I’ve been working in multicultural market research for over twenty years. I remember, in 2000, when Hispanics overtook African Americans as the largest minority group in the United States. I remember the Language Wars, when we all argued about what the right language was to reach LatinX people (Hell, we certainly didn’t see the term LatinX coming in 2000!), a population that was becoming increasingly U.S. born. I chimed in during the whole Total Market debate, the "we can reach everybody" phase; it never seemed right to me.
But in my twenty years doing this, I’ve never seen anything as big as what is happening, post- the lynching of George Floyd. As corporate America scrambles to take a stand and get it right – and we’ve seen some big mistakes already (this means you, Starbucks) – agencies, all agencies, are going to have to figure out what multicultural marketing means in this New America.
When I started in this business, the mantra was “Do multicultural marketing, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do.” Companies needed to understand that the demographics of the country were changing. It wasn’t the old black and white binary that had been with the nation since day one. The Latino population was exploding. To ignore Hispanic consumers was to get left behind. And let’s face it. This was not a good time for African American agencies. We lost a lot of them.
With Total Market came another shift, especially for agencies positioned as being just Hispanic. Agencies needed to show that they had the capabilities to do all the multicultural segments. As a gay person, it was fun to watch everyone adding LGBTQ capabilities to their mix. Asian was a bit trickier, because of the multiple languages, but yes, “We do Asians too,” was the cry to be heard from coast to cast. Anyway, a few scars later, and I think most of us would agree that Total Market died a long awaited death.
The rules just changed, however -- big time -- after a rapt nation witnessed George Floyd, with a policeman’s knee on his neck, gasping for air, struggling unsuccessfully to save his own life. That was a lynching. In 2020, for all of us to see. And from this point forward, there is no going back.
The reason for being of corporations has always been to make money. And marketing will always be about helping companies maximize their return on investment in order to grow brands. But African Americans and their allies have had it. The new mantra is clear and simple: What are you doing to fix a very big problem? What are you doing to show your consumers that black lives matter?
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen monumental change. The NFL apologized and committed billions of dollars to fight racial injustice. Ben & Jerry’s, never a stranger to social justice, is taking on slavery, Jim Crow, and white privilege. Nike, no stranger to the struggle, launched an ad, adjusting the brand’s tagline to "For Once, Don't Do It," imploring its customers to stop pretending “there’s not a problem in America”. Starbucks says no Black Lives Matter apparel for employees, back tracks, and now is being targeted by many for a boycott.
This is big. And tricky. Way bigger and trickier than Total Market ever was.
In the words of Angela Davis, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist." Today, those words apply to all of us. All of us that care about this country. And I hate to say it, but all those that care about revenue and profits.
Where are we going in marketing? Companies better take a stand. Specifically, companies need to take a stand on Black Lives Matter. Statements need to be made and dollars committed. But that’s not going to be enough. As we enter this time of, well, revolution, it’s going to take total commitment.
Multicultural agencies, your hour has arrived. Companies need you. America needs you. We need you, to guide your clients, to help us all achieve a greater good. Each multicultural agency will need to immerse itself in the history, the mindset, and the how-to of advancing social change. You’ll have to achieve this while much of white America reacts, rebels, and rejects the loss of its privilege. A tough battle lies ahead.
Are we up for the challenge? As marketers? As Americans? We have no choice.