The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, policymakers and activists on how to reduce racial and social inequalities.
Before paving her own path to the corner office, Danielle Austen was far too often one of few women — and the only person of color — in the boardroom.
“It was a problem, because when we looked at our marketing and advertising efforts, either multicultural consumers weren’t considered at all, or they were treated as an afterthought,” Austen told MarketWatch.
An extensive career advancing diversity and inclusion in advertising for legacy brands like Jaguar TTM,
Her agency, fluent360, established roots in Chicago and has expanded its offices to New York and Nashville, Tenn. The company continues to build a Rolodex of clients looking to hone their advertising messaging to consumers of color, an increasing share of the U.S. population.
Creating change in the multicultural marketing realm has meant ensuring that her own employees and leadership team reflect the populations they’re aiming to serve.
“We all know that multicultural consumers are a part of the American fabric, and they participate as such,” she said. “I wanted us to be included as a part of the marketing effort, as well as have our nuances and cultural differences celebrated.”
Austen says that corporations have slowly begun to acknowledge the importance of representing minorities in order to maintain a strong brand reputation and establish customer loyalty among those populations. The racial-justice protests that swept the country last year were a test for many companies to come off the sidelines and respond with support and solidarity.
“fluent360 received a ton of phone calls from brands and corporations about how to react and engage in the right way,” Austen said. “We advised them that in this time when the country’s leadership was largely absent, that consumers would turn [to them] as a voice of society.”
MarketWatch spoke to Austen for The Value Gap about the ever-changing landscape of multicultural marketing and its growing influence on corporate America:
MarketWatch: What is multicultural marketing and why has it become increasingly important?
Austen: [Multicultural marketing] is essentially looking at minority consumers in the U.S.: Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Asian American and LGBT+ communities as part of the whole America [and] wondering, are there behaviors or cultural nuances that would lead to how they relate and engage with a brand?
Years ago, Mercedes-Benz DAI,
But when you talk about Black moms, you’re not tapping into [the] “soccer mom.” Yes, she does a lot for her family, but more important to her is how she looks and feels while she’s doing it. So instead of tapping into her as the “soccer mom,” we might tap into her as the “cool mom.” That’s just an example of what we do. By looking at those cultural insights, it allows us to change the message to [reach] Black women in a different way.
MarketWatch: Following the racial-justice protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, you said your phone was ringing off the hook. Did you see that coming?
Austen: No. What happened was unfortunately an awakening for many people in our country about the social and racial injustices that are systematic to the United States of America. We were locked in our homes and already super stressed out because of COVID-19, and then we see the death of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and then George Floyd. We were dealing with this at fluent360 and we were in a state of shock, but we people of color weren’t surprised that it happened. We were numbed by the pain of what happened.
As soon as the first call came in, I knew it would continue. I got all of the apology calls, and then it turned into companies asking what their brand should be doing. Really great brands and companies called because they wanted to be engaged, and we’re still engaged with those companies.
“ ‘What ended up happening over the summer is that more brands began to acknowledge that there may be differences as to how these people experience America.’ ”
MarketWatch: As many corporations responded to last year’s racial reckoning, we saw a shift in their messaging to people of color. Do you believe companies are starting to understand the value and buying power of minorities?
Austen: If you’d asked me that a year ago, I would have said absolutely. Smart marketers are looking at the marketplace for where their revenue growth is coming from, and long-term where will it be coming from. Purely based on revenue and brand growth, companies were looking at multicultural consumers as an opportunity.
Before the summer, brands thought multicultural consumers are important to [their brand], but [they] didn’t need to speak to them differently. There was a lack of acknowledgement that there are cultural differences versus just different skin colors.
What ended up happening over the summer is that more brands began to acknowledge that there may be differences as to how these people experience America. So we have seen more companies come along with not just business and revenue growth, but actually [understanding] that they need to speak to the nuances and cultural differences of various groups.
MarketWatch: How much of multicultural marketing has to do with companies getting their own house in order first — that is, by making sure they’ve addressed diversity, equity and inclusion within their own ranks before putting out external marketing messages about racial equity?
“ ‘You can’t just [post on Instagram] saying that we stand with the Black Lives Matter movement. You have to work within your own organization to make sure that that actually happens. That’s really what affects Black lives. ‘ ”
Austen: There needs to be people internally who have a seat at the table who can help drive diversity and inclusion within the company, as well as how the company performs outwardly. Starting from the board of directors to the C-suite, management and entry level, there should be people of color and multicultural groups throughout the organization that can help drive these decisions. If you don’t have these people at the table, they aren’t going to help advise you on how to reach out to that consumer group.
You hire fluent360 once you’ve decided to do it, but there needs to be someone at the table saying it needs to be done. When you look at a lot of the top Fortune 500 companies, the photos of the leadership team are really sad. We tell our brand and marketing partners that they should do more and not just say more. You can’t just [post on Instagram] saying that we stand with the Black Lives Matter movement. You have to work within your own organization to make sure that that actually happens. That’s really what affects Black lives.
MarketWatch: How can companies move beyond treating multicultural marketing as a box that needs to be checked?
Austen: One [way] is educating [themselves] on these consumers. Once you do that, it’s very hard to miss what these marginalized groups need to feel supported and empowered. One of our clients is a bourbon brand — so when the [protests] happened, they said they wanted to give to the NAACP. I said, “That’s great you can give to the NAACP, but how about you help out Black bar owners and Black restaurant owners? [Since] you work in the field of spirits and beverages, help those people who work within your ecosystem succeed.”
MarketWatch: What kinds of strategies work and don’t work? How do you avoid coming off tone-deaf, especially on social-justice issues?
Austen: You need to build relationships with these multicultural audiences, and sometimes that takes baby steps. We have one client partner who’s never done any multicultural consumer outreach. So … when they went out with their communication, they [acknowledged] that they were new and were going to do a lot of listening and commit to working with [Black consumers].
That was a brand that didn’t have [an existing] relationship, versus a brand like Nike NKE,
MarketWatch: In what ways have companies missed the mark on advertising to people of color?
Austen: I’ve had this discussion with companies. Racism and inequality in America is systematic, and it can’t be fixed [with] $100 million, or adding some people of color to your team. It’s going to require a deeper look in, and more work than companies realize. The summer was a reactionary moment. So you worry: Once that eases up, what is going to happen?
But I think society, activist groups and companies like ours [doing] the work will continue to talk about the problem [being] bigger than doing an ad. [Companies] have to stop and take a look at the organization and the systems that are in place that allow these inequities to exist. That’s the hard work, and it may be overwhelming, but it has to be done or you’re not really fixing the problem.
It’s tough — it’s hard work, but it only gets better if you do it right.