October 12, 2021 Howard Lichtman


by Howard Lichtman

The concept of ethnicity in advertising is more than skin deep.  For the past several months, I have pleasingly seen more advertising reflective of the real Canadian population.  One in five Canadians is foreign-born – equivalent to the size of the population of Quebec.  Featuring talent of colour who are Black, Chinese, South Asian and other ethnicities is a great step forward, but it is really not enough.  These efforts are step one in the long-overdue reflection of diversity in our advertising.  However, switching out Caucasians for people of colour, gender or disability does not make a specific ad particularly relevant.  It just makes it reflective of the world we live in.

Wil Shelton – CEO of Wil Power Integrated Marketing – recently wrote: “Multicultural marketing hasn’t always been a focal point for large brands, nor has it received enough of an investment in terms of marketing dollars.  That may be because marketers don’t fully understand the goal.  Many companies focus so much on demonstrating diversity and inclusivity that they forget to tailor messaging to the unique taste of their audience, as they would with any other consumers.

“The lack of focus leads to instances where African-American marketing efforts are simply bolted on to larger marketing campaigns, almost as an after-thought.  When this happens, tweaks to an existing general campaign – such as adding a Black actor to demonstrate “diversity” or switching out Black models for white ones – are sometimes made on the fly, without cultural sensitivity to how certain settings, symbols and messages might not be relevant to African-Americans, and might even be offensive.”

“It’s time companies stopped thinking solely about ‘including’ Blacks in their advertising, and show respect for African-Americans as people, taking the time to understand the nuances of their culture and treating the Black demographic as a valuable category in itself.  This means creating niche campaigns from the ground up, to ensure that they are received as culturally relevant.”

While I agree with much of what Will has to say, his final statement is applicable only in certain instances.  There are certain times when mainstream ads completely miss the mark.  In those instances, corporations do need a from-ground-zero brand new ad.  These are occasions where the ethnic consumer simply will not relate to the strategy or the tactic.  An example would be an ad utilizing humour that an immigrant consumer would simply not relate to.

In our experience, however, this is often the exception and not the rule.  If the mainstream strategy is sound, often all that is required is nuancing the ad in terms of cultural relevance.  This goes beyond being “inclusive” in the production of the ad.  Sometimes a variation of the original ad can be produced utilizing more relevant cultural elements.

There are also many situations where nothing has to be changed at all.  For example, if someone is having a “back-to-school ad”, it makes sense to take the mainstream message and amplify it within ethnic communities.  Why?  Ethnic consumers have more kids – so if you are targeting homes with kids, you are going to get a better return-on-investment.  Further, study after study have shown that you are not necessarily reaching these consumers in mainstream media.  So, thumbs up for the increasing amounts of cultural diversity in ads, with a proviso that for most companies, that is just the first step.

The following is an extreme example of being culturally irrelevant:  There was a fitness chain from the States that had opened up a number of facilities in Canada.  Their brand promise was to be a challenger brand with the lowest of monthly pricing.  They did not understand why they were not getting traction in Markham.  They showed us the type of advertising they were using.  It was not something that language translation would ever be able to fix.  In order to convey their brand promise, they had out-of-home advertising which basically said: “Only a dumbbell would pay more for a gym membership”.  This double-entendre was matched with a picture of a set of weights.  Perhaps humorous (or not) to the mainstream population, but to the consumers they were targeting in that area (70% ethnic), did they know that the word “dumbbell” is a synonym for the word “weights”?  Did they also know “dumbbell” also implies being an idiot?  Unlikely.  No translator would ever be able to fix that.

Do not get me wrong – language is important.  Nineteen percent of the Chinese population in Canada do not speak English.  Seventy percent of Newcomers speak a language other than English or French at home.  The same 70 percentage is ethnic consumers’ language of comfort.  For some consumers language is a barrier.  For others, such as those from the Philippines, India and/or Pakistan, it is not.  They, like Canada, were members of the British Commonwealth and English is a natural second language.  But if you are targeting those consumers and you want to speak “in their language”, it is definitely not English or French you are going to hear in their kitchens or family rooms.

Further, if you want to reach ethnic consumers effectively, you also have to take into account how to best reach them and ethnic media.  During the pandemic, CulturaliQ International – our sister Agency – and Vividata were one of the only organizations speaking directly to ethnic consumers.  Both, unsurprisingly, had the same directional messages.  Not only do multicultural consumers spend a significant amount of time listening and watching ethnic media, the consumption only increased during the pandemic.  None of this is shocking.  They were at home in isolation with their families.  The TV became a distraction, and often a babysitter for kids, who were tuned into their cultural channels.  They also became a form of entertainment and escape for both the adults in the home, as well as the grandparents.  With confusing messages from different levels of government and others, they turned to their natural key opinion leaders, which were the media personalities in the form of anchors and hosts of radio and TV shows.  The other thing that mainstream media and news were missing was news from back home.  Ethnic consumers are still closely tied to their home countries, and they wanted in-depth information about what was happening in terms of the pandemic in their country of origin.

In order to be successful, what do you need to do?  It all starts not with diversity in your advertising, nor with language, but rather cultural relevance.  Does your strategy for winning consumers resonate with ethnic populations?  It should be a key filter, given the size of the ethnic population in the United States and the significant number of newcomers who are arriving yearly.

Best practice is to have a “multicultural voice” share a seat at the table when you are planning your strategy.  In the States they say that it is important to “build it in” as opposed to “bolt it on” afterwards.  If your strategy works for ethnic consumers, and your message is culturally relevant, then making sure there is diversity in your ads makes sense.  You can also create versions that are both “in-language” and appear in ethnic media easily.  Sometimes the strategy works but beyond diverse talent, it requires some modification to be culturally relevant – this is more often than not the case.  But again, it is not too difficult to do. In those rare instances where your strategy or your messaging is clearly not going to resonate with ethnic consumers, it is folly to just ignore this.  You need a stand-alone ethnic strategy that is culturally relevant and a production of new assets.  Your mantra should be we need to be both “in-language” and “in-culture”.

To quote Marc Pritchard, the CMO of Procter & Gamble in the States, “If you’re not doing multicultural marketing, you’re not doing marketing”.

The opportunity awaits you.