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Gained in Translation: Marketing to Foreign-Born Populations

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The tried and true path of traditional marketing strategies still works. For many advertisers it’s a comfortable fit, both familiar and fairly predictable.

Changing immigration patterns, however, are adding an increasingly important dimension to marketing. Foreign-born populations now constitute a formidable presence in the market, particularly in areas of large, concentrated populations.

It’s not only a disservice to ignore or overlook these populations, marketing experts say, but also a sizeable missed opportunity.

According to a May 2015 update of the American Immigration Council’s 2013 study titled, “The Political and Economic Power of Immigrants, Latinos and Asians in the Old Line State,” roughly one in seven current Marylanders is foreign-born, and nearly half of these individuals are naturalized U.S citizens.

The study indicates that Latinos and Asians alone (foreign- and native-born combined) wield $34.2 billion in purchasing power, while the businesses they own had sales and receipts of $15.6 billion and employed more than 96,000 at last count.

Immigrants also accounted for more than one-quarter of all scientists in the state and more than one-fifth of all health care practitioners.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maryland’s foreign-born population share rose from 6.6% in 1990 to 14.2% in 2013, when it numbered 842,250 — larger than the entire population of San Francisco at the time the count was taken.

Media Preferences

The study valued the purchasing power of Latinos in Maryland at $15.2 billion in 2014, and the buying power of the Asian population at $19 billion. It also noted that immigrants comprised 18.2% of the Maryland workforce in 2013.

“They buy goods and services just like everybody else,” said Roslyn Lindner, Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator for the nonprofit Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network (FIRN) of Columbia.

One of the biggest differences in their habits, she observed, is a tendency for foreign-born populations to rely on sources outside mainstream broadcast and print media for information beneficial to them. Chief among these are local and regional foreign language publications serving these populations.

Another difference, she said, is that it takes a while for some immigrants to let down their guard after having learned to protect themselves in their home countries by not trusting authorities, elected officials or government-produced information.

“By far, we’ve found word-of-mouth from individuals who have been in the area a great while to be the most trusted form of communication,” Lindner said. “We’ve also learned that bulletin boards in ethnic markets get a lot of attention, provided the materials are in the language of the audience we’re trying to reach.”

Nuances

When it comes to reaching foreign-born populations, “one size definitely does not fit all,” said President Ron Owens of Ron Owens & Associates, a Baltimore marketing communications consultancy firm that specializes in multicultural marketing.

As co-founder of the largest ad agency in the District of Columbia, a past lieutenant governor of the American Advertising Federation’s District II and a past governor of the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Mid-Atlantic Council, Owens has had extensive experience in communicating with foreign-born populations.

“Before we try to reach an immigrant population, we conduct research to determine the demographics and psychographics of the group,” he said. “It’s very important to know what turns them on, what turns them off, and what faux pas to avoid. So many differences and idiosyncrasies must be taken into consideration when crafting a commercial message that’s meaningful and relevant to foreign-born populations.”

Cultural awareness is paramount, Owens said. For example, the Western world associates the color white with sterility or purity, “but in China it’s associated with death and mourning,” he said.

Moreover, meaning attached to colors is not universal in the Orient.

“The color red means different things to Korean and Japanese audiences,” he explained. “We have to be mindful of the cultural differences, nuances and things that are relevant to them, but not necessarily to us.”

Timing is also a consideration, Owens added, particularly in terms of ethnic holidays and how their observance may affect the receipt of a particular message.

Due Diligence

Having printed materials in the language of market audiences shows sensitivity to their needs, Lindner said, but marketers should never consider a simple translation good enough.

“Poorly translated materials are one thing, but among Latinos particularly, common words in one country may be profanities in another,” she said. “It pays to have somebody review materials who is a native speaker from that population or who at least knows the colloquialisms, someone who knows what to say and what not to say.”

While FIRN cooperates with other organizations that focus on disseminating information to foreign-born populations, commercial marketing is not part of its service.

According to Owens, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, more commonly known as the 4As, serves as a repository for lessons learned, case histories and research for advertising questions, including multicultural marketing.

“They can give relevant information as to cultural turn-ons and turn-offs, and have information categorized and on file,” he said.

Likewise, the American Advertising Federation also can provide certain information that may be helpful in marketing to immigrant populations.

“If a marketer wants to reach a particular audience, it pays to have an advertising agency of record that’s not going to be leaving out or not taking into consideration ethnic audiences or their differences,” he said. “There are significant markets out there that are continuously untapped. It can make a real difference to the marketers and advertisers who find a way to target audiences that they overlooked.”