Multicultural Marketing: Not For The Wishy-Washy

The words “multicultural” and “diversity,” to many progressives – and until November 8, almost all marketers – have had a positive connotation. These terms have been very often used as shorthand for, if you will, “all voices matter.”

But many white Americans, especially socially conservative whites, see multiculturalism and diversity as an existential threat, that other voices are starting to matter more than theirs and that they’re being dictated to by advertising people in big cities on the coast, ad people who don’t really get them and don’t even want to understand them.

Writing about race, as I have done for a while, is tricky. Trickier still is exploring racial biases while tiptoeing around the R word, racism.

Let’s be clear. I’m not saying that a socially conservative white Christian heterosexual from, let’s pick a state – Ohio – is racist if he or she doesn’t enthusiastically embrace images and messages of diversity. I’m saying that, in many cases, they simply feel left out, left behind, ignored.

But the suggestion that white people are racist for not jumping aboard the diversity bandwagon is in part what drove many of them – many who voted for Obama – to a candidate who, let’s face it, embraced some hardcore racist rhetoric. Many Trump voters, according to Megyn Kelly in a recent interview with Terri Gross on the radio show Fresh Air, had their backs up about continually being charged with racism. So when they heard a candidate continually denouncing political correctness, what they heard was: “Don’t worry, you’re not a racist for getting mad when you hear ‘press 2 for Spanish.’ I get you.”

Many of us were appalled by Trump’s crude rejection of multiculturalism, and we thought white voters, at least most, would be similarly turned off. But we were wrong. Many white voters willfully ignored or dismissed the most hateful rhetoric and clung to the belief that he “understood” them.

It’s something that pollsters and pundits missed by a mile.

They shouldn’t have missed it. Some researchers explored the American “whitelash” long before it showed up in the polls on November 8.

In an article from 2011, CNN offered several examples of racial anxiety, including a poll showing nearly half of Americans identifying discrimination against whites being just as big as bigotry against blacks and other minorities and a survey showing white people considering themselves a “dispossessed majority group.”

The pollsters didn’t ask anything about whether white voters felt they were a dispossessed minority group when they asked who voters planned to cast their ballots for. Consequently every pollster except for the Los Angeles Times, shoed decisive Hillary Clinton win, not just in the popular vote tally but in the electoral vote tally. And that included the star of statistics, Nate Silver. Even the best number crunchers will get the wrong results when they’re starting from an off-base assumption.

I haven’t seen any research on this, but I’d be willing to bet that Clinton’s slogan “Love Trumps Hate” turned off more voters she needed – white voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan – than it enthused, with the implication that, if you support Trump, you must be a hater.

In many ways the election of Donald J. Trump was a fluke, and if not for approximately 80,000 votes across Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the discussion would be about president-elect Hillary Clinton’s massive vote total (she still won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump nationally), and not trying to figure out hat happened to the so-called White Working Class (a phrase some progressives call racist) in the Rust Belt.

But here we are. In the wake of a shocking election outcome like this, many professionals who make their living figuring out what people want, and not what we think they should want, are beginning to rethink the questions they ask and how they ask them.

A recent Wall Street Journal article explains how marketers, many of them comprising the (somewhat dismissive term) Coastal Elite are now worrying that they’re just as out of touch with mainstream white Americans as pollsters were:

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president with a wave of support from middle American voters, advertisers are reflecting on whether they are out of touch with the same people—rural, economically frustrated, elite-distrusting, anti-globalization voters—who propelled the businessman into the White House. Mr. Trump’s rise has them rethinking the way they collect data about consumers, recruit staff and pitch products.

I’ve been doing multicultural market research for over 17 years. It has felt like riding on the crest of a wave: the country was indeed becoming browner, and in my opinion there weren’t enough companies who were trying to understand Latinos, Asians, Blacks and LGBTQs.

I live in southern California, where diversity is, if not embraced, then understood as a given. But there have been signs of a coming “whitelash” in the rest of the U.S. My company conducted a study a few years ago showed that a clear majority of socially conservative whites felt there are too many minorities in the ads they saw, and they definitely were turned off by Spanish in commercials.

In today’s America, celebrating the “new demographics” of our country and expecting all customers to agree is an illusion. Insisting that all potential customers believe as the marketers do – as I do, that a more diverse nation is unthreatening and beneficial to all – is a recipe for failure.

The election was a case study in target marketing, one that will be studied by political scientists for years. Surely there were many “segments” of people who voted for Trump, and they all had their own reasons. Trump needed to eke out an Electoral College win by retaining the people who will always vote Republican and build on that in regions where white resentment of multiculturalism (and anger at the continued hemorrhaging of high-paying manufacturing jobs, surely, among other issues) ran high and would give him the greatest chance for an upset. Did his message turn off people who were pro-multicultural, who thought his words were stoking racism? Sure. It ran up the numbers in states that were firmly in the Democratic column. California. New York. Oregon.

For decades the term multicultural has meant “minority.” It’s possible that in using the term that way we’ve been a little restrictive, a bit too myopic. Multicultural, the very textbook definition, means all cultures. That means it can include white people too, every “segment” and religion and belief and preference for detergent and condiment.

Does that render the term so broad as to be meaningless? I don’t think it has to.

Marketers need to acknowledge that, to paraphrase Lincoln, you cannot please all the people all of the time. A well done ad with a multicultural theme – even cast – will indeed alienate certain segments of the population.

Brands need to enter multicultural waters with their eyes open. They need to identify their core consumers and examine their core values and how they resonate with potential consumers. It’s this simple: we all have different perspectives, and we respond to advertising differently. Threading the needle by speaking core customers’ language without appearing to denigrate other segments – let’s call them people – well that’s a little more difficult.

And sometimes a marketer will take a strong stand to reach out to their core customers and not fear the backlash. When Chick-fil-A president and chief operating officer Dan Cathy denounced gay marriage, he made clear the company’s values and to whom it was directing its marketing efforts.

I’m not defending Cathy’s decision. As a gay man, what Cathy did appalls me, and you’ll never find me in a Chick-fil-A establishment. But, then, I was never the company’s target customer anyway. The backlash from LGBTQs didn’t appear to hurt their bottom line. For another fast food company, the result might have been different. It may have been a cynical move for Cathy to throw LGBTQs under the bus in order to boost the appreciation of his cultural conservative customers. But as a lesson in target marketing, indeed multicultural marketing, it merits a place in the textbooks.

As we close the page on 2016, and perhaps the most tumultuous election in American history, it’s time to rethink the role of marketing in our multicultural society. In a country as divided as our own, there is no such thing as a “total market.” There is no one size fits all. Now, more than ever, brands need to look within and take a stand, determining to whom they will market and what message they will convey. 2017 will not be a year for the wishy washy.

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