Dame Louise Casey, in her review of the integration of ethnic minorities, has accused the government sector of burying its head in the sand. Her report criticises public officials for their failure to tackle strategic issues that affect the integration of minorities for fear of being branded racist. The report is a damning indictment of Britain’s approach to managing diversity.
But are private companies any better? Today the number of the Britons of foreign descent is approximately equal to the number of people aged over 70. It is larger than the population of Greater London. Any marketer who disregarded the needs of those over 70 or Londoners would be slated for failing to address the needs of an important niche market segment.
Why then are the needs and consumer preferences of specific minority groups so routinely overlooked? Is it, as Dame Casey suggests, from a deeply entrenched anxiety of being considered racist? Or is it for want of a proper understanding of how the needs of minorities differ from those of the mainstream population?
The advertising of Benetton and Nationwide has long positioned these organisations as inclusive and multi-cultural. But scratch the surface below the faces that advertise a brand, delve deeper into the marketing strategy or the corporate customer database and you are unlikely to find more than a modest understanding of the preferences of people of Chinese or Black African descent, or behaviours of adherents to Hindu or Muslim faiths.
Marketers profile their customers every which way but very seldom by race. So what explains this reticence to profile people by their origins? Thirty years ago, in the early days of mass immigration, there was justice and virtue in the belief of opinion leaders that immigrants had been the victims of historical disadvantage, discrimination and prejudice.
So entrenched was this view that for many it became the only explanation of differences in behaviour between immigrant communities and the host population. Investigations into the underlying differences between communities was dismissed by race relations experts under the heading of stereotyping.
Differences between minorities was de-emphasised compared with what they had in common. “Non-experts” were made to feel that they were being disrespectful at best, racist and at risk of generating reputational damage. The response of many was to avoid the subject.
Our research reveals to the contrary. Cultural influences on behaviour remain pervasive and far more persistent than most people realise. Consequently, not making an attempt to understand the preferences and behaviours of particular minority communities can itself be interpreted as disrespectful and ‘racist’.
If a supermarket sends an offer on butcher-choice sausages to Jewish and Muslim families without discrimination – will that not be considered disrespectful by its recipients? Would it be racist or merely helpful for an airline to target flights to Poland to people with Polish names or for a theatre to send information about a visiting Swedish orchestra to people on their mailing list with Swedish names?
We would argue that such practices are no different in kind from targeting the over 70s with mobility aids, or people who like gardening with seed catalogues? Yet currently considering practices of this sort makes many people nervous and understandably so. It is wrong that they should be made to feel anxious.
Analysis of behaviours of different communities should not be rejected on the grounds that it leads to stigmatisation. And, particularly when, on the basis of research, companies take the trouble to design new products and services to meet the hitherto unmet needs of specific minorities, marketers should be encouraged to use techniques now available for coding their databases in such a way that they can bring these products and services to the attention of the consumers for whom they were developed.
Richard Webber is co-founder of Webber Phillips