There are more than seven million people in the UK who were born elsewhere — they represent over 14% of the workforce, earn in excess of £137bn and spend perhaps two-thirds of this on consumer goods. Yet so little is known about this audience.

These culturally diverse people are consumers who represent a considerable opportunity for marketers and brand owners to unlock value and develop smarter strategies. If the scale is so big, so is the opportunity. Why is it, then that so few mainstream brand owners bother to understand how consumers" cultural background affects their engagement with their brands and communications?

Data shortfall

The simple answer is that, although many businesses know that they "should" be thinking about their engagement with diverse target audiences, they lack the tools to do so. Beyond ethnically defined BME census categories, there is no accurate body of data on the populations.

Ethnicity is not a helpful way of looking at these consumers. For example, the "Black" category includes a radically different selection of cultures ranging from Caribbean to African and within these broad geographical definitions there is also huge variation. In the marketing and research sphere, there is virtually no coherent market intelligence on attitudes and behaviours and a fragmented and poorly reported media landscape. As a result, many brand owners have put the issue in the "too difficult" box and moved on.

The so-called nationally representative tools — panels and omnibus surveys — simply do not have enough respondents in specific cultural groups to be able to deliver a robust sample. Qualitative research has not been carried out on a sufficient scale to provide a body of evidence that can be used for strategic thinking — it has tended to be one issue/one audience and small scale.

Brands: look a little closer

The findings of a pilot study carried out face-to-face with the Polish community in the UK by Culture Watch — as a precursor to a major research survey with a range of cultures — provides some indicative insights that illustrate the potential benefits for brands and organisations considering engagement with culturally diverse audiences:

Sizeable audience

In the UK there has been an influx of consumers from Poland in the past 10 years — these consumers now represent the second largest foreign-born population in the UK. Typically they come to work, are often joined by family or friends, live in rented accommodation and although reasonably well educated, earn significantly lower salaries than that of the UK population as a whole — 72% earn less than £20,000 per annum, compared to the UK average of £26,000.

Differing cultural demographics

We believe that different populations demonstrate differing intentions around integration. The pilot survey data suggests that the Polish population intends to integrate within the UK — this will undoubtedly be less true of other cultural groups who choose to remain within their own communities.

Interesting consumer journeys

New migrants undertake a fascinating consumer journey — they arrive with nothing and acquire all the basics of life — banking services, mobile phones and communications, furniture and household goods. They spend a higher proportion of their disposable income than the established population — perhaps as much as 65% — on consumer goods. As they become established they trade up through a hierarchy of needs and aspirations — a journey that can offer marketers different opportunities at differing stages.

Innovative approaches

In a recessionary climate the opportunities for brand growth and share gain are harder won — marketers need to be innovative, creative and more adventurous to maintain and protect their consumer franchise. The Polish survey demonstrates the overwhelming importance of recommendation from friends in decision-making: 62% claim "recommendation from friends" as a key source of information alongside virtually no mention of paid-for advertising or media. For marketers the implications are clear, they should consider social and community based marketing methods over conventional ones.

Efficient media strategies

Marketers are increasingly focused on efficiency in communication — both in execution and media choices. The Polish survey suggests that, although their attitudes to advertising and brands place them in the mainstream, their media consumption is dramatically different from the population as a whole and a conventional media strategy is unlikely to be effective. Compared with IPA TouchPoints data, the findings indicate:

  • Light viewers of television — watching only 12 hours of TV per week compared to 29 for the UK population.
  • Limited UK channel usage — consuming almost exclusively the four terrestrial channels.
  • Dominant native language channel choices — TVN and Polsat are the only native channels that feature at any significant level.
  • Radically different programme choice — news and films — rather than the drama, soaps and comedies that dominate the choices of UK viewers.

Marketing opportunities

Understanding behaviours can also renew significant specific marketing opportunities. The pilot study data shows potential marketing opportunities in mobile phones, transport — public and automotive, banking and retail. Here's just one insight: The data highlights a dramatic rise in car ownership — from 13% "on arrival" to 44% "now" — representing a significant opportunity for brands offering insurance, finance and car sales.

By early summer 2012 Culture Watch will have the results from the first survey entitled "Smart Strategic Insights to Cultural Diversity" with a sample drawn from the Indian, Pakistani, Polish and Chinese communities. I hope these new insights into consumer purchasing, loyalty and engagement will help make cultural diversity an issue that marketers and researchers understand and start to truly embrace, because from conversations with brands, media planners and owners and other organisations, everyone seems to agree that the potential rewards are tantalising.