By Roben Allong, Iris Yim, Patricia Lopez
Covid’s after-effects will be with us for a while and so too the massive cultural shifts taking place alongside it. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic has exposed and highlighted inequities as well as accelerated the decline of BIPOC trust especially in heritage brands, government, the justice and healthcare systems and society at large. In today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world rife with rising hate crimes, systemic racism and discrimination, instability and economic hardship, expressing brand empathy is, at best, table stakes. BIPOCs, especially Gen.Z, are demanding more authentic engagement and active participation in their communities from corporations and brands that sell to them and use their labor, as is evidenced by corporate giants, Delta and Coca-Cola’s position reversal on the Georgia Voting Rights act. Increasingly informed and digitally savvy, their voices carry much farther and louder locally and globally, compared to prior generations. Therefore, it would behoove researchers and marketers alike to take a culturally empathetic look at these shifts and the underlying reasons to glean a more accurate picture of what’s going on. So what is cultural empathy, why is it important now and how does it help researchers and marketers?
Cultural empathy is next level understanding that is grounded in generational, cultural and contextual knowledge of micro-cultures. Micro-cultures are those that exist within the dominant macro-culture. They are often marginalized but pack an outsized influence punch when they come together over a singular cause. Two prime examples are Hip-hop music and Black Lives Matter both of which sprung from disadvantaged, ignored communities with unmet needs. They influence and set the tone for brands and generations of consumers the world over. According to Brandon Graille, a marketing expert, Hip-hop is beloved around the world drawing the spending power of over five hundred billion from the coveted age group, 18-34 year olds. The Black Lives Matter movement has impacted American and the world’s culture and social fabric in ways we haven’t even begun to decipher. At its core, cultural empathy is a superpower that helps us make sense of our own narratives through the lens of culture, validate lived experiences as authentic truth, and put inclusivity into practice simultaneously.
Heading into a post pandemic world, the average consumer is clearly at a crossroads. Using cultural empathy researchers and marketers are more likely to have a more accurate sense of how to incorporate these emerging voices, narratives and needs in a way that is inclusive, promotes proactive exploration of opportunity gaps. Given that seismic consumer shifts brought on by this pandemic, rapidly evolving demography, increasing social media usage and ongoing social movements #MeToo, #BLM, #CancelCulture, #StopAsianHate, among others, the need to move the business needle from reactive to proactive among micro cultural audiences for a bigger, sustainable competitive advantage is only going to increase.
Among Black Americans specifically, Covid-19 has become the 3rd leading cause of death, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institute. According to the CDC data tracker the five underlying comorbidities that increase the risk for severe COVID-19-associated illness, includes chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, diagnosed diabetes, and obesity. Black Americans over index in three out of those five. During the Spanish flu pandemic, racism and segregation in America restricted Black access to health professionals and healthcare. More than a century later in 2021, access is still limited regardless of geography and many are dying at faster rates than other races as they struggle to get past systemic racism and generational mistrust of government and the medical profession that have denied them access for hundreds of years. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that vaccination rates among this population are lagging. In fact, according to the CDC vaccination tracker rates among Black Americans nationally as of March 2021 is 8.3 % while among Whites it’s over 65%.
One year later, Covid also sparked not just a racial reckoning but a brand reckoning of sorts. No longer is it ok to deploy messages about Black advocacy without having had a historical footprint. Pre-Covid many brands were already out of touch with this demographic that possesses tremendous social and cultural currency because they did just enough research to check the box. This created a lack of accurate Black consumer marketing intelligence and baseline assumptions which has left heritage and popular brands scratching their heads wondering how to reach and retain this influential audience, considering the seismic social and cultural change taking place. To those paying attention signs of change on the horizon have been apparent from Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem in Seattle to Stacey Abrams registering and rallying Black voters in Georgia. Black people and their identity are not a monolith. They never were. According to a recent 2019 Pew Research center study/2021/03/25/the-growing-diversity-of-black-America/ as the Black population grows and intermarries, so it diversifies as does the Black identity. What then are culturally appropriate, effective ways to empathize and connect so that brand intent aligns with impact?
