It is no secret – the demographics of America are rapidly shifting. In fact, according to the US Census Bureau, a majority of the U.S. population will be nonwhite by the year 2050. Combine these demographic shifts with the recent headlines featuring back-to-back injustices involving race, ethnicity, gender, and other uniquely identifying traits, never has it been more important in our lifetime to incorporate a genuine approach to cultural understanding in our marketing practices.
These realities place an especially high responsibility on researchers who safeguard the voice of consumers in board rooms. While yes, it is critical to hear from a diverse consumer base, it is equally as important to ensure they are properly represented through the analysis and reporting process to truly reach a level of cultural integration to make a meaningful difference.
While taking a culturally competent approach to research may sound simple, it is not. And before you ponder whether cultural fluency is even worthy of your team’s time or if it should be an imperative strategic focus, consider what the impact missteps have had on many global brands. But good news – it’s never too late to start your quest towards culturally competent research.
Global brands don’t have room for narrow-minded marketing
As recently as the early-2000s, the message track between consumers and brands typically started with brands deciding what campaign message they wanted to push and then subsequent media placement to focus on those key messages. In those days, breakthrough was often correlated with a brand’s advertising dollar spend and its share of voice in the media. Now, we are living in a world where consumers themselves often start viral conversations that brands must pay attention to in order to remain relevant.
While brands’ voices still carry incredible weight, it’s the consumers’ voice that is increasingly becoming important for companies to consider as they design products and marketing campaigns to speak to their consumers. And, as already established, that consumer voice is more diverse now than ever before – and will only increasingly become so in the next several years. Because of this reality, culturally competent marketing research cannot afford to be an afterthought – it must be central to how teams conduct the research process.
Characteristics and benefits of culturally competent marketing
So how do you know if you are on the path toward cultural competence in marketing research? Well, firstly, it’s important to acknowledge it is a journey – not a destination that you’re trying to arrive at. Many marketers and researchers want results now – at any cost. But, making decisions absent of cultural competence can be costly and damage brand reputation. Taking the first step and acknowledging areas in which additional learning is needed is the first step on the marathon journey of cultural competence.
But, once your team is on the journey of cultural competence, the rewards are plentiful.
- In culturally competent teams, there is an especially high regard for the consumer’s voice as unique and valuable, not monolithic. There are healthy debates on what a consumer truly wants and needs to improve their lives. Truly, the consumer is at the center of the marketing process.
- Additionally, culturally competent teams tend to exhibit more open-mindedness which translates into emboldened creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and new ways of tackling a problem. Cultural understanding requires one to assume the position of a student while listening intently with the desire to understand another culture that may vastly differ from one’s own. By taking the position of a student, creative solutions often emerge.
- Finally, culturally competent teams are better prepared for the future. It’s been widely reported that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams ultimately having a positive impact on the bottom line. In fact, according to Forbes, diverse teams make better business decisions 87% of the time. What’s more is that gender diversity at the leadership level increases company profitability, and that companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits.
The evidence is clear. Companies that achieve cultural competence fare better in profits and decision-making. Not only does it make good business sense, but it is every company’s duty to ensure cultural competence, show respect and uphold consumers’ dignity when developing products and services with the consumer in mind.
Ways to strengthen your cultural competence muscle
Even though achieving cultural competence may seem straightforward, it is not. Embracing a philosophy of learning and humility is key to making great strides. And, incorporating these five tips into your research practice will help you get closer to a strong cultural competence muscle:
1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Let’s face it – learning about cultures and cultural nuances different from your own can be intimidating and frankly, uncomfortable. But, to build your cultural competence muscle, it’s important that you embrace the feeling of discomfort because that is where growth will occur. Go to a bar in a neighborhood much different than your own, travel to a new place or country to experience a completely new point of view on what is “normal” in everyday life, and listen to podcasts on cultural topics that differ from your own.
2. Maintain an attitude of curiosity.
Shedding preconceived notions about other cultures and instead coming from a place of curiosity will aid your journey towards understanding culture and cultural competence. Ask people questions when you’re curious – but ensure your question is asked in a respectful tonality. Treat people like people – and most people will be glad to share their culture with you.
3. Assess your friend group and the diversity of your team.
Consider ways in which you can increase the number of cultures represented on your team at work. And, consider how you might learn from people you see regularly in your everyday life such as at the gym, in your place of worship, or even at your favorite restaurants. Of course, avoid tokenistic actions such as branding your one Hispanic friend as your “Hispanic friend”, but by all means, make a deliberate choice to befriend someone who lives a very different life than you.
4. Hire a marketing research company that specializes in connecting culture to strategy.
It’s true that many large organizations are now embracing the multicultural and culturally-relevant marketing train, but consider working with smaller, accomplished companies who have long anchored their work in cultural understanding. Yes, hire them to educate your organization on culturally-rooted business questions, but also consider hiring them for general market work as well to expand your team’s point of view on general market business questions.
5. Continually educate yourself.
Again, our global culture will continue to rapidly evolve especially given our fast and ever-present access to information. As such, cultural competence is something you must make a commitment to understanding on a regular basis. The topics that are relevant in culture today will inevitably shift by this same time next year. And, how the cultural zeitgeist shifts within diverse consumer groups will shift too. So, commit to educating yourself through courses, books, and everyday conversation. (Shameless Plug: You can also check this new Cultural Insights expert channel regularly for new content.)
As we come into an era of brand-building that requires a new level of cultural competence, companies should understand that today’s consumers are willing to speak up for what they believe and support companies that get it right. Incorporating cultural competence in a meaningful, authentic way is no longer a nice-to-have – it is a must if you want your brand to maintain relevance now and in the future.