Has the melting pot melted?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Marketers have come a long way in the 70 years since a Chicago advertising agency dreamed up "the all-American boy" - tidy, white-bread Midwesterner Jack Armstrong - for a nationwide radio serial used mainly to sell Wheaties for General Mills.

They've traded a flawed mirror for a prism. It's a broadening response to a long-dawning reality: For consumers, goods once on the fringe have gone mainstream.

Today, few food shoppers are nonplused by grocery aisles piled with sashimi from Japan, Irish steel-cut oats, and Mexican chorizo sausages. In fact, such offerings represent just the visible tip of a trend driven by new demographic realities - and something more.

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"There's an invisible revolution going on behind the obvious changes," says Guy Garcia, a journalist and author of "The New Mainstream," a book now creating a buzz in the business press. "It will change not only how people see themselves and other people in the media, but more fundamentally, how businesses orient themselves."

This trend has grown since the mid-1980s, when Benetton, the Italian sportswear company, made the many hues of humanity the theme of its "united colors" ad campaign. Since then, a range of manufacturers, ad agencies, and retailers have adopted more multicultural approaches - in the way they pitch and also in the cultural breadth of their product lines.

Next, the reorientation will have tangible results. Expect less linear store layouts, Garcia says, with standard aisle grids replaced with meandering shapes - the mandala, for instance - borrowed from other traditions. Expect new background music - an emphasis on fusion.

Also expect far fewer "universal" products - mass marketed in a single form or flavor - and ever more products offering tiny variations in scent, feel, and flavor, adds Steve Rivkin, a branding expert in New Jersey.

And many shops' inventories - even outlets of the same chains - will vary as sellers try to find a fit, Rivkin says.

There are good reasons to better serve the spectrum of spenders. Americans' collective buying power will climb from $8.6 trillion this year to $11.1 trillion in 2009, according to a September report by the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.

Significantly, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and native Americans will account for more than $2.5 trillion of that growth - an "amazing" 40 percent jump, as the center's director puts it, over current levels.

In another sign that marketers are set to boost their efforts, the American Association of Advertising Agencies announced in September its "Operation Success," says Kip Cheng, an AAAA spokesman. The program will help agencies address various segments of the US population "by having employees within those agencies working on those accounts better reflect the consumers that they're targeting," Mr. Cheng says.

Done right, these need not be divide-and-conquer tactics that will make targeted niches feel insular, say experts. Instead, Mr. Garcia sees a kind of inevitable melting of the melting pot. Along with the "tectonic shift" in demographics and the new buying power of minorities, he says, add an emerging cultural "symbiosis."

"There is sort of a cultural-sampling phenomenon," Garcia says, referring to the so-called "creative class" first labeled by sociologist Richard Florida in 2002.

"These are people who are going to go see 'The Motorcycle Diaries' and who made 'Buena Vista Social Club' a surprise record.... They have a global perspective, they expect a variety of experience, flavors, sounds, and cultural ingredients in their lives - and it's not a trivial thing to them."

For another element of society - one Garcia calls the service class - those flavors and experiences are basic comfort zones. When the two seek the same products, the natural result is a new definition of an economy that's much more multicultural, Garcia says.

"Then you add in the new buying power of [some] Latinos, blacks, and Asians themselves," he adds, "and you have something pretty significant going on."

Some observers worry such symbiosis is not yet real. "On the one hand, you have this new constituency coming in to the mainstream with a rising clout that it can leverage in the marketplace, [and] getting new recognition from the corporate world," says Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for a New American Dream, which advocates responsible consumerism. She views that as a positive. "On the other hand," she cautions, "watch out."

Spending by minority youth, Ms. Taylor notes, can be easily misdirected. She sees the continuation of an old story, where brands dictate - through messages embedded in music videos, for example - out-of-reach standards in clothing, body image, and adornments.

"It's the glorification of big cars and jewelry," she says, "materialism as a way of defining self."

Some experts suggest marketers follow the example of youths, rather than working so hard to sway them. That could be a winning strategy in a multicultural market.

"The younger the generation, the less people are aware of the 'diversity of the marketplace.' They just take it for granted," says Maddy Kent Dychtwald, executive vice president of Age Wave, a marketing consultancy in San Francisco. "If you're marketing to ... someone under the age of 25, whether they're black, white, yellow, pink, or brown, the message you would use in reaching them has very little to do with their race," says Ms. Dychtwald. "They don't think of themselves as being distinctly different because there's some different cultural background."

Garcia sees that not as a loss of identity, but as a social perceptiveness that's only just dawning for many in the world of retail. "You can build an entire business around marketing to Latinos or Chinese-speaking Asians or even Polish-speaking Europeans, but at the same time that's adding up to a new [single] marketplace that is by definition diverse, by definition multicultural," he says.

"The beauty of this is that it's not some kind of threat to what America stands for," Garcia says. "It's consistent with the ideas of the Founding Fathers."

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