The Key to Effective Multi-Cultural Marketing: Subtlety

Last Updated Mar 15, 2010 8:24 PM EDT

According to the Nielsen Company, by 2025, over half of U.S. families with children will be multi-cultural. Marketers are well aware of this growing demographic -- but new research from Wharton shows that ads meant to appeal to multi-cultural viewers can sometimes just as easily alienate them.

A recent Knowledge@Wharton article, "Cents and Sensibility: Why Marketing to Multicultural Consumers Requires a Subtle Touch," discusses research conducted by Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed II, as well as Stefano Puntoni and Peeter W.J. Verlegh of Erasmus University's Rotterdam School of Management.

A few takeaways:

  • Don't mix symbols: The researchers found that second-generation Dutch-Chinese who considered themselves part of two cultures reacted negatively to "incongruent" symbols (e.g., a Caucasian spokesperson interacting with Chinese monuments). This incongruence has the potential to negatively affect buying decisions.
  • Don't overdo it: While there's nothing wrong with using cultural symbols in marketing efforts, it needs to be done without pandering or, even worse, condescending. Remember the Taco Bell Chihuahua? "Taco Bell was trying to tap into some ideas that were in line with the cultural milieu, but it was not done in a tasteful way and there was a backlash," said Reed.
  • Take advantage of sponsorship opportunities: The researchers give Coca-Cola props for sponsorships that appeal to multi-cultural demographics, such as the World Cup and Spanish-language soap operas.
The bottom line, according to Reed: "The challenge to marketers is to calibrate the ad [in such a way] that the dominant identity is reinforced with more subtlety. The idea is to pick one identity and develop symbolism that is not center stage so it doesn't get on people's radar and trigger an offensive reaction."

Image courtesy of Flickr user pamelaadam, CC 2.0.

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.