A Brief History of Multicultural Marketing
Let’s start on NYC’s Madison Avenue in 1965.
Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy, and George Lois were kings of the Avenue. These men created new advertising strategies that changed the way Americans bought products and ushered in a sophisticated, creative approach to building brands.
In many ways, early agency life was similar to what you’d see on the AMC hit Mad Men. Ethnic groups were non-existent. Women were marginalized and often denied creative roles. It was the old boys’ club – all male and all white.
Agency demographics reflected American society. In 1965, 84% of the U.S. population was white. White males made up the majority of the U.S. workforce. They made purchasing decisions, fueled the economy, and lived a rather monocultural existence. So in that era, it made sense to focus advertising efforts on the prototypical white American family. After all, they were the primary demographic.
For context, Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech took place in 1963, and the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was signed in 1964. The United States was a different place at this time.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that brands began marketing to African American consumers. In 1974, Bill Cosby landed a gig as the face of Jell-O and McDonald’s began running ads designed to appeal to the African American community. Brand marketers tended to ignore other ethnic groups because of their lack of buying power.
By the mid-80s, brands were heavily targeting African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans using a form of segmented multicultural marketing. The brand’s agency of record devised a strategy and translated creative executions down to the big three ethnic groups. Each group was typically represented by a separate agency that specialized in marketing to that specific demographic. In many ways, this approach reflected a separate but equal mentality that originated from advertising methods adopted in the 1950s and 1960s.
As society and culture continued to evolve, so, too, did the approach that media and advertising agencies used to appeal to consumers. And nowhere was this more true than in entertainment.
Cultural Shifts Shape Modern Media & Advertising
Music, film, and TV culture often follow societal shifts. As the feminist movement grew, for example, we saw an increase in strong female leads in both film and television. In addition to driving cultural shifts forward, these art forms also help mold trends and shape advertising.
In the early 2000s, Nickelodeon President Herb Scannell saw a tremendous opportunity to tweak the programming of his network to reflect the country’s changing demographics. The result of the Puerto Rican executive’s bold move was Dora the Explorer, which featured a 7-year-old Latina girl and her friend, Boots.
Dora marked the first time young Hispanic children and their families watched television content featuring someone who looked like them. Perhaps the more interesting outcome was that other American families watched Dora and devoured the Spanglish lessons just the same as their Hispanic counterparts. In fact, over its eight seasons, the show helped bring in over 1 billion dollars in merchandise sales for Nickelodeon.
Dora the Explorer was an educational show for pre-schoolers; it was not advertising. But the reception it received from American families of all ethnicities proved that the time was right for inclusive content. Perhaps even more importantly, it demonstrated that this content could be successful without alienating the majority audience. And this has been proven time and again since then, most recently in the music industry.
After slowly building for 30 years, the popularity of hip-hop and R&B hit a historic high in July 2017 when it finally reached critical mass. As Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek would say on “Coming of Age,”
“On the low? Yeah, the only way to blow/You let your sh*t bubble quietly/And then you blow.”
According to consumer reporting agency Nielsen, R&B/hip-hop has, for the first time, become the largest share of overall music consumption volume. A staggering 25.1% now comes from the R&B/hip-hop genre, while rock, which was traditionally the most important genre, slipped to second with 23% of the total volume. Nielsen further notes, “R&B/hip-hop has become the largest genre by dominating share of streaming consumption. Over 30% of audio-on-demand streaming comes from R&B/hip-hop, nearly as much as the next two genres combined (rock 18% and pop 13%).”
Spotify recently reported that hip-hop is the favorite genre of streaming music fans worldwide—72% of whom fall into the ‘millennial’ category. Drake, a bi-racial artist who combines rap flows with R&B crooning, has shattered streaming records by racking up over 10 billion total streams as of 2017.