The answer is complicated since the Black identity is not only diverse, many other ethnicities relate to and are influenced by it. Its cultural signs, codes and symbols are appropriated the world over. For example, Hip-hop music and symbolism is used relentlessly by brands in advertising to showcase their “cool” factor. For researchers and marketers, cultural empathy–a deeper understanding of Black culture that has, at its roots, a lack of trust in systems that have both oppressed and failed them constantly and consistently, is essential. It is critical to understanding the generational trauma that is part of the Black consumer DNA. Simply creating brand communications with tacit acknowledgement of discrimination, racism and recent social justice protests is not sufficient to overcome centuries of being erased out of or passed over in history. Quite frankly, thinking that tokens such as Blackout Tuesday on Instagram hit the mark is being disingenuous. For Black Gen. Z especially, it is no longer acceptable for corporations to idly stand by and watch while their customers suffer inequality and indignity. Brands are expected to take a stand regardless of potential outcome. And they are also expected to be proactively supportive and present in their customers’ communities. So ultimately, what does this mean for brands and how do they go about applying cultural empathy to win over Black customers and other demographic segments that identify with the culture?
The real long term impact of a hijacked economy, societal inequity, mental and emotional trauma especially on Black Millennials and Black Gen. Z who remain unapologetic on their Social Media megaphones, has yet to unfold. The advent of a national cultural awakening will undoubtedly remake the way we look at not only Black consumers and race but the demographics influenced by them globally. Interestingly, a recent Pew Research Center study states that as of 2019, most multiracial Black people are members of Gen.Z. The spending power of Gen.Z is estimated at one hundred and forty three billion and forty six percent, nearly half, are part of the gig economy, in pursuit of expanding their earning potential according to The Shelf, an influencer marketing agency.
To engage Black people and especially Black Gen.Z is to envision a future with them seated prominently at the table, as advocates– digital warriors empowered with technology to change their society in ways that reflect their ideals and not necessarily those fed to them by brands. Black Gen. Z, unlike past generations of Black Americans, are inspired seeing social protests in real time, curated peer creativity through apps like TikTok, possibilities without filter bubbles, and they are looking directly to their culture and its allies to help shape that future. Brands that help them envision will reap the rewards of new followers, more brand love and loyal customers. Here are four ways researchers and marketers can strengthen their engagement with Black consumers moving forward:
First, cultural empathy will be the magic “open sesame” passcode needed to unlock the treasure chest that is the Black identity and mindset. Researchers especially will need to be versed in historical and contextual perspectives prior to designing and successfully conducting studies. Meeting this consumer where they are mentally and emotionally post covid by understanding their journey is key to meaningful engagement. Activate respondents’ willingness to share by ensuring transparency when engaging them in research which can yield dividends in their sharing of more insightful feelings and thoughts.
Second, consider their hypersensitive, traumatized mindset that is activated given the impact of current social and economic events when designing the study discussion guide. Build rapport by weaving in relevant mental health inquiries and validations at the start and throughout the engagement can help relieve stress and lower existing barriers to open sharing. Convey validation and permission for them to be authentic and real with positive sharing. Positive sharing promotes feelings of relaxation, freedom and encourages storytelling.
Third, provide safe spaces during the research that are validating, empowering and non-judgmental to increase meaningful connection, even if it’s virtual. Safe spaces are those that allow for freedom of individual expression and unfettered emotion without filters. Build in more “discussion” time to allow for this. It’s an emotional time for everyone and its ok to acknowledge that. Acknowledgement is a form of validation that suggests “I see you”, a term often used in Black lexicon that signifies conscious awareness and cultural empathy.
Fourth, and most important, in-house DIY insights teams may not be as skilled and, or effective as brands need them to be in this instance. A consultant who understands and is skilled in using cultural empathy, is comparable to activating a sonar technician on a submarine, helping your brand seek out new areas of growth and innovation while safely navigating rocky, uncharted waters. They can help you avoid offensive messaging and incorporate relevant symbols and codes that match intent with impact.
The escalated violence against Asian Americans in recent months and the Atlanta shootings accelerated the Stop Asian Hate movement, a movement that had been going on for a year since the beginning of the pandemic but overshadowed by news of the pandemic and other events such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The pressing need to denounce violence against Asian Americans, influence of Black Lives Matter movement and the jolt from the Atlanta shootings served to unite a very diverse and often divided community under one umbrella to work toward a common cause, to rethink the Asian American identity and racial relations.
What sets the Asian American experience during the pandemic apart from other Americans is a shift in mentality–an increasing fear for personal safety coupled with health and financial security concerns. According to a report released by Stop AAPI crime, between March 19 and August 5, 2020, the organization received 2,583 reports of anti-Asian discrimination nationwide. Majority of the incidents are verbal harassment, 22% of the reports are shunning and the rest 9% consisting of actual physical attacks. According to a Pew Research survey released in July 2020, 1 in 4 U.S. adults reported it had become more common for people to express racist views towards Asian Americans since the pandemic began and 1 in 3 Asian Americans said they had experienced verbal harassment due to their ethnicity during the pandemic.
