When I started my advertising career in 1987, a white female colleague working on the Hungry Jack brand asked, “Do black people eat biscuits only in the morning or do they eat them all day long?”
My response: “Let me get on the phone and ask the other black folks, and I’ll get back to you.”
I went on to make waves. She went on to become a CEO of a major agency network.
Heineken, Dove, Nivea, H&M, Kellogg’s, Pepsi, Shea Moisture….
This steady drumbeat of brands exhibiting racially tone-deaf behavior suggests advertisers are still getting their insights about black and brown people the same way.
Missing the Mark or Missing the Market
These latest incidents are described by corporate PR departments as “missing the mark” and “missteps.” Yet, these euphemisms obscure the serious shortcomings and cynical undercurrents of executing the Total Market Approach.
According to the Association of National Advertisers, the Total Market Approach is a controversial but widely adopted strategy of “proactively integrating diverse segment considerations through the entire strategic process and execution, with the goal of enhancing value and growth effectiveness.”
To the Total Market Strategy, I call Total BS.
These “missteps” result from the work of mostly white agency and brand teams struggling to accommodate the Total Market philosophy without the transcultural IQ required to make it work. Account teams may include a black and brown person or two in an effort to cobble together a “universal” idea, but these folks are typically either too junior or too alone to have the authority or the critical mass to fight the inherent biases baked into the work.
If You Don’t Hire Total Market, You Can’t Market Total Market.
According to the U.S. Census, almost 50 percent of Americans under the age of 18 are minorities (defined as any group other than non-Hispanic, single-race whites). Minorities comprise 43 percent of Americans 18-44. Yet, black and brown people make up less than 20% of the people working the ad industry and, out of 500,000 people employed in the industry, I can count the number of black and brown senior executives on less than 200 fingers.
Ironically, the Total Market Approach grudgingly admits some advertisers will need to include multicultural agencies on their rosters to achieve the best results. Let’s get real. In reality, advertisers, putting pressure on agency fees, are leaving their multicultural marketing directors bemoaning the lack of resources to effectively create authentic, credible connections to minority consumers.
Despite the wealth of transcultural experience, knowledge and data possessed by multicultural agencies, they find themselves having to make do with meager budgets and too little left over from account management and creative production to invest in the deep consumer work individual brands require to securely navigate increasingly politicized marketplace.
Ultimately, the Total Market Approach ends up giving air cover advertisers who are cynically looking to save a buck. Their clumsy attempts at ethnically ambiguous casting exacerbate the ongoing discrimination and marginalization of non-white groups that significantly structure the contexts of engagement in a highly politicized marketplace.
The result: A never ending pattern of missteps followed by an apology that misses the mark.
Welcome to the ‘Hood
In response, multicultural consumers are seeking respect elsewhere. These consumers are using the power of the Internet to build digital neighborhoods that offer authentic experiences and credible products and services. Brands that live in these neighborhoods are expected to acknowledge and understand the cultural contexts that shape the perspectives of multicultural consumers. If they don’t they get kicked to the curb.
These digital neighborhoods, notably travel, personal care, finance, food, and lifestyle are being built by black and brown entrepreneurs and social influencers to the meet needs, desires and wants of consumers who feel ignored, disrespected and abused by established brands. The Black Travel Movement is just one of these neighborhoods where brands who care about multicultural consumers can find a $60 billion market of black and brown Millennials with a travel spend that outpaces their white counterparts. To unlock this growth, brands who want to move in must invest to acquire the transcultural intelligence required to authentically inhabit these digital main streets.
The Solution: Multicultural First
Remember the clarion call of “mobile first” that dominated marketing and advertising trades and conferences for the last decade. Now is the time for advertisers to think and act “multicultural first” if they are serious about unlocking growth for the next decade and beyond.
Multicultural First, an alternative to the Total Market Approach, begins with accessing the transcultural expertise and multicultural experience of agencies like Burrell, Translation, Ten35, Carol H. Williams, and Walton Isaacson, to name a few. While being black and brown isn’t enough to ensure a high transcultural IQ, these agencies have accumulated years of experience in successful transcultural communication, supported by the expertise and knowledge of a multicultural talent pool that truly reflects the Total Market.
And yes, they too have earned the coveted creative awards that so many general market agencies lust after. More importantly, these agencies have developed creative and highly cost-efficient ways to harness the power of multicultural digital neighborhoods while delivering authentic brand experiences that drive growth.
And isn’t that what you really should be looking for from the total market.