The New MainstreamHow the Multicultural Consumer Is Transforming American Business
It's a balmy summer day at New York City's historic South StreetSeaport. Outside, tourists in T-shirts and shorts stroll the cobblestoneavenues that surround the Fulton Fish Market and gape atnineteenth-century sailing ships that conjure a bygone era. A few yardsaway, in an air-conditioned loft with panoramic views of the East Riverand the Brooklyn Bridge, a hundred or so men and women in business attireare staring at a PowerPoint projection screen, trying to peer into thefuture. They have come to the historic Bridgewaters complex to attendthe tenth annual Multicultural Equity Conference, sponsored by theStrategic Research Institute (SRI), a privately owned company that catersto the information and networking needs of executives and human resourceofficers in finance, technology, marketing, media, and other industries.For the better part of two days, the SRI attendees will be listening toa parade of distinguished speakers telling them everything they need toknow about the multicultural economy and why they need to know it.Omar Wasow, an Internet entrepreneur and TV technology commentatorwho is serving as master of ceremonies, keeps things moving at a brisk talk show tempo, pacing the room with a wireless microphone and pausingoccasionally for a well-timed quip. The attendees chuckle at Wasow'sjokes and then continue taking notes as if their jobs depend on it, which toa certain extent they do. In a consumer environment where white non-Latinos will make up only 50 percent of the population in 2050, understandingthe New Mainstream has become critical for business survival.Those who thrive in the multicultural marketplace will do so not justbecause of their ability to anticipate what's to come, but because they'veabsorbed the degree to which things have already changed.
Part data download, part meet and greet, part born-again revivalistmeeting, the SRI Multicultural Equity Conference is predicated on thenotion that the multicultural market is growing and that the people in theroom are in the right place at exactly the right time to capitalize on it. Asthe conference breaks for lunch, the attendees cluster in the corridors andtrade business cards. "It's gotten bigger every year," notes Rupa Ranganathan,a senior vice president of ethnic strategy for SRI who has beenorganizing ethnic marketing conferences for the firm since 1998. "The demographicis achieving critical mass. The mainstream is going multicultural.That is the trend. And we are at a very exciting crossroads. Becauseit's like when you plant a garden, and now is just the time when you see it'sbeginning to bloom. Earlier you had to fight for it, but now you don't haveto make too much of a case for multicultural marketing, because who intheir right mind is not aware of this growth?"
Ranganathan has noticed an evolution in the interests and attitudes ofethnic marketers, who are increasingly focused on the business case for diversity,which includes tracking return on investment as well as internalstaffing and representation. "There are more and more sophisticated discussionsat these conferences, simply because the practice is evolving veryrapidly," she says. "Every year we see new topics, new buzzwords, new issues,new challenges. The next phase we are all headed to right now is howto do it right, how to do it more effectively, how to be creative. Because it'snot enough to say, 'Okay, I've said it in a different language,' or 'I've used afew important cultural cues.' It's going beyond language, to where you'rereally empathizing and making a cultural connection." Ranganathan, who was born in India and worked in the advertising industry there beforecoming to the United States, sees parallels in marketing trends betweenAmerica and her native country, which has long been a multiethnic, polyglotdemocracy. "Fifty years from now, you may not really need a SouthAsian or a Latino to effectively market to that segment, because hopefullythere is going to be such a cross-pollination of ideas and understanding ofculture and behavior issues that by that time everyone will be a global,multicultural citizen," she says. "It's all going to be mixed up. So youmight find a Chinese writer coming up with an excellent creative for aLatino ad. That's something way ahead, but I see it coming."
Back in the main conference room, the mood is expectant, even conspiratorial,like that among a group of revolutionaries who know that whatthey are hearing will change everything, even if most people don't realizeit yet. The speakers range from Ray Celaya, an assistant vice president ofemerging markets at Allstate Insurance Company, to Miriam Muley, anexecutive director of diversity growth markets for General Motors. AT&TWireless, Lehman Bros., Fannie Mae, and more than a dozen other majorU.S. companies are also represented. Some of the speakers have come tobuild their brands, some have come to raise their profile or plug their newbook, but every one of them is there to spread the multicultural gospel.The message of the entire conference, and others just like it in Miami, LosAngeles, Chicago, and other cities across the country, is crystallized at onepoint in a single sentence by Jeffrey Humphreys, an economic forecasterat the Simon Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University ofGeorgia: "We are witnessing a shift in economic power that will reshapethe economic, political, and cultural landscape of America."
Humphreys has the numbers to back up his claim. The Selig Centerprojects that by 2008, the combined buying power of African Americans,Asians, and Native Americans will account for 14.3 percent of the nation'stotal, or $10.6 trillion, up from 10.7 percent in 1990.1 Latino buyingpower, or total income after taxes, will rise from $653 billion in 2003 to$1,014.2 billion, outpacing the buying power of African Americans, whichwill rise over the same period from $688 billion to $921 billion ...Continues...