Selling Americana to the Second-Generation American
Tam Le, Strategist, New York
“Inspired by the family kitchen—where quick fingers could grab a warm cookie before Mom could turn around.”
Nice try, Pepperidge Farms, but my Vietnamese mother was more likely to serve us squid than bake chocolate chip cookies. I’m one of the 33 million U.S.-born children of foreign-born parents 1 and it’s references like these and countless others from marketers that I, and my fellow second-generation Americans, ignore or only pretend to relate to. Do I really want to have a pie that tastes just like what grandma makes when my grandma has probably never tasted an apple pie in her life?
In 2009-2010, according to the Pew Research Center, 25% of births in the U.S. were to immigrant parents2, up 66% from two decades ago. As this population and their purchasing power grows, it will be imperative for classic, quintessentially American icons to engage them or risk losing relevancy.
Second-generation Americans and those who immigrated to America early in life come with their own set of challenges and opportunities, distinct from those of their parents or third and higher-generation peers. And as our numbers rise, there’s a distinct opportunity for brands to pay closer attention to this neglected demographic. Here are a few lessons to help guide them.
They’re not all the same.
Second-generation Americans is a broad term that could cover anyone whose parents are from Singapore to Senegal. Not only are there a lot of differences between different groups, there is also a lot of diversity within each group. Marketing to Chinese-American consumers requires a different approach than marketing to Filipino-Americans, as their language, religion, food, and country’s history are all different.
Coca-Cola, arguably the most classic American brand, was able to successfully navigate the cultural nuances in their “It’s Beautiful” Super Bowl spot. The heartwarming ad tactfully provides glimpses into the lives of various Americans of different races, ethnicities, ages, genders, and religions at the movie theater, dancing on the streets, laughing over dinner, buying food from a halal cart, or rollerblading set to “America the Beautiful” sung in seven languages from Tagalog to Hebrew. “‘It’s Beautiful’ is exactly what Coca-Cola is all about: celebrating the diversity that makes this country great and the fact that anyone can thrive here and be happy. We hope the ad gets people talking and thinking about what it means to be proud to be American,” said Katie Bayne, president, North America Brands, Coca-Cola North America3.
Other brands require a more targeted approach for each consumer segment. McDonald’s was named Marketer of the Year by the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies (AHAA) in 2014 for their careful devotion to targeted multicultural marketing4. McDonald’s employs three different Marketing Directors, each focusing on Hispanic, African American, or Asian American consumers. Each of the three ethnic segments has a committee with about 25 members comprising McDonald’s execs, agencies and owner-operators. They even have a multilingual website dedicated to Asian American consumers called myinspirasian.com which celebrates Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month and lists community events like McDonald’s Education Workshops where students can get information about the college admission process, scholarships and financial aid. By customizing their approach to each group, McDonald’s is better able to appeal to a broader audience.
They live between two worlds.
Most second-generation Americans wouldn’t consider themselves 100% American, nor would they say they identify 100% with their parents’ culture. According to the Pew Hispanic Center’s National Survey of Latinos, 33% of Latinos ages 16 to 25 identify themselves first as Americans, while 21% refer to themselves first by the terms Hispanic or Latino, and the plurality—41%—refer to themselves first by their family’s country of origin, be it Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador or any of more than a dozen other Spanish-speaking countries5.
AT&T, the American Telephone & Telegraph company, recognized this and successfully developed a campaign that showcases young first and second-generation Hispanic-Americans speaking in Spanglish about their complicated relationship with their two cultures and languages6. Although this was designed to appeal to Spanish-speaking Americans, the message was still relatable enough for anyone who has had to live between two worlds. Similarly, Honey Maid’s moving 4th of July ad exemplifies this straddling of cultures beautifully, tugging on watcher’s heart strings while connecting consumers back to an all-American brand and shifting perceptions of what that can mean.7
Their brand preferences are a blank slate.
Because they don’t inherit brand preferences from their parents or have the same level of nostalgia for certain heritage brands, they look to their peers or third-party sources to inform their choices. This presents a great opportunity for brands to shape their story to an audience that doesn’t necessarily have any associations with their brand.
Abercrombie & Fitch, the all-American retailer established in 1892, is a prime example of a brand that completely missed the opportunity to appeal to second-generation Americans. From their all-white models to their charges of discriminatory hiring practices, Abercrombie & Fitch makes no efforts to engage what will soon be a quarter of the U.S. population. In fact, some of their actions flat-out offend. In 2002, the retailer released T-shirts featuring caricatured faces with slanted eyes and buck-teeth in rice-paddy hats that read, “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White.” The response from their PR firm? “We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt.”8 Abercrombie & Fitch’s exclusionary brand strategy may have worked for them in the past, but as the population is shifting to become the most ethnically and racially diverse youth group in the nation’s history9, they’re going to have to adapt or risk getting left behind in obsoleteness and irrelevancy.
Second-generation Americans are a diverse and complex group, so it will take time to understand them and build their trust. But by tapping into these three key lessons and truly getting to know and appeal to their unique experiences, brands have the very profitable opportunity to adapt with the nation’s rapidly changing populace and grow their audiences, gaining a loyal and discerning demographic for life.