Courting Theethnic Consumer
By JOANNA COSGROVE
America is truly a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities and nowhere is that fact more evident than on grocery store shelves. Consumers of Asian, Hispanic, Indian and African origin are seeking products with a familiar cultural tone, and private label marketers are meeting these demands with expanded corporate brand products. But marketing to specific ethnicities requires careful study and a tactful approach.
“To reach the specific ethnic groups a company has to use a vertical plan, not just doing something like putting a Spanish label on a product and calling it an Hispanic program,” offers Jose Lopez, president, Lopez Advertising Group, El Paso, Texas, an agency that helps retailers effectively market to Hispanic consumers. “They need to understand the needs and wants of a specific ethnic group as a base for any ethnic programs. Make sure you don’t just translate literally, but communicate to them a clear message with a feature and benefit.”
The success of any private label program is rooted in the trust of that private label name built through consistent delivery of high quality across all product lines. “Many newly arrived immigrants do not trust private label as having high quality and perceive it as being a cheap, inferior alternative for poor people,” says Patrick Radler, director business development, Epicurean International Inc., Union City, Calif. “In many ethnic groups, choosing the highest food quality for the family is the number one decision for a purchase. As ethnic groups acculturate they behave similarly to their native counterparts and become more comfortable and educated about the value offered by purchasing private label products.”
The trust in a brand is especially critical for first- and second-generation ethnic groups. “They tend to gravitate to what they know and that might lead them to ethnic stores that carry the products they know and trust,” says Rodriguez. “Over time they become better acquainted with regular grocery environments and start shifting some of the purchases and articles to those that deliver on their expectations. It is amazing how properly labeled product can reassure an otherwise hesitant convert candidate.”
According to those immersed in the field, marketing to ethnic groups is definitely more involved than the marketing efforts typically skewed toward mainstream Caucasians. “No ethnic group is homogeneous,” says Jim Speake, vice president of sales, Evans Food Group, Chicago. “You really want to understand what target group you are going after and what needs are being met for that group with your product.”
The message being communicated through packaging and media must be consistent with their particular needs and lifestyles, taking into account relevant cultural references such as color. Color signals are especially vital in some Asian cultures where it symbolizes luck, while in some Middle Eastern countries, red has a negative connotation.
The degree of difference is impacted by the level of acculturation. “The most important elements are those that recognize unique dynamics for many of the ethnic groups without assuming any ‘mainstreaming’ behavior,” points out Ricardo Rodriguez, director of marketing, San Antonio Farms (formerly Van De Walle Farms), San Antonio, Texas. “Among those critical dynamics are younger demographics, larger family groups, utilization of native language, concentration of media, and adherence to their country of origin cuisine to mention a few critical ones.”
Language is the most critical aspect of an ethnic product’s packaging landscape. For many, English is a second language, but that’s not all. Just as Northern Americans speak with a different English dialect than Southern Americans, so too are there dialectal subtleties among different ethnicities. “Geographical differences in the Hispanic population are very important, especially in product labeling,” says Felix Cortez, director of sales, Federated Group, Arlington Heights, Ill. “Hispanics from the Caribbean speak Castilian Spanish, as opposed to Hispanics from Texas or Mexico. The dialects are very different, which has to be considered even in things like the nutritional panel information.”
The most common and effective way to break through the language barrier is through the use of bi- and tri-lingual labels. “Hispanic consumers will respond more favorably to dual language label products even those with subtle Spanish language descriptors below the English,” says Radler. “Strong branding in ethnic media and clear, memorable packaging graphics will help connect with consumers at the point of purchase. ”
“I would estimate about 70 percent of the decision to buy is based on the language, although some consumers don’t care at all,” concurs Cortez, whose company converted its Red & White brand to include a bilingual label. “Some consumers want to see their ethnicity represented on the package, even if the packaging is English-only. This may be especially important in English-speaking ethnic groups such as African-Americans or acculturated Asian-Americans.”
The language barrier also forces marketers to use other emotional and visual cues, such as price point, packaging and colors. “By working together, those other areas can make up for a package not being in the consumer’s native tongue,” says Hillman. “In some cases, products can be in English but the point-of-sale material is in the native language.”
