Understanding the Ethnic Customer Journey


Business is a race in which the companies that best understand their customer will win. Identifying how, why, where, and when customers interact with your brand is crucial to edging out competitors.

Marketers are constantly looking to meet, and exceed, customer expectations. But according to a 2016 Millward Brown market research report, less than half of marketers feel confident their companies understands the customer journey – be it for the general market and even more so, for the ethnic marketplace.

It’s also evident that a good number of Canadian marketers remain blinded to the potential of the country’s growing immigrant communities. The so-called ethnic market is still filled with all kinds of gaps, but relatively few marketers, especially mainstream corporate Canada, have jumped in.

Ethnic Canadians are tremendously diverse in language and culture, so it’s not surprising that those marketing to new Canadians have been hesitant to jump in as they believe these “niche groups” have broad cultural differences thus making it difficult for their brands to build a marketing strategy without risk. One problem with this strong focus on cultural difference is that it assumes boundaries that no longer exist.

A missed opportunity.

The 1.7 million Canadians of South Asian origin or the 1.5 million Canadians of Chinese origin could each form a city larger than Calgary or Ottawa. Truth is, that the millions of immigrants who have made Canada their home are changed by their way of life here. They are also changing Canada. There is “acculturation,” but it is mutual.

Another self-evident truth is that there is much more to understand about ethnic consumers than their ethnic culture. Creating relevant products, services, and messages demands more than an acknowledgement of their backgrounds. It demands an understanding of the expectations and preferences they have developed as consumers in their countries of origin. It also helps to understand how their needs and priorities evolve as they undergo the settlement process in Canada.

Having polled senior marketers from brands, agencies and media companies, the survey found that as consumer behaviour continues to shift and the multicultural sector explodes, marketers are having a hard time keeping up. For Canadian marketers, the growth in multicultural consumer market has reached the size of Quebec with one out of five Canadians being foreign-born. Let alone, according to Perry Caicco of CIBC World Markets, over the next ten years, approximately 70% of all growth in Canadian consumer spending will come from East Asian and South Asian consumers.

An unstoppable trend.

Given that multicultural growth is an unstoppable trend with more than 320,000 foreign-born immigrants arriving every year, it’s hardly surprising that more than half of senior marketers surveyed said they were not confident in their company’s understanding of the customer journey.

The Canadian marketing community, already dealing with a slow economy and an increasingly consumer-controlled media marketplace, must confront the new reality: The face of the Canadian consumer is changing dramatically. For the past several years, Canada’s population growth has come from immigration. Had it not been for immigration, Canada would have seen a dramatically shrinking work force and a population decline.

Fact is, mainstream agencies have not yet recognized the importance of the ethnic opportunity and are not yet in tune with this demographic’s cultural sensitivities. It’s all too new for them. While they try to be culturally respectful by showing ethnic faces in commercials, the ethnic community sees these attempts as superficial and cliché for the most part. Understanding the unique needs of these consumers require nuanced and culturally acute roadmaps to connect and engage in a relevant way. Efforts to target ethnic customers need to begin with cultural insights. Marketers who lack depth of knowledge will settle for the lowest-common denominator and end up with “very vanilla-like” multicultural insight that may be efficient, but loses relevancy with different segments. They have failed to do what great marketers have done in addressing the Quebec market with French consumers.

Ethnic consumers are “ambicultural”

For a marketer to succeed in communicating to ethnic consumers, one has to be sensitive to their unique culture and values, which can be very different from the mainstream market. On the flip side, you also need to recognize that most of the ethnic community in Canada is ambicultural – with one foot in their home country culture and the other foot in the Canadian culture. They live their lives through a combination of the two cultures they inhabit, moving seamlessly between the two. Marketers need to understand the fusion that exists between their home culture and their new lifestyle.

In their book “Migration Nation”, co-authors Kathy Cheng (Environics’ vice-president of cultural markets) and Robin Brown (senior vice-president of consumer insights and cultural markets) contend that Canada’s newcomers go through a number of stages in their immigration journey, from the disorientation of a wholly new culture to the sense of belonging and independence that comes with time and experience.

The book contends that the journey of migration and settlement “usually unfolds over about a decade as individuals develop new habits and make choices about how to live in their new society”.

Stages of the Ethnic Journey

With pre-arrival, there are various stages in the journey, and different needs leading up to the day of departure. Once new immigrants land in Canada the journey continues and it can be divided into many stages. The first day, first week, first month, first three months, first year, and so on. This knowledge enables brand marketers to streamline their communication efforts so that it relevant to both newcomers as well as the various ethnic communities.

Immigrants usually experience four main phases in their settlement journeys:

Disorientation: This stressful phase where convenience and simplicity are top priorities, such as finding groceries, connecting phones, and getting bank accounts. Ethnic culture matters relatively little at this time.

Orientation: This phase has newcomers taking pleasure in exploring their new life in a more relaxed way—and seeing if they can track down those favourite brands and foods from home. Consumers are now beginning to form the habits that will stay with them over the medium to long term. They’re finding their bearings, gaining confidence, and exploring their options. Consumers are likely to be very open to samples and in-store experiences, especially those that
engage kids and deliver a bit of education.

Settlement: A year or two into their new experience, and living in Canada begins to feel normal — for better and worse. People feel more established even though the fantasy of a new life in Canada has given way to reality. This is a time of refining arrangements "Did I get the right mobile plan when I arrived?" "Is this the right neighbourhood for me?” “Is this the right school for my children?”

Belonging: This phase is the end of the settlement journey, but not the journey itself. Depending on the individual, this may mean a diverse social group, strong Canadian identity, strong ties to their own language and cultural group, frequent visits “back home,” or any combination of these.

Strategically approaching the consumer journey depends on a whole host of factors including, but not limited to, the nature of the product and/or service you provide coupled with the consumer identity and all that reveals as well as their consumption behaviours. Consistency within the consumer journey is also key for customers to become loyalists and advocates of a brand.

The rewards are big

For marketers, the risks to engage with newcomers is low and the rewards are multiple. And as
newcomers develop their Canadian habits, they become more and more interested in loyalty programs to earn rewards. Besides being very loyal to brands that they like, many immigrants are arriving from markets where loyalty programs are very popular.

When it comes to the needs of their children, newcomers generally want their children to value their own ethnic culture. However, they’ve typically come to Canada to expose their children to new influences and opportunities. Acculturation is an explicit goal for many, and that includes exploring new tastes.

Unique differences in culture vary greatly among Canada’s multicultural population. These cultural distinctions affect their consumption and shopping habits and directly impact the need for brands to continue integrating multicultural insights into core business strategies.

In today’s millennial obsessed world, cultures are transcending the traditional age-old boundaries and are now more seamlessly integrating ethnic with the general- mainstream market. As these boundaries continue to overlap, it's important to note that culture may mean something different to Canadian born Asians versus their immigrant parents. Hence marketers need to further segment their consumers by filters of age and acculturation levels.

Being sensitive to a multicultural target's needs shows them that you understand them and actually care – the eventual goal all brands should work towards. The immigrant journey doesn’t begin when someone lands in Canada. It begins well before – in their home country. The key to getting the ethnic customer journey right is providing authenticity, relevance and value.

Mike Fromowitz
Ethnicity Marketing + Advertising

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