Millennials are often described as considerably more open to cultural diversity than previous American generations. But new research shows that their reaction to multicultural messages is more complex than many marketers like to think.
The study, from agency CommongroundMGS and brand strategy firm Added Value Cheskin, was designed to probe the ways consumers react to the “total market” strategies, those that use a single overarching strategy to reach various ethnic and demographic segments. And it found that blanketed assumptions about diversity could be a misstep for brands. For example, Gen Y respondents are more likely than non-Millennials to say “I am only my true self when with people of the same race/ethnicity” (30% Gen Y, compared with 25% for non-Millennials). And they are somewhat less likely than older Americans to say they are “comfortable interacting with people of all races/ethnicities.”
Kristian May Stewart, SVP, strategy, analytics and research at Commonground/MGS, tells Marketing Daily what it may mean for marketers still struggling for the right mix of multicultural, polycultural and cross-cultural appeal in their ad campaigns.
Q. So what was the big surprise in this research?
A. We wanted to take a closer look at how we approach “total market,” and there was not a lot of conversation about how it was being received among consumers, especially Millennials. The most eye-opening finding is that we’ve heard so much about this generation, that they are idealists and diversity champions. But in fact, that wasn’t so. It was Gen X, depending on life stage, that was much more focused on this, and more receptive to more inclusive advertising.
Q. Could it be that Millennials are simply more honest, and that younger people talk more candidly about racial issues?
A. There is a level of candidness and honesty among Gen Y. And there is a much bigger frequency of conversations because of all the platforms they use. I think the reason older consumers were more at ease with messages of inclusion comes down to them having more life experience.
Q. Beyond the generational differences, what is the takeaway for large brands?
A. We found that authentic ethnic expression, when done right, can drive a brand's affinity and ultimately purchase intent.Ads that accurately portray people of different ethnicities got a 10% better brand opinion, and ads that showed “symbols/traits unique to my ethnicity” saw 18% better brand opinion. So cultural openness is a key indicator of where you stand as a brand. The role of culture affects brand vibrancy—look, for example, at Apple Music’s new spot with Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson and Mary J. Blige. What’s going on in culture impacts brand opinion, and that leads to greater interest and purchase intent.
Q. One brand that has gotten a lot of attention in recent years has been Cheerios, which features biracial and gay families, for example. Should brands be doing more of that type of messaging?
A. Yes, our study shows that more inclusive messages increase intent to purchase. TV networks are far ahead of brands, from “Orange Is the New Black” to “Empire.” Programming reflects what’s happening in the cultural world, and there’s a constant continuum. And brands have to keep up with that moving culture. When consumers perceive an authentic depiction of ethnicity and culture, that drives brand relevance, affinity and ultimately purchase intent.