Don’t make a million-dollar mistake: grow the reach of your business with a multicultural comms strategy

All it takes is one misinterpreted word. David Bartlett, CEO of The Lote Agency, implores marketers to consider multiculturalism in their messaging.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are 278 cultural and ethnic groups in Australia and around 21% of Australians speak a language other than English at home. We are, indisputably, a nation of diversity. Yet, this isn’t represented in the advertising and marketing that we see.

When it does occur to marketers that they should be engaging culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) audiences, it’s too often a poorly funded afterthought. Often, less than five per cent of the budget is allocated to this twenty per cent of the audience and you definitely get the results that you pay for. This is a seriously untapped segment of Australian society.

Do your research, and do it again

Too many brands are talking to the customer they used to have, rather than the new generation in front of them. Brands do spend time and effort to find out where their customers are and how they can reach them, but they usually simply gloss over multicultural communities.

Their usual channels may not reach these customers, their creative may not be culturally or linguistically relevant and the customer may not identify with the message they have spent their marketing dollars on. The key here is research. Who are you currently targeting and who aren’t you communicating with that you should be? What are their language needs, what media do they consume and what’s their awareness of your brand, products and services?

Million-dollar mistakes

There are countless examples of brands committing cultural or linguistic faux pas when using the same creative with diverse audiences, and it could cost them millions of dollars. Swedish vacuum cleaner maker Electrolux launched a new model in the US with the slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”. Toyota released a sports car to the French market called the MR2, which phonetically is “merde” – or, in English, “shit”. Doesn’t have a great ring to it. These kinds of fails are happening in Australia too: brands are simply not catering to culturally and linguistically diverse audiences.

As Karen Ferry said on ABC’s Gruen: “I think it highlights how marketers are really behind the eight  ball. That [taking a multicultural approach] is how we should always be communicating … understanding that we have really fragmented audiences. That’s part of diversity in Australia – knowing that we have lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds with different English levels and who are into different things.”

We saw earlier in the year with the pandemic response that if you don’t take a multicultural approach from the outset of a project, your message will fail to reach whole sections of society. From a commercial point of view that’s crazy – how can brands be happy to leave out a potential 20% of the Australian market?

It’s OK not to know the answer

A lot of the time, companies and brands avoid dealing with the issue of multiculturalism and diversity because they’re worried about getting it wrong. And as we have shown above there are some pretty high profile fails in the history books. But don’t worry, as long as you’re doing two things you’ll be OK.

The first is to be authentic. While the commercial side is impossible to ignore, if you’re going to be successful in taking a multicultural approach, it’s critical that you’re being genuine, coming from an authentic wish to engage. Will you practice what you preach? How diverse is your workforce? If you’re being genuine in trying to engage different audiences that will go a long way

The second is to be confident enough to ask for help. If you ask for help when you’re not sure of the best way forward. The second is always hard to do but why forge ahead on your own when you can learn from others’ past mistakes.

It’s time for a multicultural approach to be the standard. This year has seen diversity and equality at the forefront once more, with Black Lives Matters and lessons from the COVID-19 health communications. There continue to be some difficult and important questions on how we treat/engage diverse communities in Australia. What is your brand doing? What is your organisation doing? What are you doing?

There are some brands and organisations doing great things to address these issues, realising that a multicultural approach will help them progress in an increasingly diverse Australia. It’s time for that approach to be the standard.


David Bartlett is the CEO of The Lote Agency.

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