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Nine Ways to Connect to New Demographics

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Sixty miles west of downtown L.A., Oxnard, Calif., is an extreme example of America’s accelerating demographic diversity. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 70 percent of its 203,000 residents are Hispanic, a fast-growing group that owns nearly 40 percent of the businesses in town. 

For Jose Reveles, owner of Oxnard’s 10-bay Commercial Auto Body, marketing to the area’s growing Hispanic population is vital to the growth of his business. With an annual marketing budget exceeding $20,000, Reveles focuses on direct community involvement, billboards, direct-mail flyers, print ads, educational radio spots and in-shop materials printed in multiple languages. 

Reaching a diverse audience is both essential and a sign of the times, he says, in a city where more than 30 percent of the population speaks Spanish at home, one of the highest percentages in the country according to the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey.

“If you want to be in business, you have to communicate in that person’s language or you will not be successful,” Reveles says. “If I would be operating in L.A. close to Chinatown, I would do my marketing in Chinese, because I am in the area.”

Two thousand miles away, in St. Paul, Minn., Billy Hall is the director of marketing for the six-location Heppner’s Auto Body chain that employs targeted ethnic marketing and multilingual employees to attract a wider array of customers, including the area’s large Hmong population. 

“We’re definitely aware of our diverse customer base,” Hall says. “We track who’s coming through our doors, why [and] how they hear of us.”

Pawan Mehra, founder and principal of Ameredia, a multicultural marketing agency based in San Francisco, says businesses ignore different ethnicities at their own peril. 

“If you are a small business, chances are that your regional demographics and customer base represent consumers from different cultural backgrounds,” he says. “If you know your customers represent various cultural backgrounds, why would you not connect with them in culturally meaningful ways? It doesn’t take much.”

From on-the-ground experience to higher-level marketing strategies, here are nine tips to expand your customer base to a more diverse audience. 

1. Review your demographics.

To understand where opportunities for your shop might be, Mehra suggests using free and widely available resources such as census.gov to examine the demographic makeup of your area. More detailed information can be obtained through Nielsen and Experian Marketing Services, or even your local city or government office. 

For your current customers, using a customer intake form to collect information such as demographics, contact, insurance providers and referral sources can provide fodder for future marketing efforts aimed at subsets of the population. 

2. Put bilingual employees front and center.

Picture yourself on vacation in a foreign land in need of medical treatment. Even with tourist-grade language skills and a pocket dictionary, would you be able to describe what was wrong with your body to a doctor? 

“A good strategy nowadays is what could be termed as ‘tradigital’—a mix of traditional and digital channels to connect with a wider section of demographics.” 
—Pawan Mehra, founder and principal of Ameredia

Reveles likens that scenario with non-English-speaking customers struggling to explain what happened to their cars. A simple solution, he says, is placing multilingual employees at the front counter or, at least, putting up a sign alerting customers that your shop speaks multiple languages. 

With multilingual staffers at some locations, but not all, Heppner’s added a phone system to link all locations. Now, if a Hmong-speaking customer comes to a shop without a native speaker, assistance is just a three-digit call away.

3. Install basic signage.

Mehra views basic in-language signage as a great, passive starting point to connect with diverse customers. 

“It sends a message that we welcome you here,” he says. “You’ll be surprised at the comfort level [customers] experience talking to their own people.”

At Commercial Auto Body, Reveles keeps basic literature on hand in multiple languages to explain the basics of the repair process and how insurance reimbursement works.

“They might want to know why insurance totaled their car,” he explains. “That’s very helpful to have those things in place to give it to the customer so they are aware of why.”

Taking it a step further, he also keeps contract templates in multiple languages to provide peace of mind to non-English-speaking customers and help avoid any potential disputes or miscommunications.

4. Use local media channels.

Everything from small ethnic newspapers to language-specific radio stations can be used to reach diverse audiences, sometimes at very affordable prices. 

In Minnesota, Heppner’s sponsors local high school sports teams, puts up fliers in ethnic markets, and advertises in a local Hmong newspaper to connect with targeted populations near its shops. 

“If you can afford it, reach your consumers locally through their regional media channels,” Mehra says, adding that online marketing can inexpensively pinpoint targeted groups. “A good strategy nowadays is what could be termed as ‘tradigital’—a mix of traditional and digital channels to connect with a wider section of demographics.”

5. Host events catered toward different demographics.

Advertisements cannot replace human connections formed through in-person events. Mehra suggests basic signage recognizing community events or holidays—like celebrating the Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 in 2015), Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month (May) or African American Heritage Month (February)—can make a big difference. 

“Talk to them and show them that you care about them and appreciate their business,” he says. “It doesn’t take much, but a nice welcoming smile and timely response could go a long way in earning a customer’s trust.”

6. Get involved.

Joining multicultural representative associations like ethnic chambers of commerce, business councils or other professional networking groups is another way to directly involve your business with local communities, which could directly attract customers or cultivate ambassadors who may refer future customers. 

Regardless of your own ethnicity, Mehra says most diversity-minded associations would be open to new members with valid objectives and support for community initiatives. 

Hall joined the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce, a move that has helped him form contacts throughout the local community. 

“There are a lot of great networking opportunities,” Hall says. “You never know when somebody’s going to get into an accident and need your help and, two, there are a lot of business owners who attend these meetings and they might have multiple vehicles—it’s all about building relationships within our respective grounds.”

7. Connect with diverse insurance agents.

General networking events, such as becoming involved with the Hmong chamber, preceded an even more grassroots effort at Heppner’s: connecting directly with insurance agents in areas of high ethnic diversity. 

Hall brings multilingual shop employees along to visit agents to ease any language barriers. Together, they explain that Heppner’s has Hmong employees ready to help their own customers. The practice has led to many customer referrals, as well as additional DRP relationships. 

“Agents are not going to refer [customers] to a place where they open their doors and no one’s there to understand them,” he says.

8. Consider a multi-language website for your shop.

While it’s still an uncommon step among small businesses, multi-language websites are a way to differentiate your business from your competition in the eyes of specific groups. 

“Multi-lingual websites are becoming a reality for local firms as much as for global corporations,” Mehra says. “If you cannot, generate basic in-language marketing materials that connect with the diverse crowd. Do not, however, play on cliches but truly connect with the audience and what matters to them.”

9. Don’t be afraid of mistakes.

Marketing textbooks often reference business translation failures, such as the 1987 KFC Chinese marketing campaign that used America’s “finger-lickin’ good” slogan which, unfortunately, translates into “eat your fingers off.” While the potential for embarrassment is real, Mehra cautions that avoiding markets out of fear or lack of understanding could be a far greater strategic error. 

“[Mistakes] happen all the time, but that’s no reason not to market to cultures. You learn and you move on,” he says. “Not doing it is a bigger mistake, and, if you just start now, you’ll have an early-mover advantage when these markets have ballooned and others are just making a foray into those segments.”

Mehra adds that keeping messages simple and neutral can help business owners avoid embarrassing clichés or mistakes. 

“Just a simple message in the reception area that greets people around specific festivals, holidays and celebrations may go a long way in building those connections,” he says. “If a specific ethnic group is a core part of your business growth, understand them. Spend time in learning and knowing more about that group—their lifestyles, behaviors, preferences and emotions.” 

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