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By Pan Demetrakakes - 01/01/2014

There are multiple approaches to multicultural marketing.

In the "old days"–which still exist in many stores–it was as simple as translating signs and labels into another language. Then it became a matter for a designated individual, or a team in larger organizations, who offered advice and recommendations that may or may not have been followed.

Today the multicultural approach du jour is "total market," which purports to be a way to bring multiculturalism–for whatever cultures are prevalent in a given service area– into the mainstream of a company's marketing approach. Perhaps the most high-profile proponent of the total market multicultural approach is Walmart, whose senior VP for brand marketing and advertising, Tony Rogers, told attendes at the Association of National Advertisers annual Multicultural Marketing & Diversity Conference that his company was going to "blow up" its multicultural budget.

"Take the multicultural budget out of a silo and push it out into the business units," Rogers said. "[And] you've got to protect the budget and make sure it doesn't just dissolve away."

According to some observers, this has the potential to be a superior alternative to the "ghettoization" of multiculturalism. Sloughing off responsibility for including other cultures and ethnicities onto just one or several individuals is often ineffective. But it's tempting because it's a quick and easy way for a company or an ad agency to say they're "multicultural," says Graciela Eleta, a senior adviser with Acosta Sales and Marketing.

"Sloughing off responsibility for including other cultures and ethnicities onto just one or several individuals is often ineffective. But it's tempting because it's a quick and easy way for a company or an ad agency to say they're 'multicultural.'"

– Graciela Eleta,

Acosta Sales and Marketing

They can say, "'I have this person sitting over here in a cube who speaks the language, and I can provide that for you.' When in reality, it takes a lot more than that," Eleta says.

On the other hand, it's equally tempting to take an inadequate approach that doesn't involve designating a given individual or team as multicultural, and calling that "total market."

"The wrong way is really the easiest way," Eleta says. "It's the least expensive way and requires the least resources. So it becomes very tempting for marketers and business leaders to assume a total market approach and then execute it wrong. They start with the assumption that, oh you know what, Latinos are acculturating at a very fast why don't I just look at them as part of my general market, meaning my non-Hispanic group, and give them the same products and packages and advertising and social media and retail distribution."

Kelly Ravestijn, director of strategic planning for the Cultur8 division of Dallas-based ad agency Dieste, agrees that when it comes to multicultural marketing, "total market" should not equate to "do the same old thing."

"If it's a way to justify one-size-fits-all practice, that's really not sustainable," Ravestijn says. "For others, it's kind of a forced assimilation of multicultural consumers, which is also a kind of false reality. These and others are what we call lazy shortcuts in talking to a diverse nation."


Tracy Galindo is managing director of Roselle, Ill.-based marketing consultancy GT Universe, and a multicultural and specialty marketing consultant to Jewel-Osco and Albertsons in southern California. She agrees that the choice between the total market and targeted approaches needs to be made on an ad-hoc basis.

"There's really no right or wrong answer when it comes to a total market strategy versus a targeted multicultural approach," Galindo says. "In fact, both can and should come into play, and both can be implemented successfully, even within the same programming."

Marketers and retailers have to decide on a case-by-case basis how much their approach to Hispanics and other ethnicities will parallel their general approach, and how much to vary it. In some cases, the marketing messages will vary; in others, they'll be similar, and the point of differentiation will be the choice of media.

"Sometimes, in some products and some brands, [you need to] lead with multicultural insights. For others, multicultural does behave very similar to the general market, so you do have the theory of total market solution. But it's not a one-size-fits-all [approach]; it doesn't apply to everything."

– Kelly Ravestijn,


"Sometimes, in some products and some brands, [you need to] lead with multicultural insights," Ravestijn says. "For others, multicultural does behave very similar to the general market, so you do have the theory of total market solution. But it's not a one-size-fits-all [approach]; it doesn't apply to everything."

The question of a uniform versus a targeted approach to different cultures is one that pervades many aspects of retailing, including merchandising, hiring practices and employee training, marketing, advertising and product selection.

Perhaps merchandising is the most basic decision. The classic approach is to segregate Hispanic or other "ethnic" products in their own aisle. The alternative, of course, is to group products, both ethnic and "mainstream," together by category.

Galindo says on that question, "My favorite analogy as I've heard it referred to by manufacturers is a 'home game' vs. an 'away game.' For example, by having refried beans, pinto beans and frijoles charros available in the same area as the baked beans, kidney beans and lentils, you are opening all shoppers to options they might not have even known they were interested in...The advantages of an integrated approach are plentiful, much like that of a 'home game.'"

