Consumer Report

Trading In Stereotypes

Though the youth market certainly existed in 1977, the assumption was that kids and teens were essentially broke, financially irresponsible, and dependent on their parents to make purchasing decisions. Kids today may indeed differ from their '70s counterparts, but that's only part of the story. Businesses understand the youth market more clearly than they did 20 years ago. Where marketers once relied on stereotypes to influence their decisions, they're now looking at actual attitudes and behavior.

A parallel shift has taken place with other "specialty" markets. In 1977, for example, the stereotypical older American lived on a modest fixed income. Today, we know that seniors are likely to have as much discretionary income as their working children, if not more.

In the past, minority markets also fell victim to faulty assumptions. One of these was that marketing to racial and ethnic minorities required no special effort. Another was that the minority market could be lumped into one big demographic blob. Upon closer inspection, neither of these notions proved true.

Not only is the African-American market discrete from, say, the Asian-American market, but the interests of a black college professor don't necessarily coincide with those of a black construction worker. According to a report by New York City research firm Find/SVP, marketing to the $120 billion Asian-American market often means advertising in various languages to a market that encompasses some 22 distinct subethnicities. Companies with a genuine interest in reaching minority consumers can't just assume that mainstream marketing efforts are hitting the mark--or that a single minority-oriented campaign is going to cover the entire minority community.

If it isn't yet, should your small business be concerned with minority markets? In many cases, the answer is an emphatic "yes." If your business draws from a geographical area--or any market niche--with a significant minority population, then your ability to reach those consumers can effectively make or break your venture. And if minority consumers aren't being courted by your competition, they may represent a goldmine of opportunity for you.

Of course, most small businesses aren't going to create individual, culturally sensitive marketing campaigns for every demographic group in existence. That isn't practical--or even desirable. But, unlike the entrepreneurs of 1977, today's business owners must understand the multiplicities of the marketplace. Twenty years of demographic research, targeted marketing, cultural awareness and improved market intelligence have raised standards and consumer expectations.

"The big story is not the change in demographic makeup," says Diane Crispell, executive editor of American Demographics magazine. "It's that we've learned to recognize these markets and to reach them better." People today expect to be catered to and understood, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age and gender.

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This article was originally published in the May 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Consumer Report.

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