Multicultural marketing is a powerful but polarizing force, and the growing diversification of America has driven this industry to tremendous growth in recent years. The U.S. Census, in fact, predicts that more than half of Americans will belong to minority groups by 2044.
Done well, multicultural marketing communicates directly with a specific niche market and creates loyal, lifelong brand advocates. Done badly, it can repel groups of people from your product forever.
Modern marketers are more than aware of the importance of appealing to specific cultures, but no one is insured against the mistakes that occur when you haphazardly attempt to broaden your cultural reach. These mistakes mostly stem from ignorance, a lack of sensitivity, and--occasionally--blatant tastelessness.
Here are three of the biggest multicultural marketing mistakes I've seen and the important lessons you can learn from them:
1. Houston 1836: New Name Fouls Out
After years of attempting to join Major League Soccer, Houston's longtime soccer club was finally added to the league in 2006. Because the team was founded in 1836, it decided to call itself the Houston 1836--a name that proved to be quite controversial.
"1836" didn't sit well with Houston's large Latino soccer fan base, marking the year Texas won independence from Mexico. The battle for independence resulted in thousands of Mexican deaths, and Mexican Houstonians viewed this name as blatantly disrespectful toward their heritage. The team reacted to the backlash by quickly changing its name to Houston Dynamo.
Takeaway: Don't underestimate the value of market research. The Houston soccer team could have saved itself from this PR nightmare by conducting a focus group among its local fans.
2. "Felicia the Goat": Mountain Dew Goat Gone Baa-d
When Mountain Dew signed a deal with rapper Tyler, The Creator to create multiple TV spots for the company, it seemed like something novel, compelling, and culturally appealing would come from the partnership. However, the result was an offensive set of commercials that featured a tasteless talking goat named Felicia.
The third and final ad of the campaign showed a hobbled white woman on crutches trying to identify the culprit from a lineup of black men. The goat warned the battered woman, "Snitches get stitches, fool," and followed that gem by threatening to "Dew her up." This campaign was extremely clumsy and off base.
Takeaway: Make sure your team has a voice of reason. PepsiCo was clearly looking to create an edgy campaign, but its marketing team really would have benefitted from a voice of reason here. A key decision maker within the company needed to stand up and advise against the launch of these offensive and tasteless commercials. Activists immediately jumped on the campaign as racist.
3. "La Vida Toma Visa": Lost in Translation
Visa's "Life Takes Visa" campaign was the brand's attempt to build loyalty in the same way MasterCard did with its "For everything else, there's MasterCard" campaign. The company's commercials were gaining traction until it introduced a Hispanic-geared spot titled "La Vida Toma Visa."
In Spanish, the verb tomar means both "to take" and "to drink." Opening the door to a "Life Drinks Visa" translation certainly was not in the brand's best interests, and this confusing slogan fell flat with Spanish-speaking consumers. Instead of looking culturally inclusive, Visa came across as culturally clueless.
Takeaway: Conduct creative testing. Once Visa developed these multilingual spots, the company should have conducted preliminary dial testing to make sure the target audience understood the slogans. It would have been smart to transcreate and assess it in the context of the language's idioms and nuances--rather than its literal translation. If you're going to try to speak another language, make sure you're speaking it conversationally.
These big mistakes all stem from ignorance, a lack of perspective, and sometimes tastelessness. While multicultural marketing is highly important, you can't rush your campaign. Your marketing team or agency needs to fully understand cultural nuances, research ethnic histories, and conduct thorough market research before embarking on a campaign.
If you don't, the best-case scenario is that your campaign will fall flat. But the worst mishaps will alienate potential customers for life.