The race is on

You only have to look at the success of the Bollywood film industry to realise that retailers and media who ignore the needs, values and diverse cultures of ethnic communities are missing out on a source of serious revenue potential

Celebrations for Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, start in a fortnight’s time. Even though there are still 75 shopping days to go before Christmas, tinsel and fake snow are already starting to adorn window displays, while shelf space is devoted to seasonal greetings cards.

In some sectors, a large percentage of profits hinges on gift sales, yet many retailers turn a blind eye to the nation’s other religious festivals. With an estimated 1.5 million Hindus resident in the UK – who account for five per cent of the economy – retailers who ignore Diwali could be missing out on serious potential income.

Littlewoods is one of the few mainstream retailers to recognise the importance of the UK’s ethnic diversity. Two years ago, 22 of its stores ran a promotion around Diwali and saw gift sales rise by 24 per cent. But Littlewoods’ commitment to diversity runs much deeper than simply noting its contribution to store takings.

The retailer’s equal opportunities department has four main goals, explains Surinder Sharma, former corporate equal opportunities manager at Littlewoods and now director of diversity for Ford in Europe. These are the recruitment, retention and development of the best people for the job; marketing to ensure the widest possible customer base; the maintaining of a diverse range of suppliers; and communication to ensure involvement and development. When a new store is recruiting staff, Littlewoods does more than pin up notices in the Job Centre – it strikes partnerships with Training and Enterprise Councils and local community groups. Material about vacancies is also translated into the languages typically spoken in that area.

Fishing in a larger pool

Sharma explains the many benefits of this approach: “We have more applications from a wider group of people, so we’re fishing in a larger pool and can employ people who really want to work for us. As a result, our staff turnover is very low – just five per cent. Sales go up because we’ve told 400 local groups that we’re opening a new store, so we’re marketing to a wide community.

“We also have staff who reflect our customer base and, since many are bilingual, they can communicate more effectively with customers.” Sharma continues: “They also have knowledge of social customs and religious festivals affecting different groups, so we run promotions around Diwali, Carnival, Chinese New Year and the Jewish Hanukkah. These can boost sales at traditionally quiet times of the year.”

These promotions have to be handled carefully, however, as people may feel that their faith is being exploited for commercial reasons. Church attendance may be falling in the UK’s Anglican community, but members of minority religions are often more devout. In order to target ethnic minorities effectively, it is essential to understand the culture, norms and values of different groups. Vanessa Summers, a director at Chime Communications and former communications director of black PR and ad agency ASAP, says: “It’s important to look at the ways they receive information. For example, if you’re marketing to Asian groups, you should consider the influence of religious leaders and parents, as young people tend to seek their approval. As well as using local press and radio stations, it may be useful to talk to churches and religious groups, too.”

The most effective ways to target people from ethnic minorities will also vary according to which generation they are from. “Many of the first generation of people from the Indian subcontinent, for example, didn’t speak English and tended to remain immersed in Asian culture, while the second generation was desperate to be white and to become integrated into mainstream society,” says Anjna Raheja, managing director of specialist agency Media Moguls. “But it’s different again for the younger generations. They watch Channel 4 and read Cosmopolitan and the Evening Standard, but they also look at magazines such as Asian Woman and Bride. It’s now really cool to be Asian – the music, the food, the cinema. They are far more proud of their culture.”

A similar shift in allegiance is happening in the black community, according to research group A survey conducted earlier this year into the musical preferences of black people found that reggae and soul dominated, followed by African music. This demonstrated a further Africanisation of the black community since a similar survey carried out four years before.

In many ways, society is becoming more integrated. In the 1991 Census, just 48 per cent of people in ethnic minorities had been born in this country, and this proportion will be higher in the 2001 Census, which takes place in April. The new census will also ask more detailed questions on mixed race. However, it is a mistake to assume that because the black and white populations speak the same language, the mainstream media offer an effective way of targeting them. A survey conducted by the newspaper

New Nation, and reported in New Media Age magazine, found that two-thirds of the black community feel that mainstream media have no relevance for them.

