When niche marketing goes too far

Nov 04 2011 by David Livermore Print This Article

The $1.1 trillion buying power of Hispanic Americans hasn't gone unnoticed by many companies. Bi-lingual staff, Hispanic focus groups, and niche marketing plans have become standard fare for many U.S. businesses that are trying to tap the Hispanic market.

For example, Men's Warehouse is marketing traditional Hispanic guayabera shirts to Latino men. But Felipe Korzenny, director of the Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication at Florida State University, says they went too far. He says, "If I work in an office with American guys in America, I'm going to wear what they're wearing."

In September, when ESPN and the NFL celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month with a traditional Mexican song and dance at halftime, many Hispanics were ticked off that yet again, "Hispanic equals Mexican" in the minds of many Americans, even though there are twenty other countries in Latin America.

As one Hispanic blogger wrote, "I don't need a large media company and a professional sports organization telling me how and when to celebrate my heritage."

This is a far different kind of problem than companies that make no effort to adapt to cultural differences in taste and preference. And it's a contrast to the funny and sometimes horrifying attempts we've seen from cross-border marketing in the past. Take these, for example.

  • A U.S. software company that launched itself in China as an "underwear" company.
  • The "Got Milk?" campaign that was translated on a Mexico billboard as "Are you lactating?"
  • And the European company that couldn't get U.S. consumers to try their fruity dessert because it was called "Zit".

Accurate translations and cultural understanding are important for reaching new customers from various cultural backgrounds. But these traditional intercultural strategies aren't enough. The idea that knowledge about language and cultural specifics will translate into effective marketing campaigns is unrealistic. Instead, a more nuanced perspective is needed. This is where cultural intelligence comes in.

Cultural intelligence is a personal capability that includes understanding about various culture's values and preferences. But it also includes an agile capability that can adapt to the multiple layers and circumstances involved with any cross-cultural encounter or situation.

No one individual or demographic market can be reduced to a single story line. The culturally intelligent marketer will consider a variety of factors.

Understand Cultural Values but don't overdo it.
I was recently talking to a retirement benefits company that was advertising to Hispanics. Their advertisement mock-up pictured an older Hispanic couple who were enjoying life with their kids and grandkids. This was a good representation of the communal values of many Hispanics as compared to a retirement spent alone in a beach-community. But the company didn't over-extend their cultural-adaptation by using a bunch of forced Latino images and icons in the ad.

When selling to individuals, start with listening and ask a lot of questions.
When I moved overseas, I was frustrated by the assumptions some sales people made about what I wanted because I was an expat American. Don't assume that I want a home in the expat community and please don't avoid telling me about the spicy entrees on the menu. But do speak to me a bit more slowly because I'm not used to the different accents here yet. And please learn about my priorities so that you can direct me toward a good purchase.

Be discerning about how you use Focus Group Input
Ethnic and national culture is only one variable that predicts human behavior. Age, ideology, profession, and socioeconomic status can be just as powerful. Focus groups by their very nature provide a limited sampling. Pay attention to the findings but just treat it as only one source of input that's needed.

Recruit culturally intelligent staff and vendors
The most consistent finding from our research on organizations that are effective in multicultural contexts is that they're made up of individuals who have the personal capability to adapt to various cultures. A marketing campaign isn't irrelevant but it pales in contrast to having leaders, mid-level managers, and entry-level staff who can engage with people from niche markets with respect and effectiveness.

Remember, my experience at your store, with your receptionist, or looking at your website will say as much to me about what your view of me as your niche ad showing up on the sidelines of my Facebook page.

With a growing number of potential customers in emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India, and China, combined with the growing ethnic diversity in most domestic markets, organizations need a more disciplined approach to navigating the global marketplace. With cultural intelligence, niche marketing can be done in a way that both treats new customers with respect while also effectively connecting with their interests and needs.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.