The New No-Majority Rules

February 1, 2005
Melissa Segars
Successful Product Manager's Handbook

Sixty to 80 percent of minorities have health insurance, and they are thirsty or information.

Pharmaceutical companies looking to expand their customer bases in a tight market would do well to heed the advice of experts in multicultural marketing: The changing US market presents many opportunities for multicultural approaches, and they offer a solid return on investment—if done properly.

"The general market mentality is obsolete because the population is not homogeneous," says Sheila Thorne, who has worked in health marketing for 20 years and is president and CEO of Multicultural Healthcare Marketing Group. "If there is no market leader for a particular product," Thorne says, "and you do multicultural marketing, you have an advantage."

Companies have been attempting multicultural marketing since the 1970s, but at first they mostly invested in translating existing brochures and materials into other languages, primarily Spanish, according to Julia Amadio, who until recently was director of multicultural marketing for Aventis and is currently the head of marketing for Daiichi.

Lost in Translation?

Amadio says it is easier to obtain quality in-culture translations today, because more services are available and companies are becoming more cognizant of their value. But properly translated brochures do not begin to adequately serve minority populations. Amadio estimates that pharma, as a whole, is still behind the general consumer goods industry by about five to ten years when it comes to marketing to minorities.

Dump That Notion

Those who don't get on the bandwagon are missing out, says Thorne. "Sixty to 80 percent of minorities have health insurance. They are thirsting for information, and they have the money to purchase," she says.

Amadio believes a small investment, targeted appropriately, is all it takes. "There is the preconceived idea that this is still only a small segment of the population," she adds. "But there is a tremendous return on investment for targeted in-culture materials, a really substantial response. Multicultural groups are extremely appreciative of the effort."

In marketing, too many companies rely on traditional segmentation strategies, according to Thorne. Looking at demographic numbers using segmentation, only 3,000 of the 45,000 zip codes in the United States have a population that is more than 50 percent minority. But Thorne says those zip codes fall together in the largest metropolitan urban areas, making it easier for companies to target a specific dominant population. For example, Miami is 69 percent Hispanic, and Detroit is 85 percent African-American. Without specific targeting, Thorne says, a company cannot reach its optimal return on investment.

Amadio agrees. "In the US today, in the 10 largest metropolitan areas, the majority is non-white," she says. "This is not happening in the future—it's happening now. And it will continue to skew even more. The industry and executives need to think more about and incorporate this as part of their business planning process."

Know the Community

Companies should resist the urge to think about specific marketing tactics first, explains Nancy Huaco Lang, who worked for pharma companies for 19 years before founding her own market research and consulting firm specializing in cross-cultural disease management. A blanket TV campaign won't cut it, and neither will simply translating materials, Lang says. Those tactics should be incorporated into an overall strategy that focuses on developing the brand and business plan.

Lang also says companies need to do their homework, just as they do in general marketing. This will give them an invaluable grasp of a group's motivations, beliefs, and hot buttons, she says. But understanding a group isn't simple. It's not enough, for example, to include two or three African-Americans in a focus group, Amadio explains. She has seen successful focus groups make use of in-culture moderators and simultaneous translators, if needed, so participants in the group felt at ease.

Some companies, says Thorne, have substantive materials that are just failing to get into the hands of the people who need them. "Even more important than the message is the messenger," she says, suggesting that companies make health information culturally relevant to the community by disseminating it through people they can relate to. She warns companies not to use celebrities, however, because they are seen as a distraction. She uses community mapping to find the right people to act as liaisons between the audience and the company. For example, in one city in Mississippi, Thorne found that among African-Americans the local sheriff was the most respected member of the community. He became the face of their campaign in that area. "When he came to a healthcare screening, everyone came," she says.

Thorne also recommends reaching out to doctors in the market to determine which people have which health needs. "There is a wealth of anecdotal information you can get from physicians," she says. For example, a company with a product that treats post-menopausal symptoms turned to doctors to find out what needs their patients were expressing. In one area, Thorne says, it turned out more women were having problems with hot flashes, which was a result of their consumption of spicy food. In that case, the company could market the product with a focus on that particular problem.

Diversity Rules

Lang, Thorne, and Amadio agree that no single media tactic will always be a sure-fire success. Different tactics work in different cultures and regions, according to Amadio. While working at Aventis, she found that for promoting general diabetes screening in an African-American community, health ministers from local churches were the most effective. In another geographic area, the company used radio ads in Spanish, and they received a stronger response from that community than from Caucasians in the same community listening to the ads in English. (See "Lost in Translation?")

It is important to to be specific about the target audience, says Thorne. Think about ethnicity, age, gender, and location. Rather than launching a traditional, national campaign, Thorne says companies need to "think globally and act locally." Once a company has launched a successful campaign in one community, she says, it is possible to take the general strategy and apply it to other communities after a little tweaking. "You have to get to the heart of what people respond to," Thorne says. "Use what the people you're targeting would understand."

A newly released study by Gemstone Communications supports Thorne's advice. In it, 66 percent of Hispanic respondents report that they turn to their local Hispanic newspapers as their primary or only source of community news. The company also found that 54 percent of Hispanics are looking for more nutrition and diet ads, topics, and stories in those newspapers—key opportunities to reach that audience when it's most likely to be paying attention.

By collaborating with communities, Thorne says there is the opportunity to drive the message beyond just the campaign and establish the company and product for the long haul. "Communities respond positively to companies that help in a relevant way," she says.

Amadio and Thorne both urge companies to pursue multicultural marketing efforts consistently or, despite their good intentions, they can end up doing more harm than good. "Unless the efforts are centralized, recognized functions supported by senior management, it's not consistent," says Amadio. She says there is a feeling of skepticism among minorities about the true commitment of any company for the long term. "If you do it and don't sustain it, don't bother," Thorne says.

The upside is that companies are beginning to work harder at reaching this portion of the population. "The 2000 census data was a wake-up call," Thorne adds. "It showed that by the middle of this century, there will be no racial majority. That's already true in California, and by 2005, there won't be a majority in New York, Texas, or Florida either."

"The face of America is changing," says Amadio. "And we need to do a better job of changing with it."

Melissa Segars is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois. She can be reached at