Is there such a thing as a multicultural consumer segment?

By Jose Villa (ThinkMulticultural.com)

We hear the term “multicultural” a lot. Marketers, academics, and industry leaders love to talk about multicultural groups and the growth of America’s multicultural population – the various minority groups, including Hispanic, African-American, Asian, and “other” (Middle Eastern, European, South Asian, etc.) that are rapidly expanding in size and influence. As a marketer, I’ve always grappled with the question of whether this is an actual segment or just convenient nomenclature, created by corporate America to neatly package what would otherwise be very distinct groups of individuals.

It always helps to step back and think about what a segment means from a marketing perspective. Marketers are always looking for ways to group individual consumers based on dimensions that make them similar. Trying to find elements about them – such as demographic (age, education, income, geography, employment) or psychographic (personality, values, attitudes, interests, or lifestyles) characteristics – that can be grouped, or clustered to simplify their world. As marketers, we’re always looking for scale – the ability to group an overwhelming number of unique individuals (often millions) into groups we can target based on shared characteristics.

A commonly accepted form of segmenting consumers is based on ethnicity. There are thousands of people – like me – making a living on this accepted segmentation when it comes to Hispanics. While those of us who work in the area of marketing to various ethnic groups are typically categorized as multicultural marketers, do the consumers we collectively work to reach act, think or behave similarly? For marketers and brands, is there something about how they think about products and services and/or how they consume media that makes them similar? Is there such a thing as a multicultural consumer segment?

Those of us in the business of marketing to Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and other non-general market audiences have always been hesitant about this amalgamation. As specialist marketers, it goes against our very reason for existing to combine disparate ethnic segments. Hispanics are unique, and fundamentally different from their general market brethren, requiring unique marketing and communications to reach them. This logic has always carried over to the difference between Hispanics and other ethnic groups – namely African-Americans and Asians.

However, at the risk of sounding blasphemous to my fellow multicultural marketers, I posit it might be time to reconsider the concept of a multicultural segment. As the demographics of the U.S. rapidly change, and a growing Hispanic, African-American, and Asian (among other ethnicities) youth population exhibits characteristics very different from those of previous generations, I see evidence a multicultural youth segment does indeed exist.

This may sound like the “urban” segment popularized in the late ‘90s. Urban was a term used to describe a primarily Hispanic and African-American population of mostly young males living in major urban centers – New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. What I’m seeing is much broader, encompassing more than just Hispanics and African-Americans, with more gender balance, and spread out across a more diverse geography that includes suburbs and cities across the U.S.

This all came into focus recently, when our agency was tasked with the unusual assignment of developing a marketing strategy to reach a pan-multicultural audience of Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, and Native American youth, ages 13-25. We conducted qualitative research – focus groups and ethnographic interviews – with these individuals from each of these groups. Our initial hypothesis was we would find more differences than similarities, and creating a “multicultural” segmentation schema of youth was not going to be feasible. However, we were surprised to find some interesting psychographic similarities. Primary among them was the fact that minority youth shared a similar life of duality experience – they live in both the cultural mainstream and their personal sphere of heritage.

While preliminary in nature, our research uncovered the existence of a shared psychographic profile among these Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Native American youth of belonging to the “other.”
They can navigate between these worlds effortlessly despite differences in language, appearance, or cultural nuance. They live in a multicultural world defining themselves by their likes and dislikes and not race or ethnicity. Whereas the mainstream is racing to understand the meaning of “multicultural,” minority youth feel they are the very definition of multicultural. They still live, however, within specific, tangible groups defining themselves as “other than” or “different from” the mainstream, multicultural as it may be.

More research is warranted to validate our new hypothesis. However, recent data from the Census points to an interesting twist on this “multicultural segment.” According to the most recent 2010 Census, multiracial children are the fastest growing youth group in the U.S. A recent Pew Report also pointed to a rise in mixed-race marriages.

The implications for marketers are significant. First, the efficiencies and scale I talked about would be significant if brands could develop marketing programs that worked across a larger audience of minority groups. The future implications are more pronounced, considering the size of the multicultural youth population in this country and what their coming of age would represent in shifting the overall consumer landscape.

For those of us involved in Hispanic marketing, there is a big question about how this would change how we look at the Hispanic market. Is this just a new segment we need to think about? Since this “multicultural segment” is by definition bigger than the Hispanic-only component, marketers might see some very attractive scale.

Ultimately, I think this is a conversation we as multicultural marketers should lead, no matter where it takes us.

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