National Hispanic Heritage Month begins Sept. 15. As always during these special heritage months set aside to recognize the contribution various ethnic groups have made to American society, we will again be witness to brands scrambling to put something out to show their diverse target markets that they do in fact care about their communities, employ people that look like them, speak their language and eat their food.
While the intention is to do the right thing by these markets, few corporations capitalize fully on the opportunity these heritage months present: To make a brand statement that fully engages minority markets while continuing to intrigue mainstream audiences and broaden appeal overall.
What companies need to realize is that symbolic gestures not on par with their regular branding efforts are a direct reflection on the overall brand. Instead they usually feel more like an internally focused HR initiative rather than an external branding effort.
People of diverse heritages enjoy their unique traditions on a regular basis. Most who live a bicultural existence take the best of both worlds, and enjoy the benefits of each. We don't expect many others to understand, although we appreciate it when they do. If brands want to truly engage us during these heritage months, we would love for them to do us proud by showcasing our culture as powerful, influential and attractive to a broader audience.
Culture has long had a place in the best kind of brand building and storytelling. Some brands, especially youth brands, include culture naturally since their markets in the major taste-making urban centers are around 50 percent diverse. This does wonders for their mainstream efforts. Fashion brands, for instance, often incorporate culture in advertising and seasonal trend developments but rarely tie it into a heritage effort. Most brand stewards seem to be caught off guard by heritage events, as they somehow are never considered a part of general marketing campaigns. They sneak up at the last minute, after budgets have been spent, and time is running out.
Another common mistake companies make is relegating these marketing efforts to a small diversity group, or a single diversity champion, who may have good intentions but none of the brand-building credentials to go along with them. Generally this champion also often happens to be the sole person of color on the team, with another job title with conflicting responsibilities. This person wants to do the right thing, but is given no time and little resources to work with.
The challenge of applying your brand values to celebrate a specific culture during a dedicated period can be a most rewarding one. If done properly, this effort can add dimension to your brand, as well as boost long-term popularity and sales within fast-growing markets. A start would be to seize upon these heritage events as seasonal brand-building/sales opportunities and assign goals that will tie-in marketing efforts the same way they would to any other campaign. Brands should let go of the fear that they will alienate their mainstream market if the campaign is too "ethnic." This attitude is usually baseless and speaks more to the limited vision of the brand manager in charge. The right agency with enough cultural proficiency can provide a colorful story that delivers both for the market and for your brand.
Reassess your target market for these efforts. The heritage months are your opportunity to boost sales using an ethnic flavor to tell your brand story to a mainstream audience while giving credit to the importance of your ethnic markets.
See it that way, and you'll have a whole new perspective on these significant months.
Susan Jaramillo is chief creative officer of the vox collective.