Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Spring 2004Kellogg School of Management
In DepthIn BriefDepartmentsClass NotesClub NewsArchivesContactKellogg Homepage
Global Kellogg: Learn from your peers
The 'Global Kellogg' strategy
Here, there and everywhere
A world of ideas
At home in the global village
Doing business in other cultures
Theory: Scott Stern
Practice: James Conley
Nothing lost in translation
What I did last summer
Address Update
Alumni Home
Submit News
Internal Site
Northwestern University
Kellogg Search

Nothing lost in translation
Building relationships with multicultural customers demands skills that are more than skin deep

By Kari Richardson

Kellogg alum Henry Gaskins  
Henry "Que" Gaskins '93  

Henry "Que" Gaskins '93 tells the story of a marketing campaign gone awry, in his view.

A fast-food restaurant wanted to reach the young African-American market, so it filmed a commercial using a fictitious disc jockey who spun burgers on his records and laid down rhymes scripted by advertising agency executives at corporate headquarters.

Gaskin says the campaign used real insights — namely, that young African-American men are major consumers of fast food and they respect rappers and DJs — but still managed to take a wrong turn. He would have hired a real rapper, letting the performer write his own rhymes and choose his own clothing to wear in the commercial.

And as global vice president of marketing for RBK, Reebok's fastest-growing division responsible for getting new products into the hands of influential youths, he knows what he's talking about.

"No one was taking insights and making sure they made sense in a cultural context," Gaskins says. "Authenticity and credibility are everything. Kids are going to take one look at this DJ and say, 'Who is he? Why haven't I heard of him? And why is he spinning burgers on his records?'"

Street credibility: elusive and essential
Few companies these days doubt the importance of multicultural marketing. Census 2000 spelled it out for those who still didn't get it: Minority populations will likely become the majority in the not-so-distant future, as their numbers are increasing many times faster than the Caucasian population's, and their buying power right along with it.

According to, the U.S. Hispanic population grew more than four times as fast as the population as a whole between 1990 and 2000, and is still underserved by many consumer-goods companies. The firm also reports that the mean income of African-American households grew 25.8 percent between 1990 and 2000, resulting in 3.7 million African-American households with annual incomes of $50,000 or more.

And Asian-Americans earn more on average than any other racial group, with annual household incomes of $83,804 — 8 percent more than Caucasian households bring in.

While the numbers make it clear why companies are eager to court a multicultural audience, they fail to answer one important question: How?

It's a vastly complicated area for marketers, yet one in which some Kellogg School graduates are helping to chart progress.

Gaskins builds his reputation and his campaigns on authenticity, snagging real-world rappers Jay-Z and 50 Cent to promote their own shoes, and bona fide DJ Pharrell to license a line of clothing and footwear under a separate label.

"We are building a reputation as the sound and rhythm of sports," he says. "And what makes it credible is that kids actually listen to this music."

Credibility is a theme echoed by other Kellogg School graduates who work in the field, such as Cheryl Mayberry McKissack '89, who says customers are quick to detect insincerity and that legitimate relationships can't be faked.

Mayberry McKissack founded Nia Enterprises four years ago after consulting with some of the executives in her circle, many of whom were struggling with the problem of trying to build solid relationships with their multicultural customers.

Nia Enterprises provides market information about African-American women and their families, helping companies connect with this group that is rapidly gaining in buying power and clout.

Reach African-American women and you will reach their families too, the Kellogg graduate says. That's because the aggregate income of African-American women, she says, is equal to 49 percent of the total income of the African-American population.

Moreover, African-American women, like Caucasian women and Hispanic women, tend to control buying decisions for their families.

Using technology as a key tool, Nia Enterprises taps its database of 100,000 self-selected African-Americans to provide companies with feedback on everything from the way a new cosmetic works to a suggested name for a brand of soap, and can have results within 48 hours.

"[African-American women] are happy to participate because they are not asked their opinion nearly as often as the general population," McKissack says. "There is a need to build a trusted dialogue with African-American women and their families. There's a need to gain a better understanding of the products and services that best serve this group."

Kellogg alum Cheryl McKissack  
Cheryl Mayberry McKissack '89  

Deeper relationships that deliver results
One way for firms to build meaningful relationships, McKissack says, is to identify two or three causes that are important to the company. Better yet, she says, have employees come up with the initiatives and encourage them to volunteer time in those areas.

"The routine used to be go to the store, buy the product and go home. Consumers today want more than that. And companies are realizing they have to connect on more than one level," she adds.

At General Mills, Rudy Rodriguez '95, the company's director of multicultural marketing strategy, favors community outreach as a tool to reach ethnic consumers. The company has partnered with well-known organizations such as La Raza, the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in efforts to build relationships with sought-after Hispanic and African-American customers.

Rodriguez fits initiatives targeting ethnic consumers into existing campaigns when possible. Ads featuring Colombian singer and breast cancer survivor Soraya are a natural extension of the Yoplait yogurt brand's "Save Lids to Save Lives" drive to raise money for breast cancer research, he says, and build on its image as a brand that champions women's lives.

Rodriguez's job is made a bit easier by the fact that yogurt is a food already favored by Hispanic consumers, but he used some of the same principles in planning an event featuring African-American NASCAR driver Bill Lester, who is sponsored by Honey Nut Cheerios.

"Consumers were happy to see that we were sponsoring a race car driver from their community and positioning him as a role model. We saw double-digit increases in sales within the African-American community," Rodriguez says.

Relationship-building also worked for Active Sports Marketing Group, a California-based marketing services company that developed an integrated marketing program to help the U.S. Army spread its recruitment message among Hispanic and Asian communities. Rita Belmonte '97, senior marketing consultant for the company, which was co-founded by husband Jon Belmonte '97, says the company planned a series of high-energy soccer clinics where soccer enthusiasts and Army recruiters who play the sport bumped elbows on the field. The three-hour sessions included one-on-one instruction and tips by major league players, free soccer balls and time on the playing field.

Says Belmonte of the clinics, held in California, Texas and throughout the Southwest: "The Army was looking for a very targeted way to have high-quality interaction with a specific market. The program provided recruiters with a meaningful way to interact with young, active people who play the sport and to share information about Army opportunities. Everyone got something out of it."

Active executives currently are talking with Army officials about expanding the program for 2004, Belmonte says.


Reaching the right audience
Though most 21st-century companies realize ethnic marketing is more complicated than casting an African-American in a commercial spot or posting a sign that says "se habla Espanol," many still struggle to find the right way to reach their core audiences.

Focus groups can be an effective tool for getting inside the consumer's head, but research methods must be sensitive to cultural variations. In-home visits can uncover insights that subjects are unwilling to share in larger groups, but Rodriguez says researchers must understand why, in some cultures, people are uncomfortable sharing personal information or buying habits with a researcher who is outside their ethnic group.

Building a racially inclusive workplace, he suggests, is a good way to start tapping into the multicultural marketplace: "You can't reach multicultural consumers unless you have diversity in the workplace. It's not about casting. It's about cultural insights and cues."

But even marketers with their feet firmly planted in one culture sometimes have to work to understand all of its nuances.

A first-hand witness to the dramatic family separations wrought by migration to the United States, Guatemalan-born Gabriel Biguria '96 founded AmigoLatino to connect Hispanics living in this country with their family back home. Customers, who pay $40 for a half-hour live videoconference, use their time to wish someone a happy birthday, gaze at an infant's face for the first time, or say farewell to a relative who is seriously ill.

From the beginning, Biguria struggled to explain his service to a dubious, tech-wary clientele.

"My Kellogg friends didn't even believe this type of videoconferencing was possible," he says. "Imagine a family that comes from the countryside in Guatemala. I had to hit on the right wording to describe it to them."

Translation alone wasn't enough to get the message across. Though Biguria is fluent in Spanish and familiar with Guatemala, that country alone, he points out, has more than 22 different dialects and a host of contrasting cultures. And his clients hail from Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, to name a few.

"Each country is so different," Biguria says. "There's so much diversity. You need to understand who you are dealing with."

To reach his diverse audience, Biguria set up shop in San Francisco on the same floor as the Latin American consulate, where daily traffic to and from the office provides the perfect opportunity to communicate with prospective clients. Advertising efforts here and abroad center around community fairs and festivals, where Biguria and staff show videos — preferably of clients from the same region as the group sponsoring the fair — to prove to doubters the service is real.

Biguria says his efforts to build client trust are bearing fruit. Now operating in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, he has expansion plans slated for another six to seven cities this year, including a location in a San Rafael, Calif., community center.

"It takes perseverance," Biguria says of his efforts to understand his ethnic customer base. "Some companies try something, have limited success, and abort without figuring out what else they need to do."

In this, small companies may have an advantage, he adds. "In trying to tap into the Hispanic market, little details make a big difference. The more you can individualize your message, the more you will resonate with each one of the groups."

'Fusionism' — the future of marketing?
For companies still coming to terms with multicultural marketing plans, there may be an even bigger trend around the corner.

Gaskins calls it "fusionism" — the elimination of cultural barriers and stereotypes that allow, the idea goes, one culture to borrow freely from another. For instance, Gaskins, an African-American male, has Chinese tattoos on both arms and professes a love for the Asian culture and mindset.

In other words, people are more than the sum of their various cultural parts.

"You can't put people in neat little boxes," Gaskins says. "If you gave me a survey to fill out, I would check off that I'm a black male, that I listen to rap music and that I grew up in the inner city. But I've also traveled the world. I love jazz music, as well as rap, and I'm a vice president at a major corporation. You didn't ask me those things."

When possible, Gaskins taps into specific ethnic communities, for instance, planning a public relations event at Puerto Rican Day in New York or "seeding" — providing free samples of the product— to Asian trendsetters in Los Angeles. Reebok also looks for ways to tie products to location; for example, printing the area code "202" on the back of a pair of sneakers to designate an affiliation with Washington, D.C.

But in his work marketing the street-smart, hip RBK brand to a diverse audience, "youth" seems to resonate more as a theme than messages of any specific culture. Perhaps that's because younger generations are more tolerant of racial differences, Gaskins allows.

"We're in a different era," he says. "Everybody is getting into their family tree and everyone wants to be different. Nobody wants to be plain."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University