Has the Melting Pot Melted?

Article excerpt

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.

"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. …

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