What once was an underground counterculture movement has now surfaced as the most popular music culture of our time. In fact, from music to fashion, food to language, ethnic minorities have actually heavily shaped U.S. mainstream culture since the 1940s. And the landscape today offers countless other examples of inclusive media and moguls making a splash. Orange is the New Black. Scandal. The Mindy Project. Trevor Noah. Aziz Ansari. Tina Fey. Jane the Virgin. Modern Family. Empire. Atlanta. Moonlight. Moana. Girls Trip.
What do they have in common? Every one of them is consumed and beloved by multicultural audiences.
What was once looked down upon—that is, crossover success—is now being lauded. Artists no longer fret about negative perceptions or alienating their core fans; crossover success is now key for Hollywood studios and record labels that want to produce big numbers. We have come to understand that good stories sell and can be relevant to all human beings.
The advertising industry took this and ran with it.
A New Era for Advertising
Secure in knowing that inclusive content could be popular, the advertising industry embraced the idea of challenging the status quo and appealing to minority audiences.
In 2014, Always created a commercial that was an honest reflection of how young girls see themselves in a male-dominated world. Then, they daringly aired it during one of the most testosterone-fueled events in the country: the Superbowl. The 60-second spot forced the world to ask a hard question: why do we find it acceptable to insult others with taunts of “you run/hit/swing/punch like a girl,” and what does that really mean? The saying was so ingrained in our culture that even little girls used it without thinking twice. The resulting ad was both eye-opening and heartbreaking, but there was an underlying message of hope and determination.
Unconscious bias became top of mind, and a feminine hygiene product brand was a major player at the forefront of this movement.
“#LikeAGirl” for Always
2017 has already made its mark in advertising as the year of diversity and inclusion. Just look at unconventional commercials from 7th Generation, Airbnb, Honey Maid, Apple, and Sweethearts Candy.
“Bay Bay” for 7th Generation
“We Accept” for Airbnb
“This is Wholesome” for Honey Maid
Jack & George: “The 55th Valentine” for Sweethearts Candy
“Sady” for Apple
The Obama Effect
While it’s difficult to pinpoint any one specific thing that drove this progress, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 empowered an entire generation and was certainly a contributing factor. His time in office signified a monumental shift in cultural patterns and redefined what conventional wisdom deemed possible. The American brand, previously defined by a long line of white, male leaders, was forever disrupted. The entire world curiously looked on while for eight short years, hate towards ethnic and religious groups in America took a backseat to love of all kinds.
Obama was also compassionate and empathetic towards all human beings; how inspiring to have a President who always engaged the public with an inclusive mindset. His White House showed millions of people that anything is possible in the United States. He and Michelle inspired people to pursue their dreams and feel comfortable in their own skin, no matter who they were or where their parents came from. He was a great role model for our country and softened the macho, alpha male image we brandished during the Bush era.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump dealt a temporary blow to the progress made during the Obama era. But it also helped to solidify the inclusivity that Obama’s time in office created in the country. Millions of people rallied together. Men, women, and children from every racial group, with diverse religious beliefs and varying sexual preferences, gathered to stand up to hate. If that isn’t proof of a cultural shift, what is?
Millennials & the New Mainstream
As the most diverse generation in history, millennials are key players in continuing this cultural evolution.
Research shows that each subsequent generation is becoming even more diverse, and U.S. Census data found that non-Hispanic white births were the minority in 2012 for the first time in history.
By 2030, experts predict that the non-Hispanic white population will decrease annually; all growth will come from multicultural consumers. In the United States today, over 50% of the population under nine years of age is Latino, African American, Asian, or other ethnicities. Additionally, the number of mixed-race residents increased 77% between 2006 and 2014. By their very definition, this subset of the population represents an enormous opportunity for multicultural content.
Not only is our country moving further into ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual diversity each year, but many other paradigm shifts are happening concurrently. The number of women in the workforce increased from 32.7% in 1948 to nearly 57% in 2016, and there are more stay-at-home dads than ever before. Single parent households are also on a meteoric rise. These and countless other changes over the past 20 years have been brought into the national spotlight, softening hearts and ushering in a new era of acceptance and tolerance.
