6 ideas for evolving multicultural marketing beyond a checkbox

Industry execs share fundamental truths on how brands can better represent and engage multicultural audiences: by Ethan Jakob Craft. Published on October 28, 2020.


Ad Age Town Hall participants …Top row (l-r): Andrea Carrasquel, Tumblr; Vinay Shahani, Toyota; Yari Blanco, Twitter; Ryan Robertson, Popeyes; Lewis Williams, Burrell Communications Group. Middle (l-r): Gilbert Davila, DMI and ANA; Isaac Mizrahi, Alma DDB. Bottom row (l-r): Jill M. Kelly, GroupM U.S.; Kimberly Paige, BET Networks; Sarah Squiers, Univision; Tiffany Edwards, Droga5; Soon Mee Kim, Omnicom PR Group.

This week, Ad Age assembled a distinguished group of leaders and thinkers from advertising, marketing and media to discuss the current state of multicultural marketing and to share insights, approaches and ideas for how brands and agencies can do a better job of representing and engaging with increasingly diverse audiences.

Below, we break down six fundamental ideas to emerge from the sessions.

Embrace the evolving ethnic landscape

Once upon a time, casting Black actors to play a family in a TV commercial would have satisfied many agencies’ definitions of multicultural marketing. But the reality is that such incomprehensive, surface-level strategies fail to address the inequities and complexities of reaching the modern American population, which the U.S. Census Bureau predicts may be minority white as early as 2044. “How do you go from multicultural marketing to marketing to a multicultural nation?” asks Kimberly Paige, executive VP and chief marketing officer at BET Networks. For her, it must start with data; key insights that can support a “paradigm shift” away from the mindset of one-off, box-ticking campaigns, and instead may bring marketers to embrace the country’s evolving ethnic landscape from a more complete perspective. “If you’re using casting as your multicultural strategy, you’ve really missed the mark,” she adds.

Close the gap between saying and doing

This year, consumers are hyper-aware of brands’ reactions to social justice issues and are unafraid to call them out for missteps or unkept commitments. “I think this particular generation, when we talk about Gen Z as an example, is definitely going to hold us accountable,” says Soon Mee Kim, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer and executive VP at Omnicom Public Relations Group. “And so, whatever we say, we’ve got to do. We’ve got to close that say-do gap.” For many brands, neutrality is no longer the safest path; from informal lists compiled via social media to purpose-built online trackers, the public wants to know what the companies they rely on are up to. “I think we have a consumer base that is more aware and woke than ever before,” says Tiffany Edwards, Droga5’s global head of diversity and inclusion.

Understand that multicultural marketing is marketing

With growing non-white populations in the U.S., the line between the general market and the multicultural market is increasingly blurred, and brand leaders must be agile when dealing with that nuance. In other words, the distinction of a general-market approach in adland is quickly becoming outdated, as cultural, racial and ethnic groups take on a mainstream consumer profile. “There’s that saying, ‘You make time for the things that are important.’ Well, swap out ‘time’ for ‘money.’ You find money for things that are important,” says GroupM U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Jill M. Kelly. In 2020, agencies and brands no longer have the ignorant luxury of thinking about multiculturalism as “a line item on an Excel sheet”—a small piece of a much larger general budget, as it once was—and instead must look ahead to what the consumer of 2025 is going to demand, she says. “If you’re not doing multicultural marketing today, you’re not doing marketing.”

Hire diverse talent and empower them to succeed

With regard to race, gender and cultural background, much has been made in recent years about diversifying the makeup of creative agencies, but those commitments to traditionally marginalized groups are all but meaningless if no genuine progress is made with retaining and advancing diverse talent. And even with the recent scramble to hire chief diversity, equity and inclusion officers at several agencies, many town hall participants say not enough is being done to advance opportunities for talent of color in the marketing industry. “This is not about not being able to find talent, it’s about creating space for them to succeed within agencies,” says Tiffany Edwards, Droga5’s first global head of diversity and inclusion. “I think the two go hand-in-hand together: You have to create a pipeline and hire diverse talent, and once they’re in house, you have to give them a seat at the table and a voice.”

Explore the nuances within your audience—one size never fits all

Multicultural communities in the United States are not monoliths, and with that in mind, marketers should exercise restraint in using one-size-fits-all approaches when addressing non-white consumers. “The [Latinx] demographic is constantly changing,” says Andrea Carrasquel, head of brand partnerships at Tumblr, who notes that factors such as bilingualism, age and geography are all worth considering when approaching the multicultural public. In appealing to the U.S. Hispanic population, for example, marketers should “think a little more local” and recognize the difference between speaking to a consumer of Mexican heritage in Texas versus someone from the Cuban diaspora in Florida or from New York’s Puerto Rican and Dominican communities, Carrasquel says.

Don’t defend or excuse your mistakes—own them

It’s inevitable that brands will make mistakes. The bar consumers have set for brands is higher than ever before, and whether it’s a tone-deaf campaign or failing to address a social crisis, marketers should prepare for the occasional misstep and its blowback. But, in many cases, the brand response to an error is watched 10 times more closely than the original mistake itself. “A lot of times, brands don’t know how to respond [to mistakes] appropriately because they don’t have the right people internally,” says Yari Blanco, senior manager of multicultural partnerships at Twitter, who adds that ignoring missteps, being defensive or giving excuses can all break consumers’ hard-earned, harder-to-repair trust. To avoid making many of the industry’s most common mistakes, she believes it’s critical for marketers to use a multicultural lens when decisions are being made. “If you don’t have the right people in the room that feel empowered and have agency,” she says, “no one’s going to call you out in that boardroom and be like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this, because I see the iceberg.’”