There is clearly a demand for specialist ethnic media, and the response has been an explosion of Asian TV channels: there are now more than 14, up from just five a couple of years ago. Competition is fierce. Reigning champion Zee TV has 190,000 subscriber households in the UK and Europe, and is launching a steady stream of niche channels such as Music Asia and Bengali language channel Alpha Bangla. The young pretenders include movie channel B4U (Bollywood for You), the recently launched B4U Music, and Sony Entertainment Television, which made its UK debut two years ago.

There are also channels that broadcast in a mix of languages. Birmingham-based Asia 1, for example, shows programming in English as well as the main south Asian languages. Zee TV carries Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali news. Such niche programming has been made possible by the advent of digital television and its radically lower broadcasting costs. Also, a channel can break even with a mere 25,000 subscribers, so programming can be targeted with greater accuracy. “We have lots of local programming, and we’ve taken care to be interactive with programmes that respond to letters and queries from viewers,” explains Zee TV UK chief executive Monica Dalton.

Zee carries sponsorship and advertising from mainstream advertisers keen to reach an Asian audience, such as the big banks, health insurers and dot-coms, alongside many Asian businesses.

Calling all frequencies

Radio is also a large and fragmenting medium with many specialist Asian and black stations. Among the black-focused stations, Choice FM has been broadcasting to south London for ten years and has since launched in north London as well. Tony Blair was among the guests at the station’s launch – a clear indication that the Government views the medium as an important route to a large slice of the electorate.

The ethnic press is also highly segmented. Local papers are thriving, and alongside the general cultural magazines, such as Eastern Eye, there is a raft of specialist Bollywood, music and health and beauty titles.

In many urban areas, the fastest-growing sector of the population is ethnic groups. As Chime Communications’ Summers points out, places such as Leicester and Southall will soon have an ethnic majority. These pockets of population mean that direct mail and outdoor media can be used to profitable effect: for example, haircare brand Dark and Lovely recently ran a campaign on bus shelters in targeted areas, while Western Union advertises its global money transfer services through well-chosen poster sites. Western Union cannily promoted itself further in the black community by distributing branded bandanas at this year’s Notting Hill Carnival.

The Internet is also growing in popularity with Asian audiences. “The Web will make a huge difference,” says Raheja at Media Moguls. “Second- and third-generation Asians tend to want to be one step ahead with technology, and they’re very aspirational.”

The black community is also well-served by websites. Existing sites such as Blacknet, the Voice online and BlackBritain were joined this summer by Blackserve, which aims to offer up-to-date coverage of news and entertainment.

While there is no shortage of ethnic media, there has been little consumer research into the preferences of cultural groups. However, matters are improving. has recently published its Asian Community Report, Black Community Report and Black Children Report, which give detailed information on shopping habits, leisure activities, health and Internet use. Mintel has also published reports on subjects such as ethnic lifestyles and Black Beauty products; the latter revealed that black women spend four times as much on hair treatments and products than women of European descent. This information isn’t lost on the major mainstream haircare companies either: Alberto Culver and L’Oréal have both recently taken over black-owned haircare brands.

“A black woman may well read Hello!, Chat or the Daily Mirror’s M magazine,” says Summers, “but there are more focused publications, such as Pride, Black Beauty, and Hair, which may make better media for the launch of a new beauty brand, for example, especially one that is culture-specific.”

Advertisers are slowly starting to acknowledge the strength of ethnic media for appealing to a valuable and growing segment of society. Whereas in the past advertisers tended to use ethnic media to reinforce their mainstream efforts, today it’s the reverse that’s more likely to be true.

Mainstream ad campaigns are also featuring more black and Asian actors and lifestyles, while commercials using a reggae or soul soundtrack are on the increase. There is no evidence to suggest that consumers of European descent are turned off by ads featuring people of colour: using a diverse range of actors can only make a campaign more inclusive and wide reaching.

If advertisers and agencies are worried that ads featuring a black or Asian cast might be seen as token or condescending, there is no shortage of research avenues to check that a strategy or execution is on the right track. As with all ad campaigns, it is essential to identify the audience and ensure that the ads appeal to the taste and humour of the target market. And there are many markets out there. Within the six per cent of the population classified as ethnic minorities, there are dozens of different groups, speaking many different languages, with very different needs, aspirations and attitudes. To ignore those growing markets may not only be racist but a grave commercial error.


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