The Way Forward
Progress is happening and it is readily apparent. But where do we go from here?
We still need to see more ethnic diversity in marketing and media. This is particularly true in Hollywood. Based on the report “Inclusion or Invisibility” by The Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg, a group within The University of Southern California’s School of Journalism, the numbers are still abysmal. After evaluating over 11,306 speaking characters in 109 movies and 305 broadcast, cable, and digital series, they reached several conclusions:
- Females accounted for just 28.7% of speaking roles
- Only 3.4% of film directors and 17.1% of TV and digital series directors were female
- African Americans played only 12.2% of speaking roles; Hispanic/Latino actors portrayed 5.8%, while Asians accounted for only 5.15%
- LGBT cast members fared the worst of all, with gay or bisexual actors representing only 2% of roles; less than 1% of roles went to transgender actors
With such disappointing results from this study, it’s hard to believe the numbers were even lower in previous decades.
The election of Donald Trump has ushered in a volatile socio-political and business climate full of uncertainty. He seems to be taking the country two steps backward, repealing DACA, attempting to build a wall, and supporting radical “nationalists.”
His actions are deplorable. Yet, his firebrand politics and business approach are galvanizing and empowering a nation of women, LGBT members, religious groups, and ethnic minorities to stand together and #Resist. And this is the clear way forward.
Total Market Approach
At BIEN, we believe in an inclusive, cross-cultural total market approach rather than segmented multicultural marketing strategy. It’s easier to talk about than to execute, but beginning with inclusive marketing will win your business market share in the long term. It’s particularly important for brands that target millennials to approach everything they do from an inclusive perspective; the dated, general market mindset has no place in the landscape we find ourselves in today.
We recommend that brands begin by featuring women, LGBT members, and minorities with intention—not as an afterthought or to check off a box. All of these groups should be represented from day one.
We believe in inclusion, not simply diversity.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t create language-specific ads for Asian and Hispanic consumers who don’t speak English well and who haven’t assimilated culturally. This approach is still valuable for certain brands and niche products. Specialized agencies creating targeted campaigns aren’t going away anytime soon. However, at BIEN, we thrive working with forward-thinking companies that see the value in total market or cross-cultural marketing campaigns.
So how can we mirror such a nuanced and complicated world?
Let’s embrace and include disabled people. Let’s feature more women and girls. Let’s explore the taboo. We need to break stereotypes and celebrate unsung heroes, because people crave those stories. People want to feel something—to be more human. People want authenticity and uniqueness. They’re tired of perfection, of skinny models that all look the same. They will reject images of families that ring hollow compared to real, quirky, unique families. Marketing in this era must begin by examining these insights.
When we think back to Dora the Explorer, we realize that she helped solidify what has been proven time and time again: audiences respond to advertising and entertainment content featuring people models and characters that look, talk, and act as they do. But has this age-old truth evolved? Are people becoming more curious and more open? Has globalization played a role in helping human beings become more comfortable with other cultures, and are the internet and social media partially responsible for bringing us together?
Particularly for the new generation of consumers, the answer seems to be yes. This group is educated, conscientious, and forever curious.
They are conscious of brand values and make purchase decisions, both large and small, based on whether they agree with those values. Diversity and inclusion are highly regarded by a range of demographics. Wise, strategic companies lead with their values. Their total market approach to advertising is finally starting to reflect this shift, and brands are growing their revenues by embracing, not eschewing, previously marginalized and underrepresented groups.
Remember—all human beings relate to good storytelling.
We design our projects to confront these realities. Our motion graphics approach ensures we can reach these audiences while maintaining an authentic brand voice. Motion graphics are universal. There is no need to re-shoot content with actors from all over the world; we create characters that reflect our friends and neighbors.
We are the new majority, and we know what resonates.
Despite the progress, it often seems like we still have a million miles to go. But step by step, we will get there. In the words of Maya Angelou for Apple’s “The Human Family” campaign:
“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”