“More companies are realizing that in order to gain awareness and loyalty among groups whose primary language is not English, they must reach out to them in their primary language,” says Speake. “Just 10 years ago, many companies did not direct marketing and advertising dollars to Spanish media, and those that did used it only as a symbolic gesture. Now, Spanish advertising is booming, as marketers are seeing the huge increases in the Hispanic population as current and future consumers that cannot be ignored.”
Linguistic hurdles aside, one of the most challenging aspects of ethnic marketing is effectively navigating the regional differences between specific ethnic populations. For example, Hispanics hailing from Mexico often have cultural distinctions different from Hispanics hailing from Cuba, Florida or Texas. Geographical differences definitely impact how private label products are marketed. “Those differences are some of the most undercapitalized in the marketplace and at times, the basis for some incredible gaffes and some amazing successes,” says Rodriguez. “For example, assuming that all Hispanics grew up eating burritos and tortillas is plain wrong. To the surprise of many, Miami and New York have some of the lowest category development indexes in the U.S. for salsa dips, and conversely some of the largest population of Caribbean Hispanics.”
“If you know the difference you can avoid head bruises by trying to push for refried beans in Miami or expecting Caribbean Hispanics to start eating salsa just because it is written in Spanish,” he adds. “By recognizing the differences you can create an assortment program that builds on that unique insight and have a store brand program that does not assume anything. Knowing the difference can help to position the items as a new idea as opposed to an assumed idea. That by itself will help drive the right message.”
Because many private label products are regionally skewed, there is the advantage of developing and marketing products to a specific target group within the geographical market, agrees Speake. “So when a West Coast brand is focusing on the Hispanic community it will deliver products and messages that have more of a Mexican flavor. In New York, the message would be directed more to the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities. In Miami, the predominant population is Cuban and Colombian, so they should be targeted in this area.”
There are even some instances where crossover items are possible. “Private label can look to international brands for some ideas. For example, although not widely known in the United States, Ariel detergent is popular in many parts of the world,” comments Ken Hillman, vice president of new business development, Federated Group. “Retailers have a wonderful opportunity to get very familiar with their consumers and find the items that are especially important to them. In some cases, private label can be even more specific since it is often unique to one retailer.”
Effective Marketing Techniques
Once the marketer has overcome a product’s image and language obstacles, it’s time to get down to the business of marketing the product.
“The best practices are those that recognize the differences among the different ethnic groups and craft a message and execution that build on that knowledge,” says Rodriguez. “Learn about your ethnic consumers so you can better serve them, tailor the products to increase ethnic appeal (learn from the products they already buy), and ensure that the benefit communication is understood by retailing partners so the merchandising and store communication is built around the ethnic insight.”
C&F Foods Inc., City of Industry, Calif., fine tunes its focus on package, placement and price point. Using that approach, it took a bean familiar to many ethic groups ranging from Mexican, Columbian, Peruvian and Chileans and marketed it to all of them through packaging, pricing and placement. “This bean is called a Mayocobas, Peruano (and) Canario and it’s used in many different ways depending on the hailing ethnic group,” notes Luis Faura, C&F Foods president and chief operating officer. “We have it offered in sizes from 1 pound to 50 pounds depending on the channel and target group.”
From a retail perspective, Hillman lauds Fiesta Mart for there efforts in reaching the Hispanic consumer through product mix, packaging design, store layout and point-of-sale programs. “They have built their business on listening to the consumer and responding accordingly,” Hillman says.
Cortez adds that retailers should be able to relate to various ethnic groups by having members of that community working in the stores. “Letting consumers know that workers speak their language is also very important,” he says.
For Epicurean International, grass roots marketing efforts have yielded the best response and have helped generate a lasting loyalty between the consumer and their product. “Newly arrived ethnic groups consider American products to be of high quality and are considered prestigious. These groups want to learn about them, so we utilize sampling in stores that are located in targeted demographic areas using demonstrators that speak their language, are well trained about our products and are personable and likable by the consumers,” says Radler. “Sampling through the use of door hangers has also been very effective in generating trial and sales. Some groups consider couponing to be offensive, like a government subsidy or food stamps for poor people so we do not use them.”
In the end, successful ethnic marketing can be boiled down to age-old advice straight out of Marketing 101. “Marketing to ethnic groups is similar to marketing to mainstream Americans,” says Lopez. “Know your audience, understand their culture and its differences, understand their needs and wants, market to their needs, in their language with a message that is meaningful to them.” PLB