Where Do We Go From Here?

By Christian Filli, Vice President of Strategic Planning, LatinWorks (HispanicAd.com)

As the “poles” melt away, we need to elevate the multicultural conversation.

It used to be easy. “Multicultural” marketing was a fairly simple practice, centered mostly on translation and/or adaptation. To reach multicultural consumers, marketers only needed to translate marketing materials into Spanish. As long as there was a steady influx of Spanish speakers into the U.S., we had a path to follow and a clearly defined set of tools to use to engage this population, including specialized media channels/networks and agencies. Further supporting this idea was the connotation of multicultural as “separate from mainstream,” as if it was a sidebar to American society.

But things have changed. The multicultural consumer has evolved, and today, we are confronted with a new, and much more complex, reality. In the past decade, 92 percent of the total U.S. population growth was driven by the multicultural market. Add to this a slowing of immigration on one end of the spectrum (contrary to what you might expect, the vast majority of growth in the U.S. Hispanic population is from births (70%), not immigration (30%)) and a shrinking of the so-called general market on the other. One could say that the “polar” ends of the traditional multicultural spectrum are melting away, creating a more cohesive population. Interestingly, the bicultural population in the middle is growing and gaining a life of its own, instead of following the expected cultural assimilation path.

This market evolution has certainly sparked intense debate throughout the industry over the last year, resulting in myriad thoughts on how best to approach the new Hispanic consumer. Corporations, agencies, media networks and consultants have been scrambling to figure out the best way to tackle this challenge. As expected, different definitions, theories and approaches are emerging. Of these, the most widely discussed are gravitating toward the concepts of “total market” and “the new American mainstream,” rather than segmented tactics that target niche populations.

Industry leaders have focused on highlighting the growth of the minority population, lecturing CMO’s on the sheer size of the opportunity. Still, there are those who argue that multicultural is merging into the general market, therefore consumer “nuances” do not justify the need for targeted approaches because “they all speak English now.”

Others have focused on presenting evidence that bicultural individuals want to retain their primary language and culture; therefore brands need to continue utilizing traditional methods and channels to fulfill their needs.

We have also been flooded by blogs and articles that throw into the mix provocative yet hollow statements that rely on out-dated terminologies and models to explain the future.

Sadly, most of the debate has been uninspiring at best. It has become a territory where ambiguity prevails, and many marketers are probably more confused than enlightened. The main reason is that people are so focused on figuring out how to sell more stuff to consumers, instead of first acknowledging that there is a major shift in society, with culture being at its very core.

But, what is culture?

There was an interesting moment during the recent New American Mainstream Business Summit, when a member of the audience asked one of the panelists to define “culture.” Two days of conferences and roundtables had already gone by, during which the term multicultural had been used indiscriminately. Yet the question took everyone by surprise, leading to several seconds of deep silence. Nobody seemed to have an answer.

You see, over the past few decades, the term “culture” has been automatically (and mistakenly) associated with ethnicity and/or language. Think of the word “Hispanic,” for example, and you’ll realize that it has been vastly used as synonym for non-Caucasian or “non-English speaking.” In essence, there is very little cultural context to it. However, the beauty of the social shift we’re witnessing is that people will be forced to think again about the deeper meaning of culture: an integrated pattern of human knowledge, refinement and fulfillment that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought, accumulation of ideas and social learning.

It is time for us to start thinking of culture in terms of where people are going, not where they come from. It is about the future, not the past. Young Latinos in the U.S. are replacing the traditionally passive attitude that their parents might have possessed with a more purposeful pursuit. Deep inside, they know that their diverse and rich background helps them be the best they can be, and they want to share their experience and ideas with their peers. This is part of their identity and makes them feel empowered – with bilingualism and technology being part of their toolkit. Their vision inspires an ideal of freedom, rooted in the ideology of “seeing oneself in the other,” which relates to the pursuit of shared interests and common values across cultural borders. They are at their best when they allow a chameleon sense of self to develop without losing their cultural center. This enables them to take full ownership of their life. It is a genuine expression of transculturalism – not intended as a catchphrase, just the simple truth.

Where do we go from here?

Companies have a historic opportunity to support consumers along their journey by acknowledging the fundamental values and transformational spirit that define them as human beings. Marketing to them is no longer about “home” because culture is more about “a new me,” and “a new us, ” which is highly influenced by Latinos, of course. But they are new Latinos, and their children will be an entirely new breed who will inject a wave of new thinking into society, as well as the marketing community.

The consumer of the future is inspired and transformed by identity, rather than defined by ethnicity or language. Brand engagement strategies must evolve from a transactional perspective, in which a brand addresses a transient need, to an interactional perspective, by which the brand story becomes part of a personal story. This is a perfect conduit for cultural branding, the fundamental vision of which is that a brand’s value resides in its own cultural expression and overall cultural context. Brands can actually play an extremely important role in soothing people’s anxieties in their quest for personal identity, particularly in times of market fluctuation, social crisis or ideological conflict. If done right, such an approach can help brands mature and succeed over time.

There is a lot of depth and mystery to this vision. Consumers are setting a new path and are inviting us to come along for the ride. We should accept the invitation.


Categories: NGLC Conference

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