This overall hostility towards Asian Americans has extracted a heavy emotional toll. According to a study conducted by multicultural advertising agency intertrend during the height of the pandemic in March 2020, 4 out of 5 Asian Americans reported being worried about racial bias although only 1 in 5 respondents in the same study said they had negative experience of shunning.
Aside from the economic and emotional toll from the pandemic, what is most notable about the Asian American experience is perhaps this cultural shift in mindset. Contrary to their cultural upbringing that revolves around perseverance and silent endurance, the confluence of the pandemic, hostility and the Black Lives Matter movement inspired many Asian Americans to speak up about their experience and rethink their relationships with other communities.
The AAPI advertising and marketing community has been very vocal about raising awareness and denouncing discrimination against Asian Americans. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, multicultural advertising agencies IW Group, intertrend and Admerasia rolled out campaigns to address racial bias against Asian Americans (Wash the Hate, Make Noise Today, Racism is Contagious) in the absence of brand support. Industry organization Asian American Advertising Federation hosted town hall discussions on the issue in partnership with the ANA Educational Foundation. There have also been grassroots efforts led by different community organizations in response to racism and hate crimes against Asian Americans such as Respond2Racism (auto responder to online racism), Stop AAPI Hate (hate crime and harassment reporting center launched by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University).
A year into the pandemic, there are encouraging signs the community’s continuous efforts in denouncing discrimination against Asian Americans finally gained traction in the mainstream. Mainstream venues such as Ad Age and ANA AIMM have shown support for the AAPI community. Ad Age hosted a town hall on the AAPI experience during the pandemic. ANA AIMM is hosting a similar event at the end of March, 2021. Some brands have also shown support with social media posts and donations to non-profit organizations for AAPI causes. The Atlanta shootings greatly accelerated and broadened the scope of the #StopAsianHate movement. Not only organizations traditionally supporting the AAPI community are taking actions. Asian American employees in corporations and General Market agencies are stepping up. The most notable example is Horizon Media’s multichannel PSA campaign against Asian hate, an initiative launched by internal business resource group representing employees of AAPI heritage. There has also been more pressure for brands to respond to the issue.
In addition to grassroots efforts to speak out their experiences and denounce racial bias and hate crimes, there is also reflection about the Asian American identity and relationships with other communities of color, with realization that the model minority myth is part of the systematic racism that keeps other people of color communities down and within group bias against African Americans also needs to be addressed. As part of the awakening and reflection, there is also demonstration of solidarity with African Americans and participation in the Black Lives Movement. Initiatives such as All of Us Movement and Asians for Black Lives from the Asian American Advocacy Fund seek to create mutual understanding of the black and Asian communities and forge allyship.
While the complexity of the segment may seem daunting at first glance, there are overall cultural values and synergies between the subsegments that can be leveraged to broaden the reach and connection of your campaign. Covid has rewritten rules, consequently more consideration must be given to communicating, engaging with and marketing to this segment. In spite of the pandemic’s negative impacts, Asian Americans remain a powerful economic force. The aforementioned awakening and increasing representation in mainstream culture such as Chloe Zhao winning the Golden Globes best director award and the new release of Boogie by Eddie Huang require more thoughtful marketing strategies and communications. Here are four ways in which marketers and researchers can better connect with Asian consumers:
First, in the post-Covid era where diversity takes on new meaning and business implications, marketers need to rethink inclusion and representation of Asian American consumers in their campaigns. True understanding of the segment with cultural empathy and accurate representation of the multiple dimensions of the Asian American experience in marketing punctuates a brand’s multicultural and DEI efforts and can be amplified to have broad, general market appeal. Not to mention the brand loyalty earned among Asian American consumers will have a significant impact on the bottom line in the post-Covid era when consumers expect brands to take a stand on social issues such as DEI and anti-Asian hate crimes.
Second, it’s important to not only include Asian Americans in your research for representation but also to boost the sample size so that there is a readable base for comparison against other segments as well as the total sample. Given that two thirds of Asian Americans are foreign born, it’s also advisable to include an in-language component in your research design so that the research can more accurately reflect the Asian American demographics.
Third, including consultants who have expertise in the Asian American segment can help insights teams and marketers incorporate cultural empathy to read between the lines and translate key cultural nuances and insights. Advertising agencies that specialize in Asian American marketing are adept at creating different versions of the same campaign to cover different sub-segments of the Asian diaspora.
Fourth, industry associations such as Asian American Advertising Federation provide secondary research and education webinars to help fill in the knowledge gap if access to budgets for primary research is not available.
