Adapting exotic things for non-exotic markets: how to replace authenticity with wedges & wedgies

14 Mar

You can sell some of the people yerba mate out of a real gourd—some of the time. Or you can sell all of them a low fat Mate Latte right now.

Camel toe gusset

As the world becomes smaller and your audience more cosmopolitan, that audience inherently becomes more cognizant about what makes it different from other audiences. This is when the savvy marketer pounce.

1. The category is: billion dollar ideas. The answer: A diamond shaped patch of material that allows you to move with freedom from Warrior II to Triangle. The question: What is a gusset?

Will also accept: Which seam ties together ancient India, Ayn Rand, Vancouver’s Yaletown, Goldman Sachs, and the outline of a human female’s labia majora? Or: What’s the holy grail of ethnic marketing? Or: What prevents “camel toe”?

Will not accept: “multicultural marketing.” (Even if you drew quotation marks around it.)

2. On the morning of February 14th, when I began sketching out a rough draft of—let’s call this a “white paper”—Wikipedia had defined “multicultural marketing” as “the practice of marketing to multiple audiences that are each descendant of a different ethnicity”—in contrast with ethnic marketing, “the practice of marketing to one audience of a certain ethnicity.”By lunchtime, the three-sentence definition had been updated nine times, with the latest proclaiming that “multicultural marketing can also be defined as ethnic marketing.” (The citation included a paper prepared by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.) In either case, the goal remained: “to find cultural touch points such as language, traditions, celebrations, religion and any other concepts that may be relevant to the particular cultural audience.”

With that out of the way, I suspect there is really no definition of multicultural marketing that can articulate these ideas more profoundly than, say, listening to the last three minutes of Kanye West’s Monster, which thumps seamlessly out of an unexpectedly limp Jay-Z lament for “lost authenticity,” into what feels like the rhythmical equivalent of Dissociative Identity Disorder, laid out by Trinidadian-born Nicki Minaj—ne Onika Tanya Maraj (via Queens, NY)—who neatly noodles at the British Tamil rapper Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (aka M.I.A), before the whitest guy they could find from Wisconsin, Justin Versnon (whose stage name Bon Iver is a loose French reference to “good winter”) closes out the track in a voice that’s been described as “a muppet on heroin.” Remember when we noted the scene on True Blood, where Lafayette Reynolds trips out on V with his boyfriend Jesus Valasquez? That’s the kind of visceral crucible that Kanye evokes.

If you still don’t get it, spend a week riding the 7 train around Queens, NY.

If you’ve ever put the words “ninja” or “guru” on your business card, feel free to skip to the end.

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Whatever definition you want to roll with, consider heeding the caveat about not taking the authenticity thing too literally. It’s one thing to open an ‘authentic’ El Salvadoran pupuseria in Kensington Market. If you want to pursue high level ethnic marketing, though, you need to turn those pupusas into Korean tacos.”

3. It’s not for nothing that the famously divisive Conservative strategist Jason Kenney’s “Building the Conservative Brand in Cultural Communities” campaign was referred to internally as “Very Ethnic.” Really, it’s an epiphany. Kenney, who has embraced the nickname “curry in a hurry”—and happens to moonlight as Canada’s Immigration Minister—goes to exceptional lengths in drawing this distinction. Canada is not multicultural—as we were so thoroughly taught in school—but “ethnic,” “very ethnic” and white bread. (For lack of much better expressions.)*

It’s not for nothing neither that marketers like to assert that in the future, multicultural marketing will just be called marketing. Ethnic marketing, on the other hand, is kindling for brands like Kenney that thrive on finding cultural wedges. Such wedges seem counterintuitive to the earnest “multicultural marketing” advice that’s been optimized for google searches, emphasizing tactics like “conscientious” and “sensitivity” and “everything to lose.” (Always boxed in quotation marks.) While coming at it from the opposite directon of Kenney’s Conservatives, Lululemon, which perfected the aforementioned gusset, blows the quotation marks off these politically correct multicultural marketing expressions.

