In this globalised era, should brands be thinking of minority and diasporic groups less as niche markets and more as a new global mainstream?
In the past few decades, marketing has become increasingly microcosmic and focused. As we have become able to process large amounts of data, brands have found it increasingly easy to personalise and target initiatives at specific people, as well as using data insights to inform more traditional marketing drives. Toyota’s recent US campaign is one example: separate adverts aimed at and starring people of different ethnicities, aired at times when people of those backgrounds were likely to be watching.
As transformative as it has been, there is also something counter-intuitive about this drive to drill downwards at a time when global travel, communication and trade are easier than ever, and special interests and demographic groupings can span across continents. In this globalised era, should brands be thinking of minority and diasporic groups less as niche markets within the mainstream in specific geographical territories and more as a new global mainstream themselves?
You could argue that we are living in the age of the diaspora. In 2015, migrants made up 3.3% of the world’s population (source: UN Population Fund). More specifically, there are more than 30m people of Indian origin living outside of India, according to the government’s press information office, about 60m people of Chinese origin outside China (source: UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office) and 140m people of the African diaspora, as defined by the African Union (source: World Bank) – each group the size of a country in itself. These characteristics cut across nation states and intersect and evolve to create new identities. In the UK, for example, a rising number of brands, events and cultural offerings are targeting people of South Asian origin, rather than specifically those with connections to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, knowing that those national borders are less relevant to second-generation migrants. London’s Alchemy festival and my own magazine Clove are two such examples. With the movement of people and ideas, global culture – once dominated by the US and Europe – is increasingly mixed and fluid, with lesser known aspects of cultures becoming increasingly mainstream and familiar.
What’s required [from brands] is a presumption that such cultures are of interest to everyone and an appreciation of their complexity and diversity.
Yet global brands’ diversity initiatives are often based on the idea that visible representation of so-called minority groups and cultures is important because it helps to attract and satisfy people from those backgrounds. But there will be little meaningful change until we stop seeing people and cultures from outside of the Western mainstream as minorities on the world stage, and assuming they will only appeal to niche audiences. What’s required instead is a presumption that such cultures are of interest to everyone and an appreciation of their complexity and diversity.
For brands, this means abandoning initiatives that rely on cliches. An example is the current advert by British hotel chain Premier Inn about an Indian wedding and branding that uses stereotypically ethnic typefaces, music and colours. These grate on the nerves of people in their target audience, as well as others accustomed to living in a multicultural society, and reinforce simplistic ideas about such cultures. Organisations must also stop assuming that groups of people have a homogeneous set of interests and experiences, and aren’t discerning about quality. From public institutions to television channels, cultural programming with a diasporic flavour often focuses on gathering together familiar names and faces that tick boxes at the expense of quality, merit, experimentation or a wider thematic premise.
Debika Ray is founder and editor-in-chief of Clove magazine, a biannual journal dedicated to the culture of South Asia. For more on how consumers are increasingly living across borders, read our New Bricolage Living macrotrend.