According to numbers reported by Univision, over 14 million Hispanics voted in the past election – record breaking numbers! It was important to have their voices heard perhaps in desperation, their last plea for hope and change. Not only were Hispanics dealing with the intensity of the political climate in areas such as immigration, higher-education, and opportunity for undocumented college students (DACA reform), but they were among one of the segments severely disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, amid increasing inequities. According to the CDC report, Health disparities: Race & Hispanic Origin (updated 2/17/2021), Hispanics are three times more likely to become infected with the virus than their Caucasian counterparts and to date, 20% of all Covid-19 deaths have been Hispanics – nearly 84,000 Hispanics have died.
Although the economy continues to be the most important topic for Hispanics, it is not surprising to learn that given this current situation, healthcare, and the pandemic are top areas of concern. As the country shut down, Hispanics as a group were affected the hardest as they remained in the workforce with high-risk exposure to the virus as frontline workers. Agriculture, construction, landscaping, accommodations & food service, and nursing care facilities represent the top industries that employ Hispanics. It is impossible to perform these duties remotely or via zoom. They cannot afford the luxury of staying home and are forced to continue working onsite. As these industries were forced to shut down, the source of income for these brand loyal, high-buying power consumers was cut off resulting in a surge in stress and anxiety levels, since many are not able to benefit from unemployment aid or stimulus checks. Not only are they feeling the strain on their finances, but most importantly on their emotional stability due to the surmountable pressure they are feeling to continue to provide for the family.
These consumers live in highly-dense communities and many do so in multi-family/multigenerational households, which means those having to leave to make a living are at risk of infecting not only themselves, but several families under the same roof – increasing the pressure they are under and the fear mounting internally for their own well-being and that of their household members. Losing jobs, friends and family members to this virus only fuels the fear and feelings of uncertainty. Even with vaccines being distributed, it is difficult for this community to feel hopeful.
As of March 22, 2021, 44 million people have been fully vaccinated nationwide, but it was not until recent weeks, that vaccine pods opened in Hispanic areas finally giving access to this underserved community. Given the inequities, in general healthcare access among this segment, it is not surprising that access to vaccines was delayed. Although it is important to be aware of this information, it is even more important to understand this information and what it means for the Hispanic community. These circumstances have resulted in a shift of mindset as a consumer.
Hispanics had to become smarter shoppers, to make their dollar stretch, by seeking and taking advantage of local help and resources available to them. Shopping more bargains and making smaller grocery trips with a sharper focusing on the essentials and necessities, as well as prioritizing purchases are all part of their new approach to shopping. It is crucial that brands understand that consumers’ preferences and likes have not changed per say, but rather present circumstances such as limited stock of items at stores, loss of jobs, reduced income, financial uncertainty, death, and illness have redirected their focus when shopping (what is on sale, generic/store brands vs name brands, etc.).
The only way for brands to really understand Hispanics’ current mindset, is to truly understand their situation and where their cultural stressors stem from to truly gain insights into their perspective as they are navigating through a global pandemic. It is said that the ability to empathize oneself in the position of someone from a different country/culture to truly understand their point of view is cultural empathy. This allows us to share the feelings and emotions and to clearly understand them and their perspective. Gaining cultural empathy will help brands redefine their marketing and research approach to continue to resonate and connect with these consumers. Hispanics continue to represent brand loyalty and significant purchasing power – estimated at over $1 trillion. If they see that brands continue to value, appreciate, and understand them as a segment through trying times, their buying power and loyalty will carryover post pandemic.
“No human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to understand, to learn, to inhabit another world.” – Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Because COVID-19 has affected different states/regions in different ways, the approach to addressing it is specific to each location. Hispanics in different regions find themselves in different circumstances to their counterparts in other areas of the nation.
Pre-Covid, methodology and research design only took into consideration representation of the various Hispanic segments in each market across acculturation levels and language preferences (LA – Mexicans/Central Americans, NY – Dominicans/Puerto Ricans, Miami – Cuban/South American, etc.). Now, there are more factors to consider and account for, when conducting research. Here are two of the most essential ones:
First, it is paramount that companies value the importance of total representation of the Hispanic market when designing research and marketing plans. Furthermore, qualitative research needs to be conducted by a bilingual, bicultural researcher who shares those cultural experiences and understands the cultural nuances to translate the findings more accurately into rich, actionable insights.
Second, it is detrimental in ensuring that the methodologies encompass these different geographic areas to better understand the consumers’ mindset in their current situation and living environment during and after this pandemic. Thus, resulting in a more accurate depiction of Hispanics as a whole and a clear understanding of the cultural landscape.