3 Ways to Avoid Blunders in Your Brand’s Multicultural Marketing

There are marketing mistakes, branding blunders, and outright disasters…and then there’s Walmart’s Juneteenth ice cream debacle.

If you’ve been away from the news or social media, here’s the scoop. Walmart waded into some scalding hot water when it decided to “celebrate” Juneteenth — a holiday long recognized in the African American community to acknowledge the end of slavery — by offering Juneteenth-branded ice cream in red, black, and green packaging. Beyond the frozen food aisles, the company also produced Juneteenth party supplies featuring phrases such as “It’s the freedom for me.”

The backlash was swift. African Americans on Twitter and other social media roundly rebuked both offerings. Just a few days after the products went viral, Walmart pulled the goods from its shelves and issued an apology. But the damage was done.

When it comes to marketing, the question here isn’t whether Walmart’s Juneteenth offerings were bad (they were) or how America’s largest retailer could make such a huge gaffe. Instead, the question should be how companies that don’t have billions of dollars to burn can avoid making such costly mistakes. Here are three simple ways your company can avoid having your brand trend on social media for all the wrong reasons.

Research, research, research

Good marketing seamlessly connects customers and brands in a way that builds loyalty over time. This connection only happens when companies understand their audiences.

While this tip applies to all marketing efforts, in multicultural marketing, it is crucial. When a brand is targeting a particular community, it must deeply know and understand that community’s history, culture, concerns, wants, and needs. This deep knowledge can only come after thorough market research with a strong multicultural agency partner or diverse leadership in the decision-making process. Without adequate research, the campaign will come off as inauthentic at best and insulting at worst.

Be respectful

Disrespecting customers is the quickest and easiest way to lose customers. While many things were wrong with Walmart’s Juneteenth campaign, the failure can be boiled down to the fact that many African Americans felt that the offerings trivialized Black history. This feeling goes beyond Juneteenth. The African American community’s struggle for freedom — whether from slavery, segregation, or racist voting laws — is serious and ongoing. So, items that seem to make light of this struggle — like party goods with cutesy sayings — will not be viewed in a positive light.

Marketing campaigns centering on history and culture can succeed if respect leads the way. To paraphrase an old adage, treat your target customers’ history with the same respect you’d want to be shown toward your own. Following that rule will rarely lead to a bad outcome.

Commit to diversity

Research and respect are the beginning but not the end. To really put these concepts in motion, you need a truly diverse team that is steadfast in its commitment to reaching your target market. Tasking members of the community that you’re trying to reach with overseeing the campaign is an easy and obvious way to ensure that the campaign is rooted in respect. (Note, however, that placing just one person from the target audience in the room won’t be enough. No community is a monolith. You’ll need a range of voices and lived experiences from the communities you serve to maximize your outreach efforts.)

Also, diversity only works when everyone agrees that it matters. Whether your marketing team is internal or external, everyone in your organization needs to understand the importance of listening and responding to feedback on sensitive cultural matters. Knowing that everyone from the CEO on down is committed to making the campaign work will empower everyone to speak up when they see something that could cause problems down the line.

Looking ahead

The African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American communities represent trillions of dollars in buying power. As these communities continue their rapid growth, their market share will only expand. Through research, respect, and a commitment to diversity, smart companies will create campaigns that connect with these audiences because they come from an authentic place.

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