A Marketing Lesson from Sebastian de la Cruz, Marc Anthony and George Zimmerman.

23258 By Lili Gil Valletta, Cofounder XL and Media Contributor

While matters of race and culture continue to be the reason for much controversy and political blame games could corporate America draw a practical lesson from this emotional topic?

After being part of a vivid panel during Fox News’ Hannity, I went into evaluating some recent happenings in pop-culture, social media and news to expose an eminent reality; culture and race does matter in America.

It is evident that this great and young nation has made significant progress from Washington’s civil rights marches in 1963 all the way to electing President Barak Obama in 2008. In only fifty years Washington graduated from hosting hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to welcoming America’s first black President. Regardless of which side of the isle you are on, isn’t that enough evidence of great progress?

In the world of marketing, there is also much hype around concepts of “total market” and marketers seem to celebrate these days that Wendy’s new pretzel bun spot is bilingual and Target’s ads bring new flare with Latino beats; but does that mean we are ready for full cultural integration? While it sounds good in principle, the reality is that our human-American-reality is one that continues to be polarized by cultural filters which could make or break a communication message. And this is exactly why multicultural experts are still needed.

Starting with pop culture, two recent instances show how a demonstration of heritage and city pride was followed by a flood of racist remarks and cultural ignorance surrounding musical performances during national sporting events. The first flood, which not only happened once but twice, happened soon after 10-year old San Antonio native Sebastian de la Cruz, sang the national anthem during the NBA finals. Outraged by his Hispanic name and Mexican charro outfit, thousands watching from home went into degrading his performance and insulting the boy with racist remarks. Sebastian, with maturity beyond his age, proudly represented the country he was born in while paying tribute to his Mexican heritage. The boy is also the son of an American veteran. Does looking Hispanic or Mexican mean you are illegal or any less American?

Ironically what many may not realize is that the population of San Antonio is 63 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, of which the majority are Americans of Mexican descent, just like Sebastian. Therefore representing the pride of the city couldn’t have been more authentically portrayed than by a boy who represents the face of the population that makes up the majority of the city! Clearly this is a case where ignorance combined with stereotypes showed that matters of race are still an issue.

Apparently, MLB fans share a common trait with NBA fans too. Marc Anthony’s flawless performance of “God Bless America” during the MLB All-star game in New York City also resulted in a flood of racist remarks including this tweet asking “Why the f### is a spic singing God Bless America?” which sadly is representative of the thousands who joined in the social media bullying. Following his performance, Anthony told hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan during an interview “…to set the record straight, I was born and raised in New York, you can’t get more New York than me.” New York City, for the record, is a city where one in three people happen to be Hispanic; with Hispanics of Puerto Rican descent, like Anthony, leading the way. Also the MLB is a sport in which almost one third (28%) of all players are Hispanic primarily from Caribbean descent.

Shifting to the world of advertising, a cute and innocent Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family also served as a platform to rally up haters; so much so that General Mills decided to block comments on YouTube for the video. Drawing from a very current trend, General Mills was brave enough to feature a new face of America which is becoming more diverse more quickly. In fact, mixed race marriages in America have grown by 28 percent over a decade, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. This trend, compounded by the fact that minority groups are growing anywhere between 5 to 16 times faster than whites and that today’s population under 5 years-old is 50 percent multicultural, predicts a different American profile on the horizon. It is simply the way of the future. In fact, young audiences found no fault with the spot as presented by an insightful video that shows kids speaking the truth.

Manny Fields, Cofounder of XL and multicultural expert says, “Culture matters! Our experiences are filters for our behavior making us interpret the same information differently. Race and culture do factor into how we view and accept things. [For example] if corporations don’t have systematic culture checks throughout the organization, lack of hiring or ineffective supplier diversity programs, they may unintentionally create insensitive and damaging messages. Consumers just don’t vote with their voice, they then vote with their pocketbook.”

Another evident case stirring racial controversy surrounds the George Zimmerman verdict. Putting political affiliation or legal savvy aside, a recent Pew Research study revealed a wide racial Gap in reaction to the verdict. Blacks are dissatisfied with the verdict by a staggering 86-percent and 78 percent say the case raises important questions about race, Pew found. In contrast whites, 49 percent are satisfied with the trial’s outcome, compared with 30 percent who are dissatisfied, and 60 percent say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves. Gaps also emerged through other demographic filters like gender and age. Younger people are more likely to be unhappy with the verdict (53 percent among adults under 30) than those 65 and older (33 percent).

Could this suggest that beyond being intentionally “racist” people are unconsciously tainted by their own demographic filters and ignorant interpretations of race? How does this play when it comes to budget decision making, key message development and brand communications? Who, what and how a message is contextualized matters, which is why multicultural expertise; or what I like to call Cultural Intelligence™ does matter.

However, in the midst of ignorance, I remain hopeful for this great country of ours. Doing this quick scan for the facts and trends, I also encountered an emerging reality represented by a generation of inclusion, the Millennials. At 86 million strong and larger than the baby boomer population, this group of 18-29 year-old Americans represent the largest population cohort America has ever seen, more educated than ever, highly inclusive, hopeful and 43% multicultural. To them, inclusiveness is part of their identity and American reality. They are, just like the population under 5 which is 50 percent multicultural, the future of America. And in the meantime, while we wait for Millennials get into positions of power and authority across sectors, those that apply cultural intelligence™ into what they do will differentiate and break through the clutter and racial noise.

So what is the lesson for marketers today? Race and culture do factor into how we view and accept things. Same communications message seen by diverse customers can be interpreted differently, which is exactly why having the right investment, talent and partner for multicultural execution is key for your plans to succeed.

Lili Gil Valletta is an award-winning entrepreneur, multicultural marketing strategist, media contributor and co-founder of XL Alliance. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and member of the Harvard Kennedy School Women’s Leadership Board. You can follow Lili on Twitter @LiliGil

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