Is the distinction between general market and diversity market already obsolete? And do marketers really understand who they are talking about when they use terms like Hispanic and African-American? Those were central questions that a panel of consultants, marketers and agency account directors tangled with this week at "A Cultural Map of the New America," a discussion at the Paley Center for Media in New York.
The participants -- including Jessica Faye Carter, CEO of Nette Media; Guy Garcia, founder and CEO of Mentametrix, Inc.; Maria Lopez-Knowles, EVP of Digital Strategy at GlobalHue -- agreed that the worst thing marketers can do is wait for some magic watershed moment a few years down the pike when the minority becomes the majority.
"We have a lexicon challenge," said Carter, who argued that pat definitions of demographic language ignore nuances. "We have this term 'diversity,' but people have much more layered identities," she said. "There has been a fundamental cultural shift in how people view themselves. We identify ourselves as more than one thing."
Carter offered the example of the character of the U.S. president in the new series "The Event." The role is played by African-American actor Blair Underwood, but he is depicted as the first Cuban president of the U.S. "Are agencies prepared to deal with people of layered identity?" Carter, using herself as an example, said she most strongly identifies herself as a New Englander. "Though to look at me, you'd say, 'She's an African-American female.' But being from New England informs my world view."
She said that in general, marketers are missing the trees for the forest by defining vast swatches of the diversity market in traditional ways -- African-American, urban, Hispanic youth -- but missing other cross sections. "Multicultural women, for example, are not looked at. It's a huge market opportunity, but nobody looks to women from the perspective of different ethnicities; we see women as a single silo."
Garcia argued that thinking and language lag reality. "Traditionally, Hispanics would use TV to learn how to be American. They watch CNN, TBS, CBS. And we found white Americans are watching Univision to learn how to be multicultural. Really. It's a paradigm shift.
"Hispanics don't even relate to being called Hispanic. Increasingly, the so-called Spanish-language networks are now trans-lingual -- they are transcending identity." He said that the fastest-growing populations at historically black colleges and universities are actually Hispanics and whites.
Garcia said getting nuances wrong will cost marketers market share and money in the so-called general market. "This is a watershed," he said. "For the first time ever, the bulk of growth of buying power in the general market is coming from multicultural consumers," said Garcia. "Right now, companies I'm talking to are trying to figure out how to square with fact that the greatest growth even in English-language segments of the population is Hispanic. There's a three- or four-dimensional picture of what's happening."
All agreed that marketers should loosen their purse strings now to research their diversity consumers. "They need to be learning, discovering, auditing their consumer base, looking at households, what languages are being spoken within generations, who is playing with cell phones, what are their media habits," said Lopez-Knowles.