Why won’t marketers cater to different cultures?

Brands spend millions on campaigns targeting men or women, adults or children, the rich or the not-so-rich. So why the squeamishness about segmenting by religion and nationality?

Michael Barnett

There’s a simple answer to this question, of course, which is the fear of being labelled racist or xenophobic, or otherwise opposed to traditional British culture. It hasn’t stopped start-up ieat from overtly targeting its halal ready meals to a Muslim market, yet you’d be hard pressed to find many brands willing to admit publicly that they do the same.

The risk-averse attitude is understandable, but the fact is that the UK is increasingly multicultural. According to the 2011 census, 7.5 million of the 56 million inhabitants of England and Wales were born overseas, a 63 per cent rise in 10 years. While it’s always dangerous for outsiders to stereotype a group of people, it’s also clearly true that different consumer products play greater and lesser roles in the lives of people born with different religious and ethnic backgrounds, food being the most obvious example.

But recent research carried out by Marketing Week and SAS shows that marketers today are overwhelmingly preoccupied by consumers’ online behaviour at the expense of the country’s cultural make-up.

Over 60 per cent of marketers surveyed say multiculturalism is either unimportant or very unimportant, or they have no opinion. That makes it the least important bar one out of 14 social, economic and legislative issues asked about in the report. Only the trend of renting homes instead of buying has marketers less enthused.

Set that against ‘the rise of the digital native’ – over 80 per cent of marketers believe this is very important or important – and it’s clear how little heed is being paid to meeting the needs of different cultural groups.

Once again, I’m not arguing for Unilever to start developing washing powder for Sikhs and shampoo for Spanish people. But there is undoubtedly room in the UK market for products designed with cultural differences in mind – and that needn’t make them undesirable to everyone else.

An excellent example is Chicken Cottage. There’s nothing exclusively Muslim about southern-fried chicken, and you’re likely to find all sorts frequenting its 115 franchises across the country. Yet look closely at its logo and you’ll notice the word ‘halal’, subtly, right there on the box. Its origins are within a particular culture, but its appeal is wide.

Brands don’t have to be overt in their approach to the consumer needs of different cultures, but at the moment it seems that most marketers aren’t even thinking about it.

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