She adds, "It all comes down to analyzing the demographics surrounding your store, and shopping habits as a whole–ideally, a store might have the highest-indexing ethnic items in their own aisle, merchandised in an exciting way with recipe cards available and special POS. However, in that same store, you may also find imported cookies from Mexico next to the Oreos, imported nectars next to juices, etc."

Ravestijn agrees that demographics and cross-cultural appeal are the keys to deciding whether to dedicate aisles to "ethnic" products, but not in the way one might think.

"I would never propose to move away from those [segregated aisles], although a lot of Hispanic-influenced products have obviously infiltrated everywhere," she says. "It's not an outdated approach, but the intention for the retailer has to shift. So it's really no longer about servicing or drawing in a particular consumer set, but it's more about the diversity that all ethnicities are looking for."

She notes that in the Fiesta Foods grocery chain, which caters to Hispanic-, Asian- and African-American-themed products are common. Conversely, for a mainstream supermarket, a segregated aisle would work better as a way to attract consumers of ethnicities different from the one associated with those products.

"The shift that our world has made is that we're becoming not only a more diverse nation but also an exploratory nation," Ravestijn says. "I really think the [segregated] aisle is intended for those who are not part of the culture than those who are, most of the time."


Closely related to merchandising is the question of how to handle languages other than English inside the store. The decision on whether to invest in bilingual (or multilingual) in-store signage and employees depends, obviously, on the demographics of your customer base. The question then becomes, what's the tipping point?

"Three main factors to consider when determining an approach with bilingualism are the demographics surrounding your store, your current shopper base, and your competitors in the area," Galindo says. "If the Hispanic population in the 45 percent, consider ensuring that 45 percent of your employee base is comfortable understanding and speaking in Spanish. By that same token, take a look at your current shopper base–are at least 45 percent of your shoppers on a given day Hispanic? If not, where are they shopping instead, and what can you do to entice this market?"

Eleta would set the threshold even lower: "If you have in your store anywhere close to 20 percent of Latino shoppers, start thinking about whether you need bilingual signage in your store."

After that, she says, stores should consider bilingual cashiers and other employees, especially at the meat and bakery counters, where Latinos tend to spend more than the population as a whole: "You focus your bilingual efforts in those areas, and you hire from the community, so that the store becomes very representative of the community."

Marketing and advertising in a foreign language is another area that demands careful balancing. One major question is the choice of media.

Galindo, who has worked in promotions and marketing for Spanish-language radio stations, says that "just like all media, radio continues to evolve with the times, and what was once considered a standard radio buy is continually extending to a full 360 approach, with television, social, mobile, online and in-store experiences all available at one source."

Another issue, obviously, is content. Advertising in foreign languages can be tricky, not simply because of translation challenges. An important issue is how much, if at all, to vary the message between English and the other language.

Speaking at a 2010 conference sponsored by Hispanic Retail 360, a sister publication to Retail Leader, Ana Grace, site manager for, said that bilingual consumers don't like differences. "They said: 'We don't feel we can trust your company if you show me something different than what you have on your English site,'" Grace said.

Another consideration for multicultural advertising is multi-racial families. Those are as rare in American advertising today as people of color were 50 or 60 years ago–and they can generate the same kind of unfortunate reactions. When General Mills aired a Cheerios ad last summer that depicted an African American father, Caucasian mother and their biracial daughter, YouTube disabled the comments section due to insensitive racial remarks.

Teja Arboleda is the president and creative director of Entertaining Diversity, an organization that specializes in diversity, inclusion and multicultural training through media and live events. He's interested in the "blended American" consumer, which is somewhat of a personal issue for him: He is of African-American, Native American and Filipino-Chinese extraction on his father's side and German-Danish on his mother's. He spent most of his childhood in Japan. He and his wife have two adopted daughters, who are ethnically Chinese. He sees simple inclusiveness in advertising as taking a step in the right direction.

"For my family, when we see an ad that features a family that doesn't look like just the standard white family, or Asian family, or black family, or whatever that's supposed to mean...just by seeing that retailers are reaching out to consumers that do not look like what we expect in the media, that's a deep appreciation," he says. When mixed-race families see mixed-race families in the media, "There is a 'huh!' level of response: 'These people are reaching out to me.'"