Editor’s note: Rill Hodari is the founding president of the Association of Minority Market Research Professionals (AMMRP), Chicago.

Much has been postulated about the significance of the first African-American president and how that event may change perceptions of the potential political, social and economic access of racial minorities in the U.S. This milestone raises the question: What is the new standard for non-minority presidents and even voters after President Obama? The same question may also be raised for corporate leadership and management in America. Since the 1960s there have been a growing collective of minority leaders behind many of America’s consumer brands. Like the Obamas’ move from the south side of Chicago into the White House, the move of the minority consumer perspective from a tangential marketing tactic to core strategy brings challenges along with new ideas and questions. Do we expect the next generation of leaders to be more empathetic and savvy on multicultural issues? Do we think they will be more adept at crafting and implementing inclusive brand strategy? What does that new expertise look like in action from the consumer view and from the employee view?

The shift from the employee view

Currently many companies deal with multicultural issues concerning marketing, human resources or charitable social concerns on an as-needed or even “as-forced” basis. Companies have not made the shift that political pollsters have had to make, which is to explicitly capture, track and understand this ethnically heterogeneous cooperative that is their consumer base, and craft strategy and messaging that addresses people’s needs. Until an outcry of some sort arises, most marketers and researchers either skate the issue and/or rely on a special team of internal experts who might have a limited side budget to address multicultural issues. President Obama said once that he wanted to be every voter’s president when he took office. Similarly, the marketers and market researchers of big brands such as Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, Pampers, etc., need to be able to be the advocate and the voice of every consumer in their brand-base. It is not enough that some voices are silenced with the scant natural fallout of consumer research panels. Bright, educated brand ambassadors poised to lead these culturally relevant organizations must not be tone-deaf to the American cultural collage of perspectives.

The responsibility of the execution of this shift lies in the curriculum of higher education. The temptation may be to add on auxiliary multicultural courses to supplement finance, operations and marketing but that does not move the discussion from the margins to center. Issues of varied perspectives and the potential impact of various analysis and decisions should be a part of the selected case studies and coursework of the core curriculum, to have not only a semester abroad for international business exposure but to give real-world intern and assistantship experiences that build exposure to the domestic international multicultural community. This is the only way to produce a talent base that is ready to deal with the American consumer of the 21st century. New technology has shifted key media platforms and impacted the resulting marketing budgets and thus we must enhance our understanding of the multicultural American ethos. New consultants, vendors and suppliers with broader cultural range are needed to more efficiently guide and deliver the services needed to support the brands. Racial minorities know that typically diluted and generic perspectives are explicitly non-minority and lack credibility, accountability and are ultimately not actionable in their lives.

The following action steps are an initial prescription to challenging the status quo:

  1. Take chances on multiculturalism with core business decisions such as vendor selection, talent recruiting and research design that support consciously inclusive strategic planning.
  2. Support professional development that helps individuals close the gap on expertise.
  3. Integrate performance metric competencies that exemplify innovative execution and a demonstration to generate real value to the company from the effort.
  4. Find new language that drives action rather than old language that reinforces old habits. For example, putting a domestic-international analysis in place that encapsulates American immigrant perspectives, including Latinos and others, that may segue into international strategy.

The shift from the consumer view

The experience of more people having more exposure to each other’s lives means that we all become cultural translators. In the past as a minority, your personal story was niche and less seen, heard or understood. Various genres of music and even political and social movements have taught us that people are capable of empathizing and seeing the personal relevancy of someone else’s experience. Given this increasing emotional capability, the implications for brand communication and creative development are as follows:

  1. Create messaging that depicts authentic and culturally relevant characters in a natural setting. Trust that those outside of the specific cultural reality will still understand the product benefit and make the translation.
  2. Seek out product-use innovation among minority consumers as well as non-minorities and explore taking these innovations mainstream.
  3. Show real cultural variance in communication over time even if the actual brand message does not change. This can keep your brand team and ad agency pushing for new ways to deliver the message.
  4. If you have a powerhouse ad or campaign that is working and you don’t want to change it, you can still show innovation and variance in other platforms. When your team has an opportunity for new creative, push them outside of the comfort zone to develop multicultural messaging for the mainstream strategy.
  5. Engage in the consumer-created content trend and actively seek minorities with unique cultural perspectives to create mainstream content for your brand. This is an economically savvy way to learn how the brand works in their lives. This cultural voyeurism for other consumers may be part of the creative value to an ad.

When looking to move the multiculturalism discussion from the margins to center, you must first realize what you don’t know and then build competency and collect data. It is essential to not ignore cultural differences but to joyfully embrace using strategies that foster minority co-ownership and collaboration.