Reaching out beyond the mainstream

Whether the UK’s growing diversity presents a business opportunity or fresh audiences for public service messages, targeting requires a different approach.


“Know your audience” is a marketing mantra chanted in companies across the land. But as the population diversifies, many are questioning just how well they do know their audience.

Consumers are increasingly defying the standard demographic breakdowns, making it more difficult for marketers to crack the code of what their message should be. But unlocking the code to these hard-to-reach customers could be central to growing a successful business.

Mark Speed, managing director at IFF Research, an agency specialising in researching hard-to-reach groups for government departments and public sector groups, says that as the population changes it becomes more challenging to investigate the nature of the audience you need to be speaking to. “As Britain gets more and more diverse, this research becomes more difficult,” he says.

“Research in this area has traditionally been carried out for the public sector. But increasingly, the private sector wants to access these groups.”

Many are focusing on these harder-to-reach groups to expand their customer base. According to Speed, ethnic minority groups are looking increasingly attractive as brands seek new markets to tap into.

The Glen Yearwood Group, a specialist communications consultancy in urban and ethnic minority audiences, predicts that by 2016, 15% of the UK population will be made up of ethnic minorities, compared with just 7.9% in the 2001 Census. Several different cultures make-up these figures, but that doesn’t mean these people can’t be accommodated by mainstream retailers.


High street retailer Thorntons has shown how stores can embrace different cultures. It is tapping into the Asian market for the first time by developing celebration chocolates for Eid and Diwali (see case study, below). The aim is to open up its stores to a new season and a new set of customers.

More businesses should be looking at these sorts of opportunities, argues Mark Middlemas, managing partner at media agency UM. This is an audience that marketers can’t afford to ignore, he says.

“We feel there’s an opportunity for clients to grow their business and increase their marketing potential through reaching diverse ethnic communities.”

The agency has joined forces with Glen Yearwood to create a UM Diversity Unit to target ethnic minority groups through appropriate media. This isn’t a straightforward process, however, as the media channels are as diverse as the population. There are more than 80 ethnic minority media titles in the UK, according to Brad, the media information company. And there are more than 50 specialist television channels that are not measured by BARB, which monitors broadcast figures.

Free-to-air satellite brand Freesat teamed up with one such specialist channel to help it target a hard-to-reach group. It partnered with BET (Black Entertainment Television) using its data and expertise to attract a black audience to its service. The Glen Yearwood Group was asked to look at what products were being bought in communities with a large black population. High-definition televisions were selling well, so this information was used to create a bespoke marketing campaign. 

Freesat marketing director Will Abbott says BET’s knowledge of the black community was invaluable to this particular advertising push.

“We ran a campaign around promoting the BET awards, which we showed in a one-off special in high-definition on Freesat. We worked very closely with BET to promote that, using its deep understanding of its target audience.”

BET and Freesat also teamed up to identify black community “hotspots” in cities across the UK. This was mapped against Freesat-approved retailers, enabling the companies to produce dual-branded, bespoke point-of-sale advertising in a targeted promotion. 

Abbott believes that these highly targeted campaigns can be successful in speaking to

a very specific audience. But he also argues that marketers should think carefully before any campaign to ensure that no audience is alienated.

“Overall, our strategy is about inclusion, ensuring everyone understands our offer,” he argues.

Media Moguls managing director Anjna Raheja says that, like any marketing campaign, you have to decide whether your initiative has a mass-market message or bespoke one.

“In some situations, we can create an inclusive message within a mainstream campaign. From a creative perspective it needs to resonate with everybody. Remembering not to stereotype – for example, by understanding that not all Asians are shopkeepers and doctors – is an important factor to consider,” she argues.

But Patricia Macauley, head of cultural diversity at the Central Office of Information argues that even then, it is difficult to get the tone right. She says that many marketers go too far and end up creating “staged multi-culturalism” to appeal to a diverse community, and says that this can be extremely damaging.

“It’s the easy way to tick the box. If you don’t want to offend anyone and want to be seen to be including everyone, the easiest option is to have “one of each minority”. In doing this you can cause offence (see viewpoint, below).

Media Mogul’s Raheja says the starting point in any campaign is to look hard at who your audience really are beyond the basics, to really understand their characteristics and culture.

For example, for the Government’s “Fire Kills” campaign, Media Moguls created four different executions to communicate to four communities.  Each cultural group needed specific messages and communications channels. For the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, a campaign was created focusing on the impact of fire on a member of their family because, as Raheja puts it, “we know that these audiences need shock tactics to a certain extent”.

