Welcome to the Age of Otherness
February 29th | 2016

“We need a multicultural pillar,” a client said to a group of us recently, responding to our initial crack at strategic territories.

She was quick – and correct – to call out the missing category in our discussion. For her business today, focusing on one or two key minority demographics is essential, and can require a separate line of strategic thinking. Had we completely missed something in our preparations for this work session?

At the time, we were simply looking at the beginnings of a strategic framework from different angles – part of the alignment that takes place during the radical collaboration we engage in with our clients. But here, our client’s observation also called forth a larger shift in the role of multicultural marketing. Today, multiculturalism is often regarded as supplementary undertaking designed to meet a business opportunity within a minority segment. But it needs to become a fundamental component of how we conceive of markets, and therefore what brands mean in them.

In many ways, 2015 was an important year for otherness in American culture, with prominent examples of what it can mean to not belong to a group with social predominance. Within Republican presidential candidates, we saw multiple minority contenders, and even an example of mixed-ethnicity marriage; Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner illuminated complex notions of cis- and trans- identity for the broader American public; and pointed casting decisions in films likeMad Max: Fury Road or Star Wars: The Force Awakens made many a “men’s rights” activist squirm. To me, these outstanding examples demonstrate that as a model, treating cultural pluralism as something auxiliary or optional is already an insufficient means of dealing withotherness in American culture. And it won’t work in marketing for much longer.

Multivocality and the Marketplace

Within the practice of marketing, this shift reprioritizes multiculturalism for modern brands. For a company like Nike, multiculturalism has long been an essential component of the brand, available in everything it does. For most others, it’s less important, influencing on how the brand communicates under certain circumstances. Appointing a multicultural specialist or team to carry out larger initiatives is often a happy medium, one that’s worked well for Toyota in the United States.

Yet mass media approaches to multicultural marketing increasingly show an inability to cope with cultural complexity, even if they might foster success by business standards. For starters, multiculturalism is traditionally defined by race, language and ethnicity – characteristics that are regarded as unconditional forces in an individual’s life. But, as we’ve learned from the way issues of gender and sexual orientation have grown beyond notions of “communities” and into the realm of American culture as a whole, most identities demand that we look at our ideas of culture not as categories, but as spectra.

That heightened degree of multivocality in American culture is intimidating to marketers, and with good reason. Many Americans still struggle with the differences between being (linguistically) Hispanic and (geographically) Latino. While they’re often used interchangeably in the American context, mass media rarely addresses their complexity. Even within a defined Hispanic demographic, marketers too often gloss over the unique identities of, say, Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans.

Or, consider that 2.5% of Hispanics in America are black according toUS Census data. In light of non-Hispanic African American groups, Afro-Hispanic experience and identity may seem inefficient to address or too difficult to engage with. But the resulting hazard is that representation of Hispanics in marketing and communications can be whitened. Meanwhile, small but emerging “targets,” such as Asian Americans, are acknowledged on the basis of their upward mobility and increases in purchasing power. But the relationships between, say, Indian Americans and Chinese Americans presents a significant hazard for marketers – to say nothing of complex relationships within their collective identities.

These groups, and their ethnic identities, are perceived (and therefore targeted) with remarkable imprecision today. In food and grocery, for example, marketers continue to oversimplify categories, resulting in synopses like ###em. Even as a Scandinavian-Croatian-German male raised in Minnesota, I hope we can do more than make multicultural marketing about performing reductions. And the truth of the matter is that it will be much more effective for business if people like me – relatively close to the seat of power in American society – take the initiative to do so.

The Diversity Explosion

Marketers have good cause to take initiative now, to begin to develop the new muscle sets of multicultural marketing in an increasingly global and digital culture.

This fall, the percentage of minority students starting kindergarten will outnumber that of white children – a first in American history. The product of a similar occurrence in birth rates in 2011, this class of incoming kindergartners may represent the arrival of a sort of “green light” in America’s long journey to becoming a profoundly multicultural society. Having developed slowly over the past century, it will accelerate rapidly in the coming decades.

In as little as eight years, this “diversity explosion” will become conspicuous in America, as William Frey writes. Changes already underway – immigration, multiethnic marriage, and the birth of children with new relationships to nation and ethnic group – will change how we think about geography, he explains. Expanding beyond current cosmopolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles, an increasingly sophisticated “melting pot” will spill out across whole states and regions – especially as states like Illinois, Florida, and Texas also become more integrated over the next two decades.

Moreover, these demographic changes will broaden generational gaps, as multiracial identity among the youngest Americans becomes exponentially more complex via the conduits of marriage, family, and childbirth. And when that next generation of children grows up, the diversity explosion will continue to upend 20th century notions of labor and purchasing power with regards to race and ethnicity.

But many of these shifts began a decade or more ago, and they’re already becoming apparent when we look at Millennials’ attitudes about race. While by no means “post-racial,” the Millennial attitude more thoroughly recognizes the concept of race as a social (as opposed to biological) category than previous generations. But almost as importantly, this takes place at a time when the value of social categories is itself eroding. In part, this is because of the tendency of digital culture to encourage new mixtures, mash-ups, and bricolage–creating a whole from things that previously didn’t seem to belong together. In concert with Frey’s diversity explosion, these effects begin to outline a future portrait of American culture that is radically different than today’s. The profound shift in media and commerce we’re experiencing over the past decade will couple with cultural shifts outside these realms, producing astonishing new levels of fragmentation in the marketplace.

Making Multiculturalism the Vehicle for Brands

As both Frey and the US Census Bureau have projected, the dramatic effects of cultural diversity will begin to come into full display 20 to 30 years from now – an eternity for many marketers. But the magnitude and inevitability of this change may make it something like the next version of sustainability, an economic and moral imperative to be taken up by business. Like sustainability, planning ahead for the diversity explosion will likely be much less painful and expensive than responding to watershed moments in the future.

Internally, many companies have embraced goals for diversity within their own workforce, recognizing the value of the talent, experiences and cultural knowledge it brings to an organization. And there are a growing number of brands (and even entire industries) that are already treating multiculturalism a vehicle for the way they do business.

Those companies – brands like Nike and Toyota, Target, Allstate, Coca-Cola, Kaiser Permanente, and more – have succeeded at multicultural marketing in different ways, and with different motivations. And many of these best-in-class examples have failed in this realm as well. Still, they’ve learned along the way, and come to recognize the avenues through which their brands can thrive when they make efforts to serve and appeal to everyone.

By analogy, the current state of multicultural marketing is like a weightlifter flexing his or her shapely bicep – it only implies whole-body strength, and it really says nothing about endurance. We have to start making sure those multicultural muscles are good for more than a deadlift in an annual competition for total market share.

To do so, we must bring multicultural considerations forward and upward in our models and frameworks for strategic thinking, making them not just a finishing touch, but an integral part of those processes. If we’re going to be faced with a more sophisticated notion of multiculturalism in America – one that reflects real population change – multicultural marketing must change from an add-on approach to one that’s incorporated into the core components of how a brand defines itself and its actions. Campaigns that give representation to minorities, or pillars that designate them as external stakeholders in a brand–those are working for now. While culture is a vehicle for sales and communication, multiculturalism can be far more than that; it can be a vehicle for everything a brand stands for.