Goodbye, General Market
Try this: get an almanac, find the page detailing the Western Hemisphere but without national boundaries. Just the landmasses. Turn it on its side so the top of the page is east, and the side closest you is west. Don’t try to identify the U.S. or any other country. What you see there is an amorphous landmass with some big lakes on it near a big island covered with ice. It should be unrecognizable. It should wake you up to how arbitrary our ideas are about who we are and where we live.
There is a great short novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, a writer who often deals with amorphous gender, race and ethnic identities in her speculative fiction. The story, "The Lathe of Heaven," is about a man who can change simply by dreaming. He has no control over this, of course, since he can't control his dreams (though a megalomaniacal psychiatrist can, and does.) One night, he dreams that there are no races -- that everyone's the same. The next morning everyone is grey. His girlfriend, African-American, himself, white, everyone: grey.
In the marketing and advertising world, there is a demographic target comprising people who are grey. This is called the general market, and its traditional parameters are becoming invalid as the country becomes more and more diverse and urban.
Most marketers know these 2010 Census numbers, but they're worth repeating: The Hispanic population increased by 15.2 million between 2000 and 2010, accounting for over half of the 27.3 million increase in the total population of the United States. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population grew by 43%, which was four times the growth in the total population at 10%. And most also know these Pew numbers: by 2050, people who identify as white will be 47% of the population versus 67% now. Hispanics will be 29%, Asians 9%, African-Americans 13%.
New York is a good place to consider this ethno-racial blend we're heading toward. If you live in my part of Brooklyn or any part of New York but the Upper East Side, between like 42nd and East 86th, you don't need to be told that New York is a city of mixed ethnicities populated by people of whom one in seven are of themselves of mixed ethnicity.
A Thursday morning show on NPR affiliate WNYC dealing with this honed in on people who identify as being of mixed racial or ethnic background, however they define those terms. The station had run a social media campaign asking these New Yorkers to explain in six words what mixed-heritage meant to them.
Public advocate-elect Leticia James posted separately that the correct word is not mixed but "blended," and she considered herself such because her grandfather (I think it was) was part Caucasian. People called in, giving their six words and explaining their experiences. One man, who is half African-American and half-white, said he considered himself neither. A half-filipino, half-Caucasian man said he considers himself white but nobody else does. A woman who was half-Chinese said she considers herself Jewish. The takeaway from this is that race and ethnic identity as a marketing directive is dangerous if it's treated simplistically.
And a marketing and agency organization committed to the idea that diversity marketing should be an addendum to a generic, grey-market campaign is in trouble. The challenge is how to make racial and ethnic diversity central to strategy rather than something peripheral. That allows much deeper thinking at the outset about who your audience really is, rather than who you imagine it is.
The benefit, if nothing else, is that if you are compelled at the outset to think about race, identity and ethnic alignment, you are forced to ditch the all-too-frequent idealization syndrome. You know -- it's the one where you describe your target as something like "the thoughtful go-getter" or "the retro thought-leading change agent" or whatever.
Toyota -- and it isn’t alone -- has rearranged its marketing and agency operations to adjust to a more realistic and forward-thinking perspective on the people who inhabit this land mass. It has turned the map on its side.