A London-born fire-fighter who is well-known in Poland through TV and radio appearances there, was used to appeal to the UK’s Polish community because of the respect they have for him. Meanwhile the Somali campaign took a completely different approach to take into account that many from the Somali community would not be used to cooking indoors.

The way the campaign is being communicated differs too, says Raheja. “We’ve started to look at poetry because the Somalis are a very oral community. We’re working on supporting a poetry tour and also creating a docu-drama with a TV station.”

When it comes to speaking to a hard-to-reach audience about a specific issue, Raheja argues that it is essential to understand all the nuances in the communities.

Whether it’s a public message that needs to be communicated to a wide range of hard-to-reach groups or a high-street retailer looking to expand its offer beyond its mainstream customer base, ‘knowing your audience’ is a mantra that needs to take on a very different meaning.

Case Study: Thorntons

Easter and Christmas are the classic peak seasons for a UK chocolatier. But high-street retailer Thorntons is turning to groups less well served by British marketers by looking to sweeten the celebrations of Eid and Diwali.

The retailer has launched a box of chocolates to attract more Asian customers into stores during these festival periods. The decision to launch the collection came after having a presence at an Asian wedding fair, where it discovered there was a demand for chocolates specific for Asian festivals.

The chocolate boxes are initially being sold in two stores, in Birmingham and Ilford, in London, to test demand. The range is also being sold on the Thorntons Direct website.

Thorntons brand manager Emma Dickinson says it makes sense for it to develop a range suitable for these celebrations. “We look at seasons; Eid and Diwali is one of those seasons and there is a growing market.”

The retailer has teamed up with well-known henna-tattoo artist Ash Kumar, who counts Cameron Diaz and Demi Moore among his client list, to develop the packaging design, which features a black box with a gold henna-style design.

Dickinson adds that Kumar also helped advise Thorntons on what would be appropriate for Asian communities celebrating Eid and Diwali, starting with the basics, such as ensuring the chocolates didn’t contain alcohol.

Henna was chosen as the inspiration for the design because “henna is an integral part of the celebrations”, she explains.

Using a well-known face within a community is a good way to connect in a credible way with a hard-to-reach audience, says Patricia Macauley, head of cultural diversity at the Central Office of Information (see below).

Thorntons is also working on a range of products for Asian weddings, which will be available online from early next year.



Patricia Macauley, head of cultural diversity at the Central Office of Information

Before you embark on any inclusive campaign, use the same kind of marketing principles that you would use for any mainstream campaign.

Understanding your audience, for example, is critical. If that means commissioning research to confirm anecdotal evidence, then we would always recommend that.

Quite often, we get approached with a request to “target ethnic minorities”. And then we have to ask: “Well, who exactly are these ethnic minorities?”

The rules of inclusion

Portrayal of people from ethnic minorities
Images that don’t feature ethnic minorities are less likely to resonate. Seeing people from different ethnicities represented in marketing increases the relevance for them. However, advertisers need to move beyond stereotypes to produce creative executions in which ethnic minorities are shown as ‘ordinary’ members of society.

‘Staged multiculturalism’
Marketers often take the view that they don’t want to offend anyone and decide the easiest option is to pick “one of each”. But in using images which portray one person from each ethnic minority, you can cause offence because you’re clustering groups who don’t naturally come together.

Not featuring people at all can be just as effective and overcomes the issue of which ethnic group, caste or religion should be reflected – a dilemma that often leads to the creative output looking very tokenistic.

Using illustrations can support an inclusive creative approach. However, cartoons can be problematic, particularly so for non-English speakers, recent immigrants and more traditional communities, as some perceive illustrations as being for children.

Heritage references
Certain traditional imagery or English expressions may not be fully understood, and similarly, references to popular British culture such as old TV sitcoms or catchphrases.

Evocative imagery may not have the same resonance among ethnic minority groups as they would with the white UK community.

For example, a traditional seaside scene may evoke summer holidays for the white UK community, but these associations may not be as strong among ethnic minority groups.

Use of celebritiesResearch has shown that celebrities who are well known to the white UK population are often much less familiar to older people from ethnic minority communities. Some successful past publicity campaigns targeting ethnic minorities have used credible celebrities who are well known to the audience, such as Curtis Walker for the black organ donation campaign. Don’t be afraid to look beyond ‘mainstream’ black and Asian celebrities such as Lenny Henry and Meera Syal.

Extra facts provided by COI publication The Mix.


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