The Debate over “Total Market” and Multicultural Marketing

March 23, 2017

Posted by Jose Villa

Last month, a debate broke out online between Jeffrey Bowman of Reframe: The Brand and the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies (AHAA) over the relevance of total market vs. multicultural marketing. After posting an article entitled “Close the gap: The state of ‘total market’ industry”, AHAA responded with a pointed rebuttal in the comments. Bowman is the founder and principal of a marketing consultancy that grew from an eponymous association he founded for marketers interested in the emerging “Total Market Approach.” AHAA is a Hispanic marketing association made up of Hispanic ad agencies, media companies, and marketing service providers focused on the U.S. Hispanic market.

Bowman’s article makes the argument that multicultural marketing, which he describes as “separate but equal marketing,” is inefficient and ineffective. AHAA argues that multicultural advertising is highly effective, making a broad case for the importance and value of specialists in developing advertising that generates increased ROI.

This argument is important and one the marketing industry needs to have. I am glad Bowman made his case and AHAA stepped up to provide a counterpoint. For the last five years, the industry has argued these issues mostly at conferences and in private. The future of marketing in the U.S. – and potentially globally – will be affected by how we answer these questions.

While I agree with many of the points made by Bowman and AHAA, I think both sides are missing the fundamental issues.

I agree with Bowman on three key points in his Total Market argument:

  1. The advertising industry needs to create new models to serve brands as demographics drastically change.
  2. Companies, particularly ad agencies, need to create new value for the brands they support.
  3. Brands need to realize their internal decision-makers and employees (who are disproportionately Gen Xers and Boomers) are one to two generations removed from core consumer they are trying to attract, mostly Millennials and Generation Z.

However, Bowman’s arguments are flawed in several ways. He fundamentally misrepresents multicultural marketing as “separate but equal” failing to understand that historically most multicultural marketing programs have been under-funded receiving only a fraction of the resources devoted to the “general market.” He also misunderstands the nature of the pushback against the Total Market Approach. It has not been all agencies, but mainly multicultural ad agencies and ethnic / in-language media companies who have the most to lose from consolidation resulting from Total Market strategies. Bowman fails to articulate an alternative to multicultural marketing, and does not make much of a case for why a Total Market approach is better.

AHAA also makes some valid points in their rebuttal. Their argument that segmentation is an important and valuable marketing strategy is accurate. They also reference studies showing the value and ROI generated by multicultural marketing programs. However, AHAA and the multicultural marketing industry need to move on from flawed positions that were articulated in the AHAA rebuttal:

  1. Acculturation-based segmentation is losing relevancy for most ethnic populations in this country as they are increasingly native born.
  2. The focus on Spanish-language media is hurting the industry, as it also becomes less and less relevant to younger multicultural audiences that consume most of their media in English.

The multicultural marketing industry needs to move on from simplistic arguments regarding the value of specialists and be leaders who introduce new models for cultural marketing. If Total Market is not the right approach, and multicultural is increasingly irrelevant, the multicultural “specialists” are the best positioned to introduce innovative models.

An edited version of this post was published on MediaPost Engage:Hispanic on March 23, 2017.

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