It seems to me that you need to be a mad genius—or just plain mad—to riff off cultural wedges. While the book’s still out on whether the Conservative’s strategy isn’t actually repelling ethnic voters, Lululemon’s market dominance is undeniable.

4. I hold a special kind of terror for Lululemon’s preternatural savvy. Where any kind of conventional ideas about marketing suggest that a brand only jump the shark as a last ditched effort, the entire premise of Lululemon begins in amid-air Pincha Mayurasana overtop a pool of snapping hammerheads. Translation: Lululemon sells yoga to white bread North America by specifically stripping away all that was authentic about yoga in the first place.

Like Kenney’s brazen approach to courting “very ethnic”—he’s attacked Amnesty International and banned the niqab at swearing in ceremonies—Lululemon has come to feel like a deliberate exercise in how far you can push a piece of culture out of its original context. The company’s very name is a gag about the way Japanese people can’t pronounce the letter L. While those who practice “multiculturlal marketing” might call this “racist”—others call it very direct engagement with the audience.By the time CNN, the Times and the Globe attempted to sell newspapers last month with headlines like “Does Sexing up Yoga Spoil the Zen?”—Lululemon had already begun stamping “Who is John Galt?” onto its tote bags. That is to say, Lululemon has effectively turned self-identified progressive cosmopolitan white bread ladies into carriers for what the casual outsider might think of as the antithesis of Indian yoga. Maybe this is ethnic marketing. But maybe “metamorphosis marketing” is a better way to think about the practice too.

We like to think that this began with Elvis Presley, who may have been the first American to really figure out how to sell black music to white people. Of course, it was Bill Clinton who launched a television campaign in which African Americans proclaimed: “We’re voting for us!” (Not for nothing are there Facebook groups called “Bill Clinton is blacker than Obama”.)

The New World was built on an implicit knack for stripping apart Old World authenticity. (And please think hard about what is meant by Old World.) Marketing a new set of gods  to the Inca, Catholic missionaries literally redrew murals of the last supper, putting a platter of roasted guinea pig at the centre of the table. When necessary, they’d add darker pigment to their Jesus.

All of this is to say, there’s an opportunity right now if you can make a reasonable approximation of shark fin out of cat meat. Or a call to prayer app that doesn’t go off while I’m eating my Korean taco. Or make new Canadians believe that the foundations of their cultural identity are really the same foundations as a conservative party’s white bread identity.

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*As this blog evolves, we’ll more thoroughly redefine and tease out the functional meaning of these categories. For instance, I take white bread as a mentality more than a skin colour. And I  take “very ethnic” as a very complex cultural mentality rather than Kenney’s notion of an exploitable homogenous fish out of water.

Lagniappe:

  • We may as well add Urban Outfitters to this case study. Along with its younger sister Anthropologie, which is magnificently defined by Kara VanderBijl:

As an Anthro girl, you are in touch with the people of the world. You wear the fabrics that they have made with their hands, and although this blouse cost you half your week’s wages while it gave them approximately one dollar, you feel like you are one with them. You are Elizabeth Gilbert, reveling in your spiritual transformation, your connection with the world. You might be able to say, “I got this tunic on my recent voyage to Bali.” There, you played soccer with the natives, and sat silent around a campfire while they grasped your hands in peace. Your white presence justifies them, and you give them meaning by blogging about them.

I question an assumption many yoga and spiritual practitioners make. It’s the belief that spiritual liberation is inherently socially or culturally revolutionary.

Also:

lululemonpants

One Response to “Adapting exotic things for non-exotic markets: how to replace authenticity with wedges & wedgies”

  1. Katie July 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    You are a fantastic person with a nuanced grasp that marketing is the weirdest thing in existence, and that packaging is everything. I appreciate your candour and wit like you could not believe – stuff like this is why I’m going back to grad school.

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