Ad Age spoke with 12 advertising execs about the state of multicultural marketing, how it’s evolving and its ongoing challenges

By Brian Bonilla. Published on April 02, 2024.

Gilbert Dávila remembers when the term multicultural marketing was coined about 20 years ago during an ANA meeting.

At the time, multicultural marketing represented an advance from minority marketing or ethnic marketing, as it was then called, because it embraced not just one, but many groups. Multicultural marketing, which got its name during a group conversation involving Dávila, “became an umbrella that not only housed Hispanic, African American and Asian, but for the first time, it included LGBTQ and even people with disabilities,” said the co-founder of the ANA’s Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing and CEO of DMI Consulting.

But now, there is a debate over whether the term should be retired and if the word culture is being appropriated.

While no one disputes the value of reaching under-represented groups—$45.8 billion is expected to be spent on U.S. multicultural advertising this year (which is still less than 6% of total spending), according to research firm PQ Media—there is a growing clash over the role of “cultural” versus “multicultural” marketing, and discussion over whether the latter term is limited or dated.

Some believe that the word multicultural, which was adopted to communicate inclusion, can actually be exclusionary—resulting in multicultural marketing being siloed, or as Dávila put it, “disassociated from the rest of the marketing team.”

Multicultural as a word comes with “baggage that creates a challenge,” IW Group President and CEO Nita Song said. “The strength of multicultural is that it is probably the most recognized word, it is the one common word that we’ve all grown up with and clients understand it. But I don’t think it’s been supported in the best way in terms of the opportunities that are presented today.”

Emerging terms

At issue is whether the term multicultural, the widely accepted way of describing marketing catered toward diverse audiences including race, gender and sexual orientation, is too synonymous with racial or ethnic marketing. This has given birth to new terms meant to act as an evolution from the word. Agencies such as Sensis, BeautifulBeast and Lerma/, for example, call themselves cross-cultural shops.

BeautifulBeast’s website explains it this way: “While our DNA is Hispanic, we are a cross-cultural agency.”

“Cross-cultural is a broader term,” said Pedro Lerma, principal and founder of Texas-based agency Lerma/. “We believe that we can credibly address and lead with underrepresented segments of the market, so it’s not just about being inclusive within the agency, but it’s about having a real respect and being willing to lead with a perspective that is other than your own.”

Rob Velez, VP of inclusive network sales at music-video platform Vevo, said he saw the need for a move away from multicultural toward “inclusive marketing” around 2020.

“I grew up in this industry and it was always … you have your general market and then you have multicultural,” Velez said. “[Multicultural] was always the afterthought … I’ve just always seen multicultural as this separate thing that wasn’t really thought of from inception.”

If the term inclusive becomes adopted broadly, Velez hopes it makes marketing to diverse audiences a larger part of brands’ efforts. Since Vevo’s Inclusive practice launched six years ago, previously under the term of multicultural marketing, it has grown by double digits each year, Velez said.

But there are still some marketers that “hesitate to speak to a new audience that they haven’t spoken to before and coming off as inauthentic and possibly upsetting them to the point where that segment of the population will reject that brand,” Velez said.

Beatriz Rojas, the head of brand advertising at healthcare company Kaiser Permanente, said she and the company adopted the phrase inclusive marketing six years ago. She said the phrase is broader and fits better with the company’s mission to provide healthcare to all types of people.

“We want to make sure that every deliverable we do is really appropriate and effectively connecting with our diverse audiences,” Rojas said.

Agencies such as Alma, which has its roots in Latin culture, interchangeably work on different types of accounts. “We don't like to label ourselves,” said Isaac Mizrahi, CEO of Alma and author of the book “Hispanic Market Power.”

“With the Latino population at the threshold of crossing 20% of the population, or a much higher percentage of millennials and Gen Z consumers, you don’t have to pick sides, you can be both a great agency and a great multicultural agency,” he added.

Culture versus pop culture

These younger audiences are now more culturally diverse in how they identify themselves and the types of content they consume, making multicultural expertise more necessary for brands and agencies.

