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How brands can better connect with multicultural consumers

As Canada’s population diversifies, Barrett and Welsh’s Gavin Barrett shares why brands need to authentically reflect a range of backgrounds in their marketing
Kristin Laird
gavin barrett
Gavin Barrett

More than 8.3 million immigrants were living in Canada as of 2021, according to the most recent census data from Statistics Canada. A number that will continue to grow. And yet, marketing communications from brands and retailers don’t always reflect our changing society. 

We chatted with Gavin Barrett, co-founder of Barrett and Welsh, a Toronto-based visible-minority-led branding and advertising agency, about crafting campaigns that resonate with multicultural consumers, where to reach them and why you should never use Google Translate as a copywriting tool. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Each touchpoint on the customer journey matters – displays, flyers, social media and websites – what questions should grocers ask themselves when communicating with multicultural consumers?

As marketers, we want to speak to as many people on that journey as possible. We want to create in consumers a sense that we get them. At the most fundamental level, the assortment [grocers] carry expresses whether they understand their customers’ needs. Beyond that, telling multicultural shoppers about the assortment you carry is critical because they don’t know otherwise. 

What are those touchpoints? Yes, flyers in ethnic newspapers, but we are talking about things like [digital flyer app] Flipp, even sites like [content sharing forum] Reddit. There are screens in grocery stores that are available for use. What percentage of the messages on those screens are in non-official languages like Chinese or Farsi or Arabic or Punjabi? And it’s not a question of removing English or French, it’s a question of making room for the others.

Then, there are what I call pure ethnic channels. In Canada, there’s Fairchild TV and Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition, for example, and back “home” there are websites serving Canadian populations. The Times of India website attracts a huge number of eyeballs from Canada. Marketers need to include these things in their media mix.

READ: As consumers embrace global foods, grocers look to diversify their offerings

What are some of the pitfalls to avoid with multicultural marketing? 

There’s a bunch, but the first common mistake is what I call “insert visible minority here” advertising. Switching out somebody who’s white with somebody who’s brown or somebody who’s Black or somebody who’s Chinese is representation, not communication. It’s good to show diversity in your [mainstream] advertising because that is Canada today, but that’s a corporate style initiative, it’s not actual communication. It’s harmless, but useless.

The second mistake is only advertising around holidays and celebrations. It’s not enough. You don’t just do a Christmas ad and you’re done for the rest of the year. There’s barbecue season. The Muslim community is a huge meat-eating community. Halal foods are well north of a billion dollars in value in Canada. This is a huge market, so you can’t just be present when there’s a festive occasion. 

Another mistake is around translation. In fact, I’ve seen clients use Google Translate. The results are horrendous. And consumers know it. If you’re translating without meaning, consumers will know how shallow your intent is, and they will ridicule you. Translating advertising the right way, with deeper meaning, is likely to produce respect and loyalty. And that’s what any brand should be striving for.

In-store experience is key in developing a connection with consumers. How can grocers be more inclusive? 

It’s a combination of “address me” and “include me” in the store. For me, as a South Asian immigrant from Hong Kong, I look for brands I used when I was living there, as well as brands from back home in India. But the truth is, I don’t just need packaged snacks; I need toothpaste. I need detergent, but the detergent brand I’m familiar with may not be the detergent I see. So how are you helping me at the shelf? 

P&G’s biggest detergent brand in India is Ariel and in Canada we have Tide. Knowing that Tide comes from the same company that gave me Ariel back home is helpful. It’s training for immigrants who are in unfamiliar territory.

Research is a staple of mainstream marketing and a driving force behind every strategy. Do companies give the same consideration to multicultural marketing?

Multicultural data is critical, research is critical. There are great research firms, but not all research firms are equipped to do effective multicultural research. To do effective multicultural research, you need to have senior researchers at the table who have lived experiences and understand the sensitivities and differences between the various groups.

A common example I’ll use is how people will say, “Let’s do some research into the Black community.” Well, there is no monolithic Black community. This is an extremely diverse group of people. We have francophone Black Canadians coming from West Africa, from places like Senegal. We have English-speaking West Africans from places like Nigeria. We have the Caribbean community from places as diverse as Haiti and Jamaica. One is francophone, one is anglophone. To have someone on your research team that understands these distinctions, the richness of the diversity within a community and, therefore, what impact that has on recruitment, the language on a questionnaire, all those things bring value to the research.

Data is critical, but so is human experience. How important is it to have diverse perspectives at the table when creating a campaign or developing an in-store/online experience?

Having diverse teams working on your account matters. How diverse is your marketing team? Are the people who come from minority cultures, visible minorities, people of colour, are they empowered or are they in junior positions? Are they free to speak their mind or are they just in the room? 

Even in terms of the agencies you hire, most multicultural agencies are owned by minorities and they have experts with lived experience at the table, and that should be respected. Does your mainstream agency look like Toronto today? Or is it stuck in the ‘70s? Are the people who serve your account directors, creative directors, copywriters sufficiently diverse so they’re bringing their lived experience to the work they create?

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s March/April 2023 issue.

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