Replacing The Acculturation Model

Hispanic marketing started out in the 1960s as an industry built around language — Spanish language media and advertising to reach recent immigrants to the United States. During the late 1980s, the concept of culture began to replace language as a key strategic foundation of most Hispanic and multicultural marketing. 

What is culture? According to Wikipedia, culture is defined as: 

“A way of life of a group of people — the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

The Acculturation Model

As the multicultural marketing industry shifted from focusing on language to culture, acculturation became the new paradigm. Acculturation describes the process in which members of one cultural group — namely Hispanic and Asian immigrants — adopt the beliefs and behaviors of another group (Hazuda, et al. 1988). The acculturation model was an evolution of the assimilation model that described how 1900s European immigrants actively replaced their home country customs with new American customs. Acculturation describes a process where immigrants acquire a new culture without foregoing another one. It is commonly represented as a three-segment model: 

  • Unacculturated – Immigrants navigating completely within their home country culture.
  • Partially Acculturated – Immigrants navigating within both their home country and new adopted country’s dominant culture.
  • Acculturated – Immigrants navigating completely within dominant mainstream culture.



This acculturation model has served as the strategic underpinning of most Hispanic – and Asian – marketing efforts for the last 30 years.

Shortcomings of the Acculturation Model

The acculturation model has started to show some cracks in the last 15 years. It was designed to address immigrant-driven diversity. With most Hispanic population growth now coming from native-born Hispanics, the relevance of a framework designed to explain an immigrant experience has increasingly become irrelevant.

Another knock is that it is overly simplistic, typically focusing on language usage to “flag” acculturation levels. The model is also one-directional and linear, assuming ethnic minority immigrants move from un-acculturated to partially-acculturated to acculturated on a linear, one-way path. Societal norms have also changed among ethnic minorities, particularly among Hispanic Millennials, who now evince different attitudes and beliefs towards culture. Namely they are proud of their cultural heritage and look to embrace it vs. assimilating into “mainstream” culture. 

Most importantly, acculturation assumes that culture is tightly tied to ethnicity. For example, that Hispanic culture was something only ethnic Hispanics lived within and embraced.

A New Model: Cross-culturalism

What happens when consumers of different ethnic backgrounds, who are not immigrants, not only acculturate, but also embrace multiple cultures, including those outside their ethnic background? This is what we’re starting to see with Millennials and their younger generational cohort Gen Z. The Futures Company has started to define a new model as polyculturalism – the extent to which consumers balance multiple cultures. 

I see this new construct as cross-culturalism, with a slightly revised definition: “The extent to which consumers adapt and balance multiple cultures.”

Cross-culturalism has been shaping trends in music and food for years (think Kogi tacos and reggaeton). It’s what’s starting to happen with language. I believe that this new model – cross-culturalism – can provide a much more effective framework to culturally understand and segment younger diverse Millennial and Gen Z consumers, and replace acculturation as the dominant strategic framework for multicultural marketing for the next 20 years.

3 comments about "Replacing The Acculturation Model".
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  1. Farnaz Wallace from Farnaz Global, LLC, October 2, 2015 at 2:39 p.m.

    I, for one, don't see the difference between multiculturalism, polyculturalism or cross-culturalism...folks who resist or deny multiculturalism will do the same with other terms and frameworks as well.  Still trying to get over Jeb Bush validating multiculturalism by definition, while denying the word itself.

  2. Jose Villa from Sensis replied, October 3, 2015 at 11:13 a.m.

    Farnaz - the real point of my article is to present an alternative to the acculturation model. I think the idea that immigrants or ethnic minorities simply just adapt a new host country culture in a linear, one-directional manner is not reflective of how multiple cultures are now being embraced and sometimes fused. The concepts of polyculturalism and crossculturalism are meant to describe new culture adoption models. Would love to hear your POV on that.

  3. Iris Yim from Sparkle Insights, October 5, 2015 at 12:58 p.m.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking posting!

    Millennials and Gen Z indeed navigate through different cultures with greater ease than previous generations.  Technology has brought them closer to the reality of diversity of the country than ever.  African Americans and Hispanics have been influential on pop culture for decades.  In recent years, Asian Americans have begun to exert great influence on food and fashion, and lately entertainment.  “Fresh Off the Boat” has been launched with success and “Dr. Ken” has received great reviews.

    However, I would argue that there is no one model that fits all.  The cross-culturalism model would be more relevant for U.S. born multicultural consumers and those in the General Market that embrace different cultures.  For the foreign-born, those that moved to the U.S. as adults, the acculturation model still has some merits, at least from a campaign execution point of view.  For example, a cross-cultural campaign in English might resonate with U.S. born Asian Americans but would not resonate with the majority of Asian Americans who are foreign born, particularly those who are native-language dependent.  While 2/3 of Hispanics are U.S. born, 2/3 of Asian Americans are foreign born and that’s not going to change soon.  A recent Pew report predicts that Asians will surpass Hispanics as the largest immigrant group by 2055.

    “Cultural relevance” varies from segment to segment.  It’s the agency’s role to bring the right dosage of “cultural relevance” for campaigns.  Too much “cultural relevance,” you risk stereotyping your target.  Too little, your client complains “where are the ethnic insights?” (I’ve heard that in focus group backroom conversations)  “Cultural relevance” is a very delicate question and there is no one model that can provide all the answers.  Nonetheless, regardless of the debate of the different marketing approaches (Targeted vs. Total Market) and acculturation models (Acculturation, Cross-Culturalism, Polyculturalism, etc.), one thing that everybody seems to have consensus on is that cultural insights should be incorporated from the onset, instead of an after-thought.  And that’s progress J

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