ETHNIC MARKETING: ETHNIC STORIES FROM THE STATES - Ethnic agencies sprung up in the US in the mid-80s

UK shops looking to attract ethnic business could learn from the errors - and the progress - made across the pond.

Targeting minorities is a complicated arena in which the stumbling blocks are not always obvious to white executives. It is, perhaps, for this reason that many clients, even in the US, have chosen to avoid campaigns for urban and ethnic groups.

"At best, 15 per cent of brands are doing ethnic marketing," Luis Miguel Messianu of Del Rivero Messianu DDB in Miami estimates.

The rewards for expanding such an undeveloped market, however, are clear. "My client, American Honda, went into this a long time ago and consequently, on a very modest budget, has become the most popular nameplate among the (Hispanic) people simply by being there first," Hector Orci, the chief executive of La Agencia de Orci & Asociados in Los Angeles, says.

Most ethnic agencies were founded here in the mid-80s, largely as small shops run by members of the minority groups that they hoped to persuade clients to spend money on.

Many have grown from being independents with negligible billings to consolidated agencies within larger networks, often targeting a range of demographics, and generating revenues in the tens of millions of dollars. Of the ten largest agencies, seven are wholly or partially owned by the big holding companies; three, for example, belong to WPP.

Minority agencies are often forced into a dual role: that of advertising vendor and anti-racism educator, as caucasian clients and general market agencies, even with the best of intentions, often make racial blunders.

Mark Robinson, the managing partner of BBDO's SR Communications Alliance, once worked for a beer client - he declines to reveal the name - that enthusiastically commissioned a campaign targeting black Americans. Before shooting the TV spot, Robinson's team asked the client if it had organised distributors for the product in black neighbourhoods. "They would say, 'we haven't thought about that'. On the general market side, the client would never spend money on advertising that would send a consumer to a store that doesn't carry their product," he says.

Orci recalls a chicken restaurant chain that aired a Spanish campaign in California, where about half the population speaks that language. "In English its slogan was, 'It's the chicken that will make you come back for more.' In Spanish it was translated as, 'The chicken that will turn your stomach.' It's no longer in business."

Besides merely translating a general market campaign into another language and hoping that will suffice, the other common mistake is recycling the general market campaign with ethnic actors substituted for the white characters.

"That's just casting," Dana Wade, the president of Spike DDB in New York, says. "Marketers think that if they put black people in their advertising that's enough, and there's a lot of research out there that says it's not because people recognise tokenism, and that's what it is."

Persuading clients to let their ethnic resources in at the research and strategy stage continues to be an uphill battle: minority shops tend not to have the cash to do the research themselves.

That's why the pioneer clients in the field tend to be massive conglomerates such as Procter & Gamble and McDonald's, as they have the resources to do the research.

The result is often that the minority campaign will have an entirely different set of insights than the mainstream counterpart. Take Western Union, handled in Europe partially by Bromley Communications, a Hispanic shop in San Antonio, Texas. Caucasian consumers regard the wiring of money as something to be done only in an emergency. For Mexican and Argentinian immigrants, however, Western Union is used to transfer cash home on a regular basis.

"If you go in and try to sell it as an emergency send, then it's not relevant, but technically it's the same product," Ernest Bromley, the agency's chairman and chief executive, says.

Among the newer trends in the sphere is the emergence of "urban" marketing - campaigns that utilise the ingredients of hip-hop, fashion and ethnicity to address young consumers.

"The trend leaders, the fashion leaders, are largely multicultural," Robinson says. As such, urban campaigns are often utilised for apparel and soda brands, and the like.

But Robinson has questions for anyone who thinks that a Puffy Combs CD and a couple of Rocawear T-shirts are all that's required for a brand to go urban. He says" I like to talk to clients to expand their vision of urban marketing. I say alright, let's think about the urban pet food market. Let's think about the urban healthcare market. Let's talk about the urban transportation market."

"A lot of general market agencies see this as an opportunity to bring business back in that they were beginning to lose to minority agencies," he adds.

That sort of competition, along with the recession, makes the development of ethnic advertising a rocky business to be in. Recently, IPG's New York-based Deutsch closed dRush, its urban joint venture with the hip-hop producer Russell Simmons, after just three years.

"We've got far too many competitors out there for the business that's available," Robert Howells, the chief of Mendoza Dillon & Asociados in Newport, California, says. "Every year you see ten or 15 agencies go bankrupt."

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