Marketing to Women of Color…and Why I Cringe When I See Oriental Salad on Menus
Of all the BlogHer sessions I attended, the Women of Color and Marketing panel undoubtedly was the feistiest. No doubt this was due in part to spirited panelists Kelly, Heather, Karen, and Stefania, but there’s also the hot button nature of race and ethnicity discussions, plus the fact that niche marketing can be tricky. In a previous life I might not have had the courage and inner peace to even walk into a panel of that title, but I’m glad I do now and did walk through that door (thanks Victoria, for finding me a seat despite standing room only). Not only did the spirited conversation make clear some existing issues and concrete ways for blogger and brand relations to move forward, but I’ll be damned, all of a sudden I felt very connected to a new niche – that as a women of color blogger. And I swear, I’m not saying that just because mommy bloggers got a really bad rap at BlogHer. History is necessary. It’s long been challenging for me to comfortably identify as a woman of color. I was extremely self-conscious growing up Korean in an affluent white Boston suburb (in a family prone to drama and police intervention, no less). I was desperate to fit in, and cringed at the stereotypes I fit into (yet another Korean kid playing violin) and the roles I would never achieve, be they socioeconomic (attaining the 3 pairs of Guess jeans and 2 Benetton insignia sweaters that would allow me to sit with some of my friends at lunch was impossible) or racially driven (I would never get a real part in a school play because race/ethnicity lines for traditional roles weren’t crossed back then). These may seem like minor points, but during adolescence they were huge.
In college my frustration and confusion continued. I attended a very white New England college where I was bucketed as a multicultural student and thus was invited to an early orientation so I could learn to use the ATM. When the dining hall introduced a la carte cooking with woks, a food service employee told me I should know how to use those things (he actually got fired for that). I also felt like a campus token; yes, I was high achieving and relatively attractive, but I’m not sure that warranted being featured in several pieces of collateral, including front and center of the college catalog. Finally, there were cases where my racial status “backfired” on me – such as when I was denied transfer to another university (and heard whispers of the Asian quota already being filled…damn those overachieving Asians!) or when I wasn’t eligible to apply for certain scholarships because I was not an “underrepresented minority” (again, damn those overachieving Asians!).
I’ve evolved a lot since those years. I have embraced my Korean culture (even taking language lessons at the Korean embassy when I lived outside of Washington, DC), but clearly, I still have some issues. Did it tweak me when I would tote my brown haired, blue eyed baby daughter around and people would ask whether I was Laurel’s nanny? Yes. Do I still get a little annoyed when I get those wondering glances when I’m out with her alone (the blue eyes have turned brown but she still has brown hair and a Caucasian complexion)? Sometimes. Will I ever be able to order the Oriental salad on a restaurant menu? Probably not.
Now, let’s fast forward to BlogHer, where I twice heard from friends who witnessed a couple of other Asian bloggers get approached and asked whether they were Christine Koh from Boston Mamas. On one level, I’m flattered that people were looking for me; on the other, it’s insulting because of all the Asians I saw at the conference (and believe me, we notice one another) none of them looked remotely like me (or like one another). I even decided to wear my glasses for the entire conference to make it easier to liken me to my avatar.
I digress, but not far, really, from the women of color and marketing panel. And not just because some of the panelists complained similarly of being confused for one another despite looking nothing alike. (Following a joke by one of the panelists, Victoria later took a picture of me and Kristen Chase to document that we are in fact different people who look nothing alike...though I wouldn't object to looking like that hottie).
There was an impressive mix of bloggers and marketers in the crowd, and the session made clear that pitching to bloggers of color is not cut and dry. Here were some take aways from the meeting:
1. Some bloggers just want to be pitched like any other blogger, irrespective of the color of their skin. As Kelly and I chatted about at a separate time, if you’re pitching toothpaste, race and ethnicity are irrelevant and it just seems bizarre if you put a racial/ethnic spin on it. However, pitching hair or skin products is another matter entirely.
2. Some bloggers clearly feel more comfortable being pitched by someone who reflects their culture.
3. Many bloggers of color feel marginalized in outreach; some traced this to the fact that some agencies have or are developing niche departments to specifically target women of color. However, these branch arms are underfunded and thus go untended. (Mel, A Dramatic Mommy suggested that cash-strapped agencies hire bloggers for hourly social media consultation instead of trying to build a separate, salaried division.)
4. Marketers need to cast a wider net. Dig deeper and go beyond the best known bloggers of color.
5. On the flip side of above, bloggers of color also need to step up and be their own advocates if they hear of something going on and have not been approached. (But please, I urge you to do so with taste and grace and an understanding that campaigns may be full. Acknowledge that fact up front, and that if the campaign is full, you'd appreciate being considered for a future campaign.)
6. Related to point #5, bloggers of color also should go to bat for one another. Spread the good karma and recommend fellow bloggers of colors for niche campaigns, or just other awesome bloggers in general for non-niche campaigns.
7. To appeal to consumers of color, brands must have images on their site that reflect diversity (seems like a no brainer but a lot of companies do not do this).
8. And possibly the most important lesson of all, do not try to adjust the dial of a writer’s voice to make it fit your campaign. Carol of NYCity Mama didn’t appreciate being asked to blog more Latina. Oh yes, she really was asked to do that.
It's still a tad mysterious to me, but there was something remarkably energizing in that room, and very moving about meeting so many impassioned bloggers of color. It made me feel extremely proud, and sitting in that session also made me realize that I have never received a single Asian-related pitch, despite being very open and clear about my Korean heritage, here and at Boston Mamas. Maybe the demand isn’t there, the quota is full, or maybe I just don’t write Asian enough. But whatever the reason, it matters not if I never receive a woman of color pitch because it’s the relationships with these amazing women that I really care about.
And maybe, just maybe, one of these days that solidarity will help me evolve to order Oriental salad.