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Sherman Wright Headshot

It's The End of the World As We Know It

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Why It Has Become a Business Imperative for Brands To Seek Common Ground with Multicultural Consumers

To quote R.E.M., the illustrious rock band who's popularity soared to staggering heights in the 1980s and 90s: "It's the end of the world as we know it... and I feel fine." As marketing professionals at the vortex of the multicultural marketing revolution, we couldn't agree more with R.E.M.'s timeless mantra that, to this day, challenges our fears and perceptions about this evolving world and our place in it.

Fast-forward to 2012. We understand now more than ever that it is indeed the end of the world as we know it. Why? Because society is being reshaped from what many considered a melting pot to a cultural mosaic where African American and Hispanic populations are setting cultural trends that play a tremendous, game-changing role in the growth and success of American brands. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 91.7% of the nation's growth between 2000 and 2010 with Hispanics accounting for more than half of the nation's growth during this same period. Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that, of all the babies born in the United States in 2011, more than half were members of minority groups, marking the first time in U.S. history this has happened. As the racial and ethnic makeup of our country continues to change, brands can no longer think of multicultural segments as "niche" markets purely defined by race, country of origin or geographic location. Not only are people of color on their way to becoming the majority, their buying power and sheer numbers will drive marketing decisions for years to come. Today, brands that don't allocate a significant portion of their marketing and advertising dollars to creating campaigns and programs that lead with ethnic insight are setting themselves up for a proverbial kick in the ass, losing relevance, credibility -- and ultimately business -- in this era of multiculturalism.

In the past, corporate behemoths and their agencies were able to treat these multicultural consumers as at best, a "colorful" extension of the general market and at worst, an afterthought. Once upon a time, it was deemed effective, bold even, for an agency to produce a 60-second television spot for, let's say, Pampers, Procter & Gamble's long-time market leader in the disposable diaper category. The agency would cast happy White mothers (and sometimes fathers) with cute, smiling babies to deliver the brand message that Pampers would keep all babies twice as dry as cloth diapers. The agency would run the spot during the few African American or Hispanic television shows on air at the time (think: The Jeffersons or Chico and the Man), or produce out-of-home advertising featuring that same White family with the brand message translated to Spanish. Many brands held the misguided belief that they were successfully reaching African American or Hispanic consumers because they were loosely targeting ethnic groups in this way. Talk about a disconnect!

This type of non-strategy began to evolve in the 1990s and 2000s when a few forward thinking brands like Sprite and Nike began to do their homework. Their research led them to understand and unapologetically tap into the power and influence of the multicultural consumer. The majority of large brands did not adopt this approach but they began to pay attention. Slowly, sometimes painfully, large brands began to shift their thinking -- and their dollars -- by hiring multicultural agencies to develop strategies that led with ethnic insight, yet focused more on the beliefs and behaviors that consumers share, as opposed to the silos and differences that keep them apart. And these strategies and partnerships began to pay off in indisputable ways.

Here's what many brands learned: Beyond the numbers and slightly more difficult to quantify is the influence that multicultural consumers, especially African Americans, have on the masses. While the African American segment is the smallest in terms of population and buying power, they are in fact the most influential in terms of their propensity to create and embrace trends, brands and products that ultimately appeal to the masses. Of the three, the African American segment is the only segment that deeply and consistently influences the other two (Hispanic and general market). Technology and social media in particular, have changed the influence game and further amplified the ability of multicultural consumers to impact the opinions, behaviors and buying habits of the general population. What once would take months, if not years, to move from the arbiters of urban cool to the masses, can now be accomplished in weeks, days and sometimes even hours. Today, many brands understand that it is no longer good enough to "reach" the multicultural consumer. Brands must strive to be relevant and seek to resonate culturally. They must become part of the dialogue versus creating a monologue via mass media communication vehicles where the consumers voice is silent. That dialogue includes respecting and understanding the culture and values of these diverse segments. It's listening versus selling; it's asking versus assuming.

It has become a business imperative to seek common ground with multicultural audiences. Brands that are true thought leaders are not only embracing the importance of making their relationship with multicultural consumers a priority, they are leveraging the impact and influence of these consumers to shape and drive their broader general market efforts. The days of "give me a Black History Month program, an Hispanic Heritage Month program, a little Spanish and a few people of color in my creative and I'm good" are gone.

In this new and evolving marketing world, brands have to move beyond the questions of what's Black & Brown about their strategy, if such a strategy even exists. To connect fully with African American and Hispanic consumers, innovative brands must seize the opportunity to tap into a universal influence by truly understanding the cultural context. They need to touch the multicultural consumers' emotional and rational cortex and then allow the true influencers to motivate masses of global consumers to engage and ultimately impact sales." Yes, it is the end of the world as we know it...and I feel fine.

-- Ahmad Islam & Sherman Wright are co-founders and managing partners of Chicago-based marketing agency, commonground.