Sense Beyond the Census

The Robin Report - CensusWhen my maternal grandfather, a Sephardic orphan, arrived in the New World in the late nineteenth century, he landed in a place where if you weren’t born here, your skin wasn’t pink, and English wasn’t your native language, then you were universally poor. That is no longer true. Our global retailing and marketing engines are just waking up to a new world where the complexion of money has changed. That change is not just about ethnicity, but also about the blurring and assimilation between other social divides like gender and age.

We are a nation of immigrants, whether across the Bering Straits or the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In the history of the New World, a tribe’s status has often been linked to longevity on their land or ability to push aside the former occupants. The south-migrating Athabascans pushed out the Anasazis only to themselves be moved in on by Hispanic migration from the south and European migration from the east. The play of migration and status has been acted out in human history in both blood and assimilation.

The melting pot of America has been no different, as each established generation has turned its collective nose up at the recent arrivals. Historically, one of the accelerants to enterprise is the competition between old and new money, expressed generation after generation in a kind of higher-level one-upsmanship. Yet we as a nation had a revolution and civil war based on the premise that it matters more who you are, rather than who your grandmother was. Modern-day America is the only place in the world where we can enjoy the realities of social mobility, both up, and as this recession has demonstrated, down.

The 2010 census reinforces what most of us have known for more than two decades. The ethnic composition of North America is again in transformation as the Asian and Latino segments continue to grow. The interesting question becomes not just about the groups themselves, but our willingness to identify with one or the “other”. Assimilation and confusion run hand in hand. On my census form I check the box for “other.”

Conceived in Spain, born at Yale and handed to an Asian wet nurse in Indonesia at three months, I am grateful Donald Trump has not questioned my birth certificate.

We are intrigued by how ethnicity and assimilation are playing out in-store. I have a video clip of three women standing at the MAC cosmetic counter at Selfridges, the London Department Store. The first woman was the young third wife of a Somali Warlord; the second, the daughter of a Kazakhstani oil executive; the third was what the Brits call “The New Generation of Sloan Rangers,” referring to the twenty-something offspring of traditional British royalty that get coverage in the tabloids for their late-night misbehaviors. Only this woman was the daughter of a British Lord of Pakistani extraction. All of these young women had money; none had the peaches-and-cream complexion of old European money.

The same store can have very different demographic profiles in two different parts of the world. We took pictures and videotape to our meeting in Rome with the senior management and store planners of an Italian luxury brand with locations in South Florida and Southern California. They did not believe that their Latin customers in Miami and their Nuevo rich customers on Rodeo Drive brought their kids into the jewelry store. It was unthinkable on the Via Veneto in Rome or Via Montenapoleone in Milan. It took images rather than charts to convince them.

The distance between the client and the realities of the store aisle can be even more fundamental. On another occasion, our client, a global giant in skin care, was adamant. “Our customer is female between the ages of thirteen and thirty five. “ Yet our profile of their shoppers in the aisle standing in front of their products was distinctly different. First, almost no teenagers; a teenage girl can get mom to buy her acne cream, preserving her own allowance for things mom won’t spring for. In some markets, forty percent of skin care shoppers were males, and this wasn’t a gay/straight thing, but the recognition that in the minds of most progressive men, skin care is a health rather than a beauty issue.

It isn’t just about the country of origin, but also about age. New Balance, the athletic shoe company, opened a new store on the corner of 20th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City in the middle of the hip, young Flatiron District. Though the brand’s national marketing campaign features retired athletes, there is not a single lifestyle image of anyone over thirty years old in the store.

And what about Older Americans? Aging boomers and older control more money; they are living longer, are more active and discerning than ever and yet are ignored by everyone but the makers of Geritol and Metamucil and maybe Chico’s. Yet from the modern Fashion and Cosmetics worlds, you’d think American women are like Christie Brinkley, and have been cryogenically frozen at age 42.

The evolution of the global consumer has been well documented; what is less clear is how business is making the necessary adjustments. As William Whyte, the American Urbanist comments in his last book, City Re-discovering the Center, the intellectual and cultural cost to a corporation of moving from a city center to a suburban or ex-urban campus is considerable. Work in a city, and you will see a cross section of the population. You will have chance encounters on the commuter train, as you walk the street, and at the restaurant where you have lunch. Want to schedule five outside meetings in a day? You can do it. Yes, you pay more rent. Yes, the commute is often more complicated. Yes, you add stresses, but you also get vitality and cross-fertilization. It’s much harder to ignore diversity or ethnicity when you are exposed to it daily.

On the other end of the spectrum, work on a suburban campus, and you drive to work and drive home. Lunch is at the company cafeteria. If you want to see someone outside your immediate circle, much less your company, you have to make an appointment and it rarely happens in less than a two-hour block of time given that some form of commute has to be built into the equation.

That isolation isn’t just about work. Our suburbs have always been self-segregating. A Toll Brothers development may have faux English Tudor and French Country houses, but homes in planned communities each sell for roughly the same amount of money; thus you live surrounded by economic versions of yourself. You can move through your day and in many American communities rarely see anyone that doesn’t look like you, and if they aren’t part of your race or economic class they are likely the ones working at the grocery store, who are never acknowledged anyway. William Whyte’s thesis was that the more money you make, the narrower your circle of real exposure is.

Years ago we worked with Cadillac, targeting dealerships with a history of sales to the Afro-American and Latino communities. The question was how could Cadillac give a better in-store experience to its minority customers? Our work was the start of the process of accepting the diverse interest in the brand. It wasn’t long afterwards that GM began to use event marketing – showcasing Escalades at Hip Hop Gatherings and night clubs, for example – to reach its target audience. Before embarking on such elaborate strategies, though, we told them they needed to get the basics right, like clean showrooms and bathrooms, and to follow protocols that were respectful of peoples’ time and attention. After all, we are all just humans.

Making sense of the customer can be done over a weekend. Making sense of the world and the people around us takes a little more time.

Paco Underhill About Paco Underhill

Paco Underhill is the CEO and Founder of Envirosell, a behavioral research and consulting firm with 10 offices globally. Paco and Envirosell’s work has been featured in The New York Times, 20/20, National Public Radio, Smithsonian Magazine, Wall Street Journal, and other major news media. Paco is also the author of What Women Want, which was published in soft cover edition by Simon & Schuster in July 2011; Call of the Mall, a walking tour of the American shopping mall; and Why We Buy, the bestselling book about retail in history. In addition, Paco’s columns include regular features in major trade publication DDI Magazine, as well as Goldman Sachs’ in-house publication.