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Should marketers target by ethnicity?

As the ability to dig deeper into data expands, there are several ways to segment your audience beyond demographics. Our experts debate on how ethnicity plays a role

Lauren Romero
Cross-cultural strategist, Wave More than 16 years of marketing experience

Yes. In recent decades, marketers have segmented the US Hispanic market according to national origin or birthplace, tenure in the US, acculturation, or its most common proxy, language use. A challenge remained in tying complex identities to category- specific attitudes and behavior.

The “acculturation” concept is useful to describe individuals’ cultural identification generally, based on language use and media consumption. However, if used too early in the segmentation process, it can confound interpretations of what matters to most marketers — behavior related to their categories. Also, the acculturation-first approach misses the influence of complex multigenerational and cross-cultural social networks in which most Latinos spend their days.

Each US Latino experiences his or her cultural identity in different ways, in different situations. While culture influences our decision processes, we adapt our choices to the context. To address this reality, I advocate situational, “need state,” or motivational segmentations, especially with ethnically diverse populations. Through profiling, segments can be linked to standard demographics and geo-targeting tools.

Fortunately, today’s technology offers information about consumer behavior and its motivating occasions. Even traditional media have developed interest-focused content channels to help marketers base media buys on actual consumer interests and behaviors. We can use these resources to understand the next wave of situational contexts for Latinos’ spending behavior.

Spyro Kourtis
President and CEO, Hacker Group
More than 20 years of DM experience

No. Most direct marketers have an automatic response to demographic segmentation. We believe that, unless there’s a compelling product-related reason for it, marketers shouldn’t bother.

When brand marketers target the 18- to 35-year-old demographic, we mock them. Purchasing behavior does not change at age 36. Similarly, the reasons why people buy things are the same across ethnic groups.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy media targeted to groups when appropriate — or create a Spanish-language commercial when you place it on Telemundo or Univision. We also shouldn’t be insensitive about things we find acceptable in our culture that are unacceptable in others.

Changing everything for the sake of a different target group is risky business. It may even offend. Earlier this year, when computer manufacturer Dell created a site for women, originally called Della, it seemed condescending and the backlash caused Dell to rework (and rethink) the whole idea.

Through years of testing, we have found that — surprise! — people across cultures are motivated to buy for the same reasons. When you are considering a multicultural approach to your marketing, targeted media is a good idea, but targeted messaging may not be. Weigh the risks and benefits carefully. Consider the impact on brand value, as well as performance. Don’t make assumptions that may be offensive. The right offer to the right audience always wins — and it’s never insulting.


With the buying power of the US Latino population exploding, marketers want an edge in reaching that group and others. Yet when targeting any demographic segment, marketers must keep in mind that ethnicity is only a part of small factor in the reasons consumers make the decisions that they do.

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