Bridging the cultural divide for bicultural consumers

Multicultural consumers make up almost 40 percent of the U.S. population, and by 2044 they’re expected to become the majority group, according to Nielsen. This growing multicultural population is impacting brand perception, leaving companies wondering how they can market themselves and their products to a more culturally diverse audience.

The first thing marketers need to consider is that members of these ethnically diverse populations may be at different stages of assimilation into the host culture, meaning they will have varying degrees of receptiveness to bicultural marketing efforts.

Bicultural people are those who identify equally with both their home and host cultures, and bilingual ads — ads involving the blending of words from the home language — can be extra appealing to the bicultural population under certain circumstances.

Know your brand’s role

Marketers must understand that the type of brand plays an important role in the effectiveness of bicultural advertising.

For example, McDonalds and Coca-Cola are strong cultural symbols of the American identity; when people see McDonalds and Coca-Cola, they are reminded of what it means to be “American.”

In contrast, Coors and GAP clothing are neutral in cultural symbolism.

What works well, and what doesn’t

Through our research and experiments, we identified sharp contrasts in how biculturals living in the United States responded to advertising.

Advertisements with bilingual messaging fell flat among these consumers when used with brands with high cultural symbolism, and they were better received when paired with less culturally symbolic brands.

On the contrary, consumers respond more positively to bilingual ads of culturally neutral brands because the bicultural consumer can blend both of their identities.

When a brand with strong American symbolism uses bilingual advertising, it increases the biculturals’ focus on their dual identities and how they are sometimes in conflict. Biculturals prefer bilingual advertising from culturally neutral brands because the brand associations of neutral brands can be integrated with their dual ethnic identities.

In essence, marketing to a bicultural audience means appealing to two identities, and it is important to ensure the associations of the brand mesh well with the themes of the bilingual or multicultural advertising.

Weigh the contextual brand cues

As the bicultural population continues to grow in the United States, brands will have to re-examine the ways in which they communicate with consumers.

Understanding how to navigate cultural identities will help their message resonate with their target consumer. By keeping in mind the contextual brand cues that consumers use to interpret bilingual advertising, they will help ensure the brand’s positioning does not trigger conflicting identities, reducing the impact of bilingual advertising.

Vanitha Swaminathan is the Thomas Marshall Professor of Marketing at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh.