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Marketing to multicultural Australians gained the spotlight during the pandemic as governments and organisations experienced the collective implications of the virus and began the journey through Covid-safe practices, vaccination programs and rapid digitisation. So what lasting lessons can we take around what it takes to engage culturally diverse consumers?

Marketers were exposed to many lessons about marketing effectively during the three years of the Covid-19 pandemic. But one of the biggest learnings coming out of the crisis is still being realised: How to truly engage with Australia’s multicultural consumers.

There’s no doubt in CulturalPulse CEO, Reg Raghavan’s mind a byproduct of the pandemic is how important it is for brands to put a multicultural lens across marketing and communications.

“People saw the opportunity and impact Covid had on everyone, not just the communities they were servicing. They saw the large and economic impact of not engaging with all audiences, including culturally diverse audiences, during at time of crisis,” he says. “Everyone was affected. People understood the impact it had on them personally if government didn’t engage with communities, and they could see when the campaigns were and were not working.” 

Commonwealth Bank CMO, Jo Boundy, also believes the pandemic raised awareness of how critical it is to find ways to reach the whole community. The big four bank claims a long and proud history of supporting culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) Australians and has the most migrant customers of any Australian bank. Yet even against this backdrop, the pandemic provided impetus to improve multicultural marketing and communication approaches.

“A good example of this is overwhelming demand during the pandemic from the multicultural community for support from the Covid helpline in languages other than English,” Boundy says. “Having only an English option meant a large proportion of the community was unable to access this important information. We worked in partnership with NSW Health, leveraging the capability of bilingual CBA team members to support the helpline and translate information such as location of the nearest testing centre or clarity on isolation protocols.

“This highlights the need to account for culturally and linguistically diverse Australians in order to communicate with the community in full.”

Similarly, founder and CEO of multicultural agency MultiConnexions, Sheba Nandkeolyar, notes various stories in the media speaking about instances of critical messages failing to reach language-dependent people, often with some serious repercussions for public health and personal safety. “These articles highlighted the downfalls of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach in marketing and communications.”

Feeling impact culturally

You could argue health and safety sectors already recognised culturally oriented communications      as important. What was unique about the Covid-19 situation was it left an indelible market on every category and sector, elevating multicultural engagement criticality across the board.

Broadly speaking, Raghavan cites an initial shift by corporates as the pandemic struck towards more conservative marketing practices, while state and federal governments leant in and upped the CALD communications ante.

“It was a disaster but in a way for the sector, it was a real test of how well we have this [CALD engagement] covered,” he says. “There was a lot of media focused on multicultural communities. Those southwest cities were highlighted a lot with super low vaccination rates. It became unavoidable.

“You can avoid unconscious bias in this sector if you want to. Even with diversity and inclusion it’s been about focusing on women first; next, disability; and agreement that Indigenous is important. But multicultural – no, many want to avoid that. This was a moment where it was unavoidable because it was starting to impact other people.” 

For pure-play digital remittance services company, Instarem by Nium, multicultural audiences are the primary customer. Nevertheless, Covid required a shift in marketing and communication approach as competitors shut physical locations and money transfer all went online.

“There had been a mindset of remittance being done by certain CALD communities via a local grocery chain or store or having a member of their local community process transactions,” Instarem by Nium VP, Michael Minassian, explains. “So we had rapid digitisation of remittance in Australia. We had always appealed to specific segments of Australian multicultural audiences, but this accelerated digitisation 10-fold. It hasn’t pivoted back.

“How we communicated went from more of a brand play or putting specific acquisition offers in market, to education. We were taking people who traditionally held a certain mindset around conducting a remittance transaction, particularly older CALD audiences, and educating them on how you conduct financial services transactions online. That needed to be nuanced so it would get cut through with these communities.

“It wasn’t just about translation but making sure the message itself resonated.”

Over at services marketplace, Airtasker, Covid required a re-evaluation of communication propositions to provide safety and trust to its ‘taskers’ to enter into people’s homes.

“These were in the form of safety vaccinated badges and so on,” VP brand, Angeline Lee, says. “It was important to assure the community we were supporting our Taskers in a compassionate way. And it was important that value was translated in a multicultural manner.”

Covid was an even more seismic shift for others. CulturalPulse found its partner mainstream agency, Bastion, asking for assistance around driving nuanced multicultural messaging after losing a retendering bid with the New South Wales Government.

“We had talked to them about the fact there’s your traditional audiences and your CALD audiences,     and when Healthdirect came along, Bastion were aligned ,” Raghavan says. “The feedback from Healthdirect was yes, the separation of two audiences and a strategy to reach out to that audience was a critical decision point for them because they were debating that internally.”

Raghavan sees this as proof of the requirement for agencies to do more to proactively engage CALD audiences for their clients. “Across brands in general, and especially with more advanced marketers, it’s an implicit requirement sitting in the back of their minds. But it often doesn’t make it to hard briefs,” he says. “With many agencies, if it’s not explicit in the brief, they won’t action it.”

Distinctive CALD behaviours

As the lens turned to multicultural during the pandemic, distinct behaviours and needs of CALD consumers proved vital to acknowledge. One Raghavan points to is the relationship between consumers and government authority.

“Government messaging success varied amongst CALD communities. In some cases, they were alert and aware of it, but others just said ‘no way’ – if you’re from a country with corrupt governments, for example,” Raghavan says. “It took me as a second-generation Indian time to understand Australia’s system of governance is trusted and something to be proud of. I don’t think a lot of CALD communities have that embedded knowledge.”

Collective decision-making is another cultural differentiator. “My personal example was having my 80-year-old father leading the charge in terms of our [Covid] response. He was across all the media and he was directing barking instructions to the broader group around vaccination, and he was the first and led by example,” Raghavan says.

Trusted communicators is the role leaders play in informing the opinion and actions of CALD consumers. “There’s trust within that collective mechanism and trust in the process,” Raghