Time to Raise Your Transcultural IQ

Time to Raise Your Transcultural IQ

Kevin Johnson, Starbucks CEO, found out the hard way that culturally conscious consumers, of all persuasions, combined with an increasingly politicized marketplace can put brands and their CEOs in the proverbial hot seat.

With almost 50 percent of Millennials and Generation Z being consumers of color, patience is running out with what corporate PR departments euphemistically call “missteps.” If responses on social media are any indication, attitudes toward these all too familiar corporate apologies are rapidly shifting from skepticism to suspicion as to whether marketers are truly serious about getting it right.

For marketers who want to grow profitable revenue with these consumers, the largest generations since the Boomers, it’s time to acknowledge marketing and advertising will be the new frontier for civil rights.

Inclusivity Versus Intersectionality: It’s Time to Know the Difference

Starbucks is a standout when it comes to inclusivity, but inclusivity without insight into how the social and cultural contexts employees and consumers affect the brand experience is a blind spot that undermines brand equity and threatens profitable growth. The interaction of these powerful social and cultural contexts is intersectionality at work.

As a white-collared black woman, community activist, marketer and transcultural consultant, I am increasingly called upon to help marketers understand the difference between inclusivity and intersectionality.

The concept of inclusivity is defined as incorporating people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized. Increasingly, culturally conscious consumers feel inclusion brings with it a power dynamic that conveniently “forgets” their history of struggle and assumes they are satisfied with merely being “allowed” to belong.

Intersectionality recognizes that the interconnection of race, class and gender reflects deeper currents of discrimination, disadvantage and cultural heritage as they affect how a consumer feels, thinks and acts.

When Heineken adapted its European advertising for the US market, inclusivity wasn’t enough. Black and brown people were included in the ads, but culturally conscious consumers reminded the brand, in no uncertain terms, that context is everything.

If you haven’t incorporated the concept of intersectionality into your marketing strategy and activation, now would be a good time.

Your Brand’s Transcultural IQ: It’s Time to Raise It

To navigate this world, marketers, their brand teams and agencies must raise their transcultural IQ.
It is no simple task to develop global or universal strategies that can be translated to every cultural context without serious attention to intersectional details, usually given short shrift by CEOs, CMOs and their agencies.

In the few marketing studies that bother to ask the question about the importance multicultural marketing, most managers and their ad agencies feel management tends to talk the talk rather than walk the walk. In my interviews with multicultural marketing directors and brand managers, most felt they didn’t get the investment needed to build authentic relationships with consumers of color. For the leaders of multicultural agencies, the talk of the Total Market isn’t reflected in their budgets as they fight for the crumbs off the table of their general market counterparts.

It’s no wonder that culturally tone-deaf consumer experiences keep piling up and culturally conscious Millennial and post-Millennial consumers are left questioning the integrity of the brands marketed to them.

Cultivating a higher transcultural IQ isn’t just matter being black, brown, female or LGBTQ. It’s not as simple as identity marketing or politics. It certainly isn’t a mere matter of translating advertising headlines.

True transcultural expertise comes from a studied approach to understanding the cultural currents and contexts that shape consumer experiences with brands. These are the scholars of culture and marketing that, regardless of their own identity, make it their business to understand how intersectionality affects consumers and brands.

The deep understanding of rapidly evolving cultural and political contexts can inform brand teams on how marketing strategies and executions combine with the idiosyncratic nature of each communication channel to affect the way different groups of consumers receive and interpret brand experiences.

Dove’s “misstep” was trying to communicate a complicated message in four seconds on Facebook. The shorter the message, the more likely editors and storytellers resort, consciously or unconsciously, to telegraphing stereotypical imagery. True transcultural scholars and strategists, regardless of ethnic background, know this well researched phenomenon.

H&M’s egregious promotion of the “coolest monkey in the jungle” hoodie is another example of seriously low transcultural IQ. The parents of the black child used in the advertising may not have seen anything awry with this marketing faux pas, but the transcultural expert would have immediately referenced the long history of using simian references to dehumanize people of African descent in Europe and the U.S.

White European soccer fans have a long history of throwing bananas and making offensive simian noises when players of African descent come on the pitch. Black WWII vets vividly remember how French citizens searched for their “tails” after the liberation of Paris. The white soldiers who preceded them had spread rumors that black soldiers were really monkeys.

This ain’t new folks, but transcultural marketing experts invest time in connecting the dots between history and contemporary cultural and social currents that might make the difference between successful execution and a doozy of a “misstep.”

If You’ve Talked the Talk: It’s Beyond Time to Walk the Walk

Eliza Doolittle sang in the movie My Fair Lady, “I never want to hear another word, there isn’t one I haven’t heard.” The growing number of Millennial and post-Millennial consumers of color and their culturally conscious white friends are, like Miss Doolittle, saying to marketers, “Show me!” On this latest battleground for civil rights, consumers are no longer willing to be patient, accepting apology after apology when nothing seems to change. Now I’ve got six eyes looking back at me. #TimesUpforMarketers