By Iris Yim
More than a year and a half later, we’re still living in the middle of the pandemic. The pandemic no doubt has left indelible marks on every aspect of our lives, and along with it the way to communicate and engage consumers. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing social issues, which during the good times are easy to be swept under the rug. BLM, Stop AAPI Hate, and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on minority consumers have given rise to increased attention and discussion to diversity and inclusion. Consumers also expect brands to take a stand on social issues that are important to them. As a result, multicultural marketing has evolved from engaging consumers on products and services to embracing diversity and inclusion and addressing social issues. In addition to showing solidarity to various movements, brands also created initiatives to strengthen diversity and inclusion both internally and externally such as engaging employee resources groups, increasing diversity hiring, and implementing guidelines for the inclusion of minority-owned suppliers in their supply chain.
The intersection between social issues and marketing has led to a greater need for research on minority consumers for corporate decision-makers to better understand their customers’ preferences and expectations for brands when it comes to diversity and inclusion. This is different from DEI research conducted by HR departments for internal DEI initiatives. Rather it’s consumer research conducted with cultural empathy and sensitivity. In a way, it’s similar to multicultural market research which seeks to understand minority consumers’ brand perception, emotional drivers, and purchase behaviors, and overlay the findings with cultural insights, only that it requires more delicate handling of sensitive topics. There are no established DEI research practices in this regard, but most practices in multicultural research still apply.
In the sample design, make sure you have a readable sample for each diversity segment depending on the research objectives. Minority consumers are underrepresented on online research panels, the primary source of sample for the market research industry. The response rate is also lower among Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans. If you don’t set a quota for a readable sample (75), you will not get an accurate profile of the sample and their voices will be drowned amid the majority General Market/Caucasian sample.
Don’t lump everyone into one big group called “people of color.” There is a vast difference in the history, journey, and cultural influence among Hispanic, African American, and Asian American consumers. Try to tease out the cultural nuances between major sub-groups by information gathering via books and articles on Hispanic, African-American, and Asian marketing and appropriate interpretation of the findings within the cultural context. Bring in consultants with multicultural research expertise if needed, or consult them on the analysis and interpretation.
There are a few things to keep in mind when conducting live discussions on sensitive topics.
- Mindset – This may be a passion project for the client team and they have a hypothesis to validate, but it’s important to keep a bipartisan mindset and be ready to go with the respondent in a different direction. For example, while some African American respondents will attest to the systematic racism that they have experienced with financial institutions, others may have different experiences. Similarly, Hispanic respondents may or may not feel that there is entrenched racism in the US and this country is still perceived to be a land of opportunities compared to their home countries.
- Framing the questions – Avoid comparison with other minority groups. Focus the discussion on the respondent’s personal journey. Save the race and social injustice questions for last, unless the subject comes up on an aided basis. Allow the respondents to talk about their journey first and then add in the cultural component. Discuss race from the perspective of culture. After all, race is a sensitive topic. Raising it early in the discussion or probing on it frequently throughout the discussion creates stress for the respondent and risks prompting the respondents to think or respond in a certain way that will affect the quality of the research.
- Cultural empathy – It’s important to have cultural empathy, especially if you have a different cultural background than the respondents. This will help you to position yourself in the right mindset, frame the questions properly, and interpret the findings and identify insights that address the client team’s marketing and business objectives.
Research not designed, executed, and interpreted appropriately is time and money squandered. I hope these suggestions will help brands and fellow market researchers conduct DEI research more effectively. DEI marketing is an evolving field that requires a delicate balance, and the right insights from properly executed DEI research will help maintain that balance, ensuring DEI marketing initiatives will reinforce a brand’s connection with customers than backfire.