For example, Peso Pluma, a regional Mexican music artist, is one of the hottest artists right now and was YouTube’s most-viewed artist in 2023 over big names such as Drake and Taylor Swift. Pluma’s popularity speaks to how multicultural is ingrained in culture; to be sure, this is not a new premise, with hip-hop influencing advertising since the 90s.

Moreover, Gen Zers are more openly diverse in their sexual orientations. A recent report found that 28% of Gen Z adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. That compares to 16% of millennials and 7% of baby boomers who identify as LGBTQ+, according to the same report.

A recent report found that 28% of Gen Z adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. That compares to 16% of millennials and 7% of baby boomers who identify as LGBTQ+, according to the same report.

As a result, some brands are broadening the multicultural term and embracing the term “culture” instead to fit their specific target goals. Over the last several years, the term culture has significantly grown as a way to describe assignments, positions and business units within agencies and brands.

TBWA opened a cultural intelligence unit in 2016 called Backslash, which is focused on reporting on industry trends. And in 2019, The Martin Agency set up the Cultural Impact Lab, which is centered around brand activations, PR, talent sourcing for projects and other topics. These remits and practices can often straddle the line between pop culture, subculture and at times multicultural work.

There’s also been a move for brands to hire so-called culture agencies. Chipotle works with influencer and social agency Day One as its “culture agency,” while Patrón and Taco Bell have assigned MTW agency and Cashmere, respectively, to culture agency of record remits. (MTW connected Patrón with Becky G for a campaign created by M Booth last summer.)

But all three agencies are different: Day One specializes in influencer and social marketing while Cashmere and MTW have roots in multicultural marketing. This raises the question of which types of agencies should be charged with leading marketing around culture.

Understanding subcultures

McDonald’s is an example of a mass-market brand that has been successful in understanding different subcultures—in February, the burger chain introduced its own anime. It has long used marketing that hits on different cultures, while also resonating with a mainstream audience.

Much of that work has been done by Wieden+Kennedy, but the chain also works with agencies that specialize in reaching market segments—such as IW Group for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders marketing, Alma for Latino marketing and Walton Isaacson for African American and LGBTQ+-focused campaigns.

Similarly, Hyundai Motor America has separate agencies of record for marketing to Asian, African American and Hispanic audiences. Last week, the automaker’s African American agency of record Culture Brands launched a new campaign called “The Drop.”

Daniel Maynez, a manager of multicultural marketing at Hyundai Motor America, said the automaker’s multicultural marketing encompasses African American, Asian and Hispanic marketing efforts. How “multicultural” is defined depends on how each organization defines it, he said.

“That’s not to say that we don’t have additional efforts that support diversity, equity, and inclusion, LGBTQIA+, or other ethnic and culturally diverse groups,” Maynez said. “It just means something different to everyone.”

Team Epiphany, which was acquired by Stagwell in January, calls itself a culture-first agency because of its diverse staff and ability to connect brands to different communities, co-founder Coltrane Curtis said.

“The agency also specializes in decoding culture—not only understanding what’s trending, but where those trends are coming from, why they are trending and forecasting where they will go in the future,” Curtis said. “This leads to a term that we use called ‘aspirational multiculturalism’ that meets your target consumers and communities where they would like to be and what they are working towards. It takes into consideration their hopes for family, friends and community versus leaning in on traditional, outdated or stereotypical beliefs about the target.”

Not just anyone can be an expert on specific cultural segments, according to Aaron Walton, CEO of Walton Isaacson, which works with clients such as McDonald’s, American Airlines and Lexus. “You can’t just create a title, create a department and not have the history, the passion or the depth of understanding for that particular culture,” Walton said.

After working with American Airlines as its multicultural agency, Walton Isacsson was brought on as the carrier’s creative AOR in 2022 and launched its first spot for the brand the following year. The spot featured diverse travelers utilizing the airline’s different services.

“Whether it’s segment-specific work or a broader work order, the segments are included in the broader work,” Walton said. “Whether it’s American Airlines or whomever we’re working with, we make sure we are accurately reflecting a culture and not playing into stereotypes or a perceived understanding of who they are based on a notion that people that aren’t in the segment have about the segment.”

