigns. For a list of candidates, consider purchasing The Source Book of Multicultural Experts from Multicultural Marketing Resources Inc. You also can subscribe to MMR's free e-mail newsletter.

Creating a specific marketing plan
Once you've done your research, devise a marketing plan and execute it. "Find out what the needs are of the members of your community and how you can make your business a welcome place for a particular ethnic group," says Halter, author of Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity.

Typical components of a multicultural marketing program include:

  • Communicate in the customers' language. "Not because they don't understand English necessarily," says Wanla Cheng, president of Asia Link Consulting Group, "but because it makes them feel like valued and respected customers." That could mean hiring a bilingual sales associate, translating sales material into foreign languages, or conducting advertising campaigns in the ethnic minority's native tongue.
  • Advertise in newspapers or on TV and radio stations whose audiences mirror the consumers you want to reach. Often these media outlets will help businesses tailor ads for their audience.
  • Adapt product or services for the group. For example, a grocery chain trying to sell to Hispanics should stock foods that research has shown the customers want to buy. If the ethnic group that you're targeting is primarily comprised of recent arrivals to the United States, a good value-add might be walking them through a complicated process, such as buying a car or getting a bank loan to finance a car or other major purchase. Supplying information that can help new customers understand the process not only helps them, but also gives them a reason for doing business with your company, Cheng says.
  • Participate in community events where you can interact with your minority customers. Perhaps there's a Hindu festival where your company can have a booth to provide information about your product and services.

Acknowledge differences, appreciate similarities
The biggest mistake companies make when trying to launch a multicultural program is underestimating differences between cultures. They'll try a direct translation of an English advertising campaign.

The famous "Got Milk" campaign, for example, would have directly translated into "Tiene Leche" in Spanish. Hispanic consumers would have been asked, "Are you breast feeding?" So despite the popularity and success of the ads among English-speaking consumers, the national milk board had to devise a completely new campaign for Spanish speakers.

In addition, marketers need to be aware that there are differences within a broad group. Different groups of Asians like to be treated differently. There are differences, says Erlich, between Chinese Americans and Korean Americans.

Or take the differences between Chinese consumers and their Hispanic brethren. When it comes to customer service, cultural researchers say that both groups want personal service, but the Chinese tend to want to be addressed on a more formal level than Spanish speakers do.

Most of all, realize that one size doesn't fit all. Regardless of whichever demographic group (teenager, baby boomer, specific ethnicity, etc.) a customer falls into, the potential buyer wants to be treated as an individual.

"The biggest advice I can give is just to remain flexible," Erlich says. "That works in business in general, as well as any subsegment."

It also translates clearly into the universal language of commerce.

Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.

-- Posted: Nov. 26, 2001

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See Also
Creating your first television ad
Basics of conducting your own market survey

Take time to create a marketing plan

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