Marketing diversity

It's no longer a Cosby and Cheers black-and-white entertainment world. From 24's African-American president (last season) to DeGrassi's ethnically diverse junior highers, TV casting now reflects real-life diversity better than ever before. In fact, among younger demographics, multiracial imagery is considered downright cool.

It’s no longer a Cosby and Cheers black-and-white entertainment world. From 24′s African-American president (last season) to DeGrassi’s ethnically diverse junior highers, TV casting now reflects real-life diversity better than ever before. In fact, among younger demographics, multiracial imagery is considered downright cool.

It’s no wonder, then, that the marketing industry has followed suit. In 2001, strategy bemoaned the lack of visible minorities in advertising. Fast-forward to 2005 and the scenario is quite different, at least when it comes to multiculturalism. Many blue-chip marketers like Ikea, Scotiabank, CIBC, McDonald’s and Molson are regularly reflecting Canada’s various ethnicities in ads. The latter three have even depicted interracial relationships in recent TV spots.

However, when it comes to speaking to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community, most marketers still prefer to do so on GLBT consumers’ own turf. More on that later.

A significant trend towards ‘inclusive multicultural advertising’ is not just because companies want to engage in corporate responsibility, believes Bobby Sui, president of Infoworth, a Toronto-based multicultural marketing consultancy. It’s because such an approach can help marketers capture a greater percentage of market share.

‘It’s more cost effective and reaches a wider audience without alienating the traditional mainstream audience,’ explains Sui. ‘It’s not a niche market any more, especially in urban centres like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.’ That’s for sure. According to the 2001 Census, the immigrant population in Canada has reached 5.4 million, accounting for the highest recorded share of the country’s population (18.4%) since 1931.

And younger consumers are much more tolerant than their predecessors, adds Sui. ‘It’s part of their lives, as opposed to people in their 60s, who are used to a more segregated situation. The new generation has grown up with [minorities].’

Toronto-based Scotiabank is one major advertiser that has shifted its policy in favour of more inclusivity in recent years. Jim Tobin, director of marketing programs and operations, has been with the bank for almost a decade. ‘I’ve seen a seismic shift in how we communicate to customers,’ he concedes. ‘Certainly the multicultural diversity aspect of it has grown. Clearly, it was not once like that.’

In 2001, Scotiabank established a new brand philosophy, and part of it included ‘image criteria’ that mandated advertising must ‘reflect the ethnic diversity of customers.’

Says Tobin: ‘I think it all works toward making the brand relevant. … If we want our brand to be accepted as a true reflection, we must show the customers as they are – anything else would not ring true.’

This policy is clearly manifested in two recent ads by Toronto agency Bensimon*Byrne: ‘Coat rack’ stars an African-Canadian male bank staffer helping a woman save more money, while ‘Hug’ depicts an Asian-Canadian female employee.

Tobin says the campaign ‘raised the bar in terms of recall, recognition and brand linkage.’ Certainly Scotiabank’s doing something right: based on market capitalization, it is number one among the Big Five in Canada, and has ranked number one in customer service for the last five years.

Like Tobin, Nandini Venkatesh, marketing manager at Ikea, believes it would be an enormous oversight to lack diversity representation in communications. She says in certain geographic regions where Ikea is present, there are significant populations of minority groups, like the store in Richmond, B.C., which attracts a significantly higher proportion of Chinese-Canadian consumers.

‘It would be ludicrous to ignore them, not only in terms of numbers within the population base, but also their influence among consumption patterns within the mainstream.’

Venkatesh refers to the fact that other cultures are leading mainstream design trends, as indicated by the rich, jewel tones inspired by South Asia and clean lines of Oriental influence that are so hot right now.

It also makes it easier for a global company to transport marketing materials, such as Ikea’s catalogue, elsewhere. Adds Venkatesh: ‘We operate in 30 countries, very few of which have a homogenous society today. It makes perfect sense to reflect the composition base.’

One community that rarely sees its members depicted in mainstream ads is the GLBT population. Part of the problem is that research on this group is still vague. According to PMB’s one-year readership database, 1.1% of Canadians fall into the same-sex partnership/preference category.

But there are also clear benefits to engaging this market. First, there’s greater disposable income (PMB data shows that 1 in 3 respondents in a same-sex partnership/preference have a household income of $50,000 or more); then there’s the fact that the community is fiercely loyal to brands that show them respect. ‘It extends into the value of lifelong customers for [brands like] financial institutions and car companies,’ says Shane Wagg, founder of GLBT marketing consultancy Wilde Marketing.

Still, the larger challenge facing marketers who would like to engage this group is the fear that staunchly conservative Canadians wouldn’t respond well – leading to the loss of customers. ‘These companies have to put their bottom lines front and centre,’ Wagg admits. He says traditional marketers like Procter & Gamble and Royal Bank have faced boycotts in the States and Canada – and that’s for approaching this group via targeted media.

So how’s a marketer to walk this fine line? Wagg points to a recent Amex ad featuring Ellen DeGeneres. ‘She has huge awareness. She doesn’t talk about being gay on her show, yet she doesn’t hide it on the red carpet. It’s a huge win for American Express, because they are able to appeal to both, without exploiting or alienating the other market. They’ve done it brilliantly.’

The TV spot, which launched in the U.S. last November, is part of an initiative meant to deliver the message that ‘achievers of all types choose American Express.’ Robert DeNiro, Tiger Woods and surfer Laird Hamilton are the other spokespeople for the campaign, which carries the tagline ‘My life. My card.’ The ads will break in Canada and other countries in the very near future.

But the experience of one brave marketer suggests that short-term pain can equal long-term gain when it comes to marketing to this segment. A couple of years ago, Vancouver-based VanCity Credit Union decided it was going to ‘come out’ in support of gays and lesbians – and they were going to do it in the Vancouver Sun and Province. It was possibly the first time a Canadian marketer embraced GLBT consumers in the mainstream. The newspaper adverts featured a same-sex couple and the tagline ‘I want to bank with people who value all partnerships.’

Says Kelly McNeill-Sproxton, manager of segment marketing: ‘We wanted to express our support in a mainstream way. That’s something we learned in research – that we’d have to come out publicly and acknowledge the community.’ McNeill-Sproxton explains that while VanCity had always sponsored events like Pride in the past, focus groups suggested a more noteworthy act was required to take their support to the next level.

Public reaction was negative – at first – and the credit union ran into issues with the Catholic Church. But in terms of broad-brush results, ‘we gained more than we lost … [and] it was absolutely worth it,’ she says. The numbers would indicate so: after running the campaign, created by Vancouver-based Grey Worldwide in 2002, VanCity increased its membership by 23% in 2003, and the company was also rated one of the most respected companies in B.C. by Ipsos-Reid because of its values.

‘Certainly we’ve done our research in terms of understanding that this community is significant and a strong force, being that they are financially well off,’ says McNeill-Sproxton. ‘It was a significant opportunity to take our historical support and ramp it up a bit.’