Jason Cambell, chief creative officer of Translation, said in a February interview that the word “culture” is being “co-opted” in the industry. “Most of the people using the word don’t know what the word means or are mistaking popular culture for culture,” Campbell said.

Steve Stoute, who founded Translation 20 years ago, recently told Ad Age it was initially hard to sell the idea of creating work through a cultural lens because it was considered niche.

“Whether it was culture or diversity, those topics back then meant nothing, and now they mean everything,” Stoute said. He added that many agencies now lie about their cultural expertise.

Joe Anthony, the founder and CEO of Hero Media and the Hero Collective, called what is happening in the industry “cultural appropriation in the absence of cultural fluency.”

If you don’t have people of color being empowered through budgets and C-suite positions to influence the work a brand does, the work won’t be “authentic,” Walton added.

“You can’t have cultural insights without it being underpinned by Black and brown insights, because Black and brown culture drives popular culture,” Anthony said.

“The problem right now is that culture is becoming the new “Total Market.” “Total market” refers to a phenomenon in which the industry shifted from targeting particular multicultural segments to strategies that appeal to a multicultural nation.

“‘Total market’ was like the dark days of multicultural,” Velez said. “The promise of ‘total market’ had very good intentions; it's actually where we kind of are today. But it was hijacked by the general market to mean that you don’t need to focus on these diverse audiences because the bigger sort of traditional linear general market networks can reach them in this passive way. It took the multicultural marketplace a few steps back, decreased the investments and multicultural experts were no longer being contracted to do some of the work.”

Pop culture and culture are very different things, and pop culture is often used to appropriate culture, according to Anthony.

“Culture is the contribution that a collection of people make to society based upon their traditions, their backgrounds, etc., and if you don’t understand the origins of people and how they self-identify and why and how they create the cultural offerings to society and the reasons behind it, you’re always just going to be chasing trends and calling that culture marketing,” Anthony said.

“Access to these people determines who gets to be the purveyors of culture, and because I’m a small agency, I don't have access to the CMOs of XYZ, I can’t counterbalance or counteract the cultural BS that somebody else is feeding to this person,” he added.

Dove and Beats by Dre. are among the brands that have launched campaigns with a clear “cultural point of view,” according to Anthony.

“Dove doesn’t sell soap, they sell self-confidence. That’s their cultural currency,” Anthony said. “They want to add value to women’s lives by changing a cultural standard that has perpetuated the way that women feel, which then makes women feel good about themselves,” he said.

“If you’re not utilizing your campaign, to invest in a cultural point of view that adds value to society in some material way, then you're not doing cultural marketing,” Anthony added. “You're creating cultural campaigns that leverage people with other cultural equity that you're trying to attach yourself to.”

Measuring influence

While many industry leaders don’t agree on whether or not the term multicultural should change, most agree it has less to do with the terminology and more about the intent of marketing to diverse audiences.

IW's Song said marketing should evolve to where it should be measured by influence rather than ethnicity or size of a population.

“I'm not married to the word,” Walton said. “What I’m committed to is getting marketers and the advertising industry to value the art and science of marketing to specific cultural segments, using specific cultural insights and getting the budgets to align with the power of these consumer segments.”

“If the word ‘multicultural marketing’ goes completely away, I and many of us, fear that it would leave the consciousness of marketers,” said Dávila, who helped coin the term and has worked at companies such as Coca-Cola Co., Sears Roebuck & Co. and Walt Disney. “It’s less about the appropriateness of the word to describe consumers; it’s more about the internal corporate meaning that it has.”

Anthony said he’s an advocate of keeping the term multicultural.

“There’s still the need to drill down and talk to specific sub-segments of the community, certain communities that need to be celebrated, acknowledged, called out in ways that make them feel unique and acknowledged within your targeting.”

Dávila said one issue is some marketers use multicultural as a one-size-fits-all term.

“Some companies might be only doing Hispanic [marketing] but then they still call it multicultural,” Dávila said. “When you have a multicultural marketing department, define it."

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