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A TCI Book Review

Multicultural Marketing ­ Selling to a Diverse America

Marlene L. Rossman
American Management Association, New York, 1994, ISBN 0-8144-5071-7

Marlene Rossman is President of Rossman Graham, a New York-based firm specializing in the development of multicultural marketing strategies, and an acknowledged expert in the field. According to her, multicultural marketing is an element of business strategy that has tremendous unrecognized potential:

"The trend in every aspect of American life is toward greater cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity. Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and other culturally distinct segments canąt all be targeted with the same goods and services via the same marketing and advertising strategies that succeeded when the United States was (or thought it was) a monolithic, Anglo-dominated market...

These previously untargeted minority markets spend billions of dollars annually. The total annual spending power of African- and Asian-American and Hispanic consumers is estimated at more than $500 billion dollars!" (p.xx)

The key point of this book is that cultural differences between a particular target cultural group and the "mainstream market" can be tremendously important when designing marketing campaigns oriented toward the target group. Rossman uses anthropologist Edward T. Hall's categorization scheme of 'high context/low context' cultures to conceptualize the differences between many minority segments and the mainstream: "Communication in a high context culture depends heavily on the context, or nonverbal aspects of communication; low-context cultures depend more on explicit, verbally expressed communication. According to Hall, the United States is a low-context culture, relying heavily on information communicated explicitly by words. Asian and Hispanic cultures, by contrast, are high-context cultures." (p.34)

So minority groups are much more likely to rely upon the nonverbal and non-textual aspects of marketing communications in deciphering the messages in advertising and marketing communications, picking up cues from the tone of voice, the looks exchanged between individuals, the relative social positions of people portrayed in ads, etc. And even in these nonverbal areas there are cultural differences: Rossman uses the example of how in schools, so-called 'mainstream' American children are taught to look at their teachers directly when being spoken to as a sign of attention, whereas many minority groups regard looking an elder in the eyes as a sign of disrespect. And in adult society, many mainstream Americans consider that if somebody doesn't look you in the eye they are shifty and untrustworthy, whereas many adult Asians, for example, consider this to be rude or confrontational.

Other cultural differences that Rossman notes are:

  • (obviously) language differences: many first-generation immigrants to the US are unable to read or write in English, or only do so very poorly
  • differences with respect to the use of time: mainstream Americans tend to adopt a protestant work ethic of 'work first, play later' whereas many minority groups have a tradition of interspersing work with leisure throughout the working day
  • differences with respect to the position of the individual: mainstream Americans, with a tradition of 'rugged individualism', tend to identify first with the self, and secondarily with the group, whereas many minority groups place the family and the group ahead of self
  • differences with respect to rank, social hierarchy and tradition: many minority groups place a high value on rank within the social group and tradition, as opposed to mainstream Americans who rely more on the proven value of an individual (i.e. a meritocracy), and products and services that are innovative ­ Rossman notes that the familiar advertising tag line of 'new and improved' often does not work with minority groups, who are looking more for tradition and stability as the determinants of merit
  • differences in attitudes towards religion: many minority groups tend adhere more towards their religious beliefs than mainstream Americans
  • differences in taste and diet: Rossman notes that some cultures have different reactions to tastes and types of food - for example, a relatively high proportion of Asians are lactose-intolerant; Hispanic and African-American groups tend not to like tart flavors (such as are found in lemon-lime drinks, for example)
  • different attitudes towards colours, numbers and symbols: Different cultures have different traditions relating to the use of colours, numbers and symbols that marketers should be aware of when promoting to these groups ­ for example, the colour white and the number 4 are, to many Asians, symbols associated with death ­ Rossman also mentions in this context that former President Ronald Reagan would often, upon arrival in a Latin American country, give the 'OK' sign (thumb and forefinger in a closed circle) when disembarking from the plane ­ to many Latin Americans, though, this is an obscene gesture (which could not have helped foreign relations initiatives!)
Another critical factor to consider when marketing to minority groups, is the degree of acculturation or assimilation into 'mainstream' American culture. Rossman defines assimilation as an immigrant group adopting mainstream attitudes and behaviors instead of retaining their immigrant heritage. Acculturation, on the other hand, implies that the immigrant group selectively incorporates elements of mainstream culture into their lifestyle. She also notes that a phenomenon of re-acculturation occurs, where an assimilated group tries to reacquaint themselves or their children with the traditions and lifestyles of their heritage. The longer a minority group is in the country, the more likely it is that they will be assimilated, although there are factors such as visible differences, traditional attitudes towards religion and social position, etc., that will influence this process.

The bulk of this book describes certain characteristics of three major multicultural groups in the United States today ­ Hispanics, Asian Americans, and African Americans. (The emphasis is entirely upon the United States, with no references at all to Canada.) Some of the interesting highlights in her discussion of each of these groups are:


  • race is not a unifying factor among Hispanics ­ there are many different groups, and the most significant segmentation factor is national origin ­ the major groupings are Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Salvadorans ­ there may, in fact be active discrimination between various Hispanic minority groups (for example, in New York, Dominicans who are on average darker-skinned than Cubans, tend not to settle near Cubans due to racial prejudice)
  • unifying factors do however tend to be an emphasis upon family and children; a devotion to religion and tradition (with a Roman Catholic basis); an emphasis on quality of life and enjoyment; an emphasis on aesthetics and emotions; and the Spanish language
  • related to the foregoing, divorce is still unacceptable in many Hispanic households
  • obligations to the extended family are considered very important (so, for example, ads featuring the stereotypical battleaxe mother-in-law may not work well with a Hispanic audience)
  • 80% of Hispanics marry other Hispanics, so there is a relatively slow rate of acculturation and assimilation


  • in percentage terms, the Asian-American market is the fastest-growing in the US
  • six significant Asian-American markets are identified in the book: 1) Filipinos (the largest and probably most assimilated group); 2) Chinese; 3) Japanese; 4) Koreans; 5) Vietnamese; and 6) Asian-Indians ­ each of these groups has a different language and culture (and in the case of Asian-Indians, a different racial heritage) ­ it is very important for the marketer not to lump them all into one 'Asian-American' group ­ the book contains some good discussion as to the different characteristics and approaches that are useful to approaching each group
  • despite the significant differences between the Asian-American sub-groups, there are some unifying characteristics; these are:
  • a higher rate of business ownership than the general population
  • a Confucian heritage (for most Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese cultures), which emphasizes respect for authority (especially teachers and parents), hard work, delayed gratification, and long-term relationships)
  • an attitude that it is poor form to display emotions in public
  • the majority of Asian-American households are quite affluent ­ in part because of a higher than average number of individuals in the household, and in part because of the high premium that Asian-Americans place on getting an education and a good job (compare their college-completion rate of 39% with the American average of 17%)


  • in her discussion of this particular market, Rossman maintains that it is most important to dispel three myths about African-Americans:
  • myth #1 ­ all blacks are poor ­ only one-third of black American families were below the poverty line in 1991 ­ two thirds were above ­ affluent blacks tend to be far less visible (i.e. located in the suburbs) than impoverished ones (located in highly-visible urban areas)
  • myth #2 ­ the same ads an reach both blacks and whites ­ according to Rossman, blacks tend to scrutinize ads for hidden meanings relating to racism and master/servant relationships ­ they are also very cognizant of inclusive advertising (and it's lack, when ads supposedly targeted to the 'mainstream' do not feature blacks)
  • myth #3 ­ Willie Horton or Bill Cosby ­ this stereotype relates to a view of mainstream America that blacks are either lowlife criminals (such as the notorious murderer Willie Horton) or successful and upscale (like entertainer Bill Cosby) ­ the reality, says Rossman, is that there is a huge middle market of African-American spending power that is waiting to be tapped
Each of the chapters devoted to these three groups ends with a dialogue between the author and some individual who is involved in marketing goods or services to that particular target group. These dialogues contain some very interesting 'real world' lessons about multicultural marketing.

In a concluding chapter, Rossman describes the attitudes and characteristics of various other minority groups, which are:

  • native Americans
  • Americans with disabilities
  • gays and lesbians
  • kosher and halal (dietary restrictions observed by some Moslems)

Although a little dated (it was published in 1994), Multicultural Marketing nonetheless contains some very valuable advice on marketing to multicultural groups ­ applicable in both the US and Canada.

THE TCI MANAGEMENT CONSULTANTS RATING: * * * * (out of a possible 5 stars)




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