Have marketers mastered the art of cultural diversity in branding?

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A new Culture Watch research project could unearth some valuable insights for marketers based on changing demographics.

Brands have come a long way in understanding and showing cultural diversity since Microsoft’s infamous faux pas in 2009, where it shot an ad showing a white woman, Asian man, and black man, only to Photoshop the black man out for a Polish version of the ad. It might have gone undetected, had the art director remembered to also Photoshop out the black man’s arm, which remained in the image as the arm of the new white man they had superimposed over him.

I’m sure Microsoft has learnt from its very public humiliation, and its advertising today shows harmoniously dysfunctional families that also happen to be multi-racial, just as our communities genuinely are these days.

And I’m also sure that the lesson Microsoft taught other brands relates to more than simply hiring a more qualified art director, it demonstrated that showing cultural diversity for cultural diversity’s sake is not the right approach to take. Brands have come to understand that in reflecting the lives of actual consumers, the characters they use and conversations they have should reflect them also.

But the make up of countries and cities change over time, and reflecting cultural diversity is not just about getting a brand right as it travels to another foreign market, but understanding the nuances of different local areas within a market and responding with appropriate brand messaging within the appropriate media in that area.

Brands have come to understand that in reflecting the lives of actual consumers, the characters they use and conversations they have should reflect them also.

That’s why I am interested to see the results of the Culture Watch research project, looking into the impact of cultural diversity on consumer attitudes. The project is being run by research firm ICM and brand strategist Kate Wilson, who claims there is a lack of reliable market intelligence around the cultural communities that exist in the UK – which apparently make up 10% of the UK workforce.

Culture Watch says it will address key cultural groups living in the UK, including Polish, Chinese, Indian and Latin-American. I, and I’m sure marketers too, will be interested to know not only how brands are tailoring their communications to achieve cut-through with these communities, but how these communities have changed in the past five to 10 years.

The Polish surge to the UK and subsequent retreat on the weakening of the pound was well documented in the media and so I would be interested to see, firstly, how the change in numbers has affected the effort brands have made to reach Polish communities here.

And while Indian communities were once a new phenomenon, they are now so established in the UK that it would be fascinating to find out the mix and balance of cultural values and loyalties.

As for the Chinese, I would love to know how the growth of this new super economy is affecting the native Chinese that call the UK home – and how the increase in wealthy Chinese businessmen travelling the world is also impacting brand strategies.

I realise that the Culture Watch project is still in its infancy, with the first results being released in the third quarter of this year. But I hope to see its explorations expand into more cultural groups, representing the diversity I witness each day by living in Hackney in East London.

In this area, the large Afro-Caribbean community is served not only by local food outlets, but by local retailers stocking treats, magazines and beauty products to cater for these shoppers – the same goes for the Vietnamese community that has its hub just down the road. The Turkish community in neighbouring Stoke Newington is well served by local travel agents specialising in that destination, and common to the whole area is a thriving business of international calling services and money exchanges.

Culture Watch’s launch will reveal the tip of the iceberg, and its efforts to dig out more of what’s beneath the surface will hopefully make for fascinating reading.

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