In 2013, Cheerios aired a commercial. It featured an interracial family. Consumer response was swift. “[It was] the most horrific kind of vitriolic, bigoted, racist stuff you'd ever want to read…then there was a real kind of an outpouring of positive comments to support the ad” explained Michael Burgi, a features editor for Adweek (Martin 2013). Around the same time, Coca-Cola released their “It’s Beautiful” ad. It featured people singing America the Beautiful in seven languages. The ensuing controversy resulted in a #BoycottCoke Twitter campaign.
What do these examples tell us? A couple things. One, companies are dipping their toes in the water to reflect shifting demographics in the United States. Two, these companies face vocal backlash from some constituent groups.
Our country is unique. What ties us together as a nation is a set of beliefs (“…all men are created equal”), not a common heritage. Our very uniqueness makes identity and cohesion especially challenging. It has also fueled constant debate over any number of issues in our history, including immigration and citizenship – over who exactly “belongs” or is one of us.
For decades, there’s been a Caucasian super majority and it’s been more straightforward for marketers to target that one demographic. Not anymore…
Brands risk alienating ever growing segments of consumers by minimizing these evolving demographics. Cheerios and Coca-Cola took a risk and withstood the heat. Here are some considerations for your team to keep in mind….
Change is Inevitable
We will be a majority minority country by 2050.
Minority groups – currently 30% of the population – will likely exceed 50% (Kotkin 2010; United States Census 2011). That’s just a Millennial’s lifetime! The US is the only country in the world that will be majority minority, though other countries have particular states with that level of diversity. Further, states like California, Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Nevada have already achieved majority minority status.
We are an increasingly multiracial country.
The fastest growing segment are people from two or more races, and more than 1 in 10 newlyweds are entering into interracial marriages (United States Census 2011; Wang 2015).
Our typical American “family” is evolving in diverse and complex ways.
Breadwinners are increasingly female, and the number of stay-at-home dads is on the rise (Parker and Livingston 2017). Even the way we define family is changing – with greater social recognition of families with two moms or two dads and with rising rates of divorce, remarriage, and blended families (Pew Research Center).
Will your brand be a leader or follower?
Joining the cultural conversation around change is risky, but there’s really no way to avoid it. At some point, your brand is going to have to adapt to engage with this changing demographic. The question is, will your brand be a leader and active in making this change? That’s a big internal conversation. Considerations to ponder include how you might stomach any backlash and what will your various shareholders think. Or, will you be a follower, or inactive brand, and take safer steps after others blaze the trail?
Active brands: There are brands that are leading the way, intentionally joining the cultural conversation. They take clear positions via their messaging, product offerings, employment policies, and community engagement.
A good example of clear messaging is an ad from Chevy. It aired during the Sochi Olympics – an event that perfectly highlights our country’s uniqueness. The ad included a same-sex couple, a multiracial family, and a voiceover stating, “While what it means to be a family hasn’t changed, what a family looks like has. This is the new us.” Translation: Chevy understands that demographics change but our American beliefs do not (“…all men are created equal”).
Inactive brands: Then there are brands who intentionally do not join the conversation. They attempt to fly under the radar. However, their inaction still expresses an underlying position (i.e. We choose not to recognize that we’re a minority majority country, interracial marriages on are on the rise, etc.).
How to align your brand with demographic change
1. Take a position
Brands must decide what position to take. This starts by considering your company’s values. For example, Chick fil’ A founder made public statements in support of preserving traditional ideas of marriage, despite all changes around marriage equality, as influenced by its founders’ southern Baptist beliefs. Further, brands need to evaluate how their various stakeholders might respond to company action or inaction.
2. Get the psychographics right
Authenticity is key when adapting messaging or offerings. A “plug-and-play” strategy won’t generate brand engagement and affinity. When asked about brands’ efforts to diversify their ads, one consumer explains: “Even when they diversify them and have a black, a Mexican, an Asian family – they're really not that family. They wrote that commercial for the standard normal white family…I feel like I'm watching Mexican actors perform as a white family, or black actors perform as a white family…it's still not a true reflection” (Velagaleti and Epp 2017). Ouch. Reflect the shared meanings, rituals, norms, traditions, aspirations, and values of a community and the modern family. Featuring real families, with stories grounded in their actual experiences, is one way to encourage this authenticity.
3. Learn from brands who’ve done it well
Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” campaign and Allstate’s “Mala Suerte” (bad luck) character were recently recognized at the Association for National Advertiser’s Multicultural Excellence Awards. Coca-Cola’s ad was praised for acknowledging the diverse ethnic backgrounds that make up our country and the contributions of many communities to the economy and culture. Allstate’s “Mala Suerte” spots were praised for comically leveraging melodramatic moments from telenovelas.
So what products or campaigns do you think are out of step with demographic shifts? How could they be more responsive to demographic/familial changes? How are your own brands doing today – are you ready to get active? We would love to help you get the answers. Email me at email@example.com
Keep your brand fresh and in step with these reads:
Parker and Livingston (2017, June 15), “6 Facts about American Fathers” Pew Research Center.
Pew Research Center (2015, December 17), “Parenting in America.”
Velagaleti and Epp (2017), “From Symbolic Violence to Revolution: How Social Change Impacts Consumer Legitimacy in the Marketplace,” Working Paper, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Wang, Wendy (2015, June 12), “Interracial Marriage: Who is ‘Marrying Out’,” Pew Research Center.
 Coca-Cola’s ad was just as divisive the second time around when it aired during the 2017 Super Bowl.