Multicultural marketing can be a minefield

By Thuy-Doan Le


The stumbles have been memorable. There was the California state agency that printed fliers for Korean-speaking audiences but used the Korean characters upside down.
Or a now-defunct airline's advertisement in Spanish touting that its first-class passengers sit "en cuero," in leather seats. But to Spanish speakers, the phrase can also mean "in the buff."
And there was last year's uproar when Victoria's Secret tried cashing in on Asian influences by using Buddha's image on a line of bikini wear. It sparked international outrage.
From local businesses to national retailers, the art of marketing to America's increasingly diverse marketplace can be a land mine.
During a recent multicultural business forum in Sacramento, Calif., business owners were warned about the potential for pitfalls, including mistranslation, mixed messages and unintended slights due to ignorance of cultural norms.
The stakes are huge.
Nationwide, the combined buying power of black, Hispanic, Asian and Indian consumers will total an estimated $2.7 trillion by 2010, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
"Ten years ago, only a handful of companies recognized diversity as a priority," said Velma Sykes, executive director of the Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce. "Today, the business climate has changed. More companies are placing increased emphasis on diversity as a revenue driver."
Given the nation's changing demographics, "It's irresponsible and ignorant to continue to ignore consumers' cultural nuances and communities that are composing the lion's share of the market," said Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, CEO of Enlace Communications, a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in Latino marketing.
But jumping into the multicultural game is not always easy. It's a mistake for businesses to take marketing materials aimed at English-speaking audiences and translate them without considering the cultural differences, said Natalie Rouse, the Northern California ethnic marketing manager for cable TV company Comcast, which has more than 20 non-English-language channels.
"The look, feel, color and layout may not be relevant to the culture they are marketing to," she said. For instance, companies may send out a red newsletter to indicate "stop, this is important." But for some Asian cultures, red is considered a lucky color and does not carry the same sense of urgency.
"You've got to think about who your customers are," she said. "You have to embrace their culture. Once you do that, that's where you make the money. So, stop and think before you translate."
Newman-Carrasco, the Latino marketing CEO, has seen the need for careful translation.
"Sometimes if it's not in your language, it doesn't hit you that wrong is wrong," she said.
In addition to employing a diverse staff, businesses should collaborate with outside organizations and nonprofit groups to reach their targeted audience, Sykes said, noting that nationally, blacks spend more than $700 billion annually, according to the Selig study.
In the past, people reached out to ethnic communities as a "feel-good thing," but now, it's a business opportunity, said Alice Perez, Latino market leader for US Bank. The Selig statistics peg the U.S. Hispanic population's purchasing power at more than $730 billion in 2005.
A common mistake, she said, is assuming all people within an ethnic community are the same. Not all Latinos are Mexicans, and not all Asians are Chinese, she said. Businesses have to be sensitive to different dialects and regions.
Businesses should also avoid stereotypes, said Diana M. Borroel, president of the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce. "Hispanic culture is not just tacos and burritos or mariachis."
Being culturally sensitive includes being aware of symbolism in other cultures, such as not sending a bouquet of white roses as a celebratory gesture to a client. The problem? In some Asian cultures, white flowers are a symbol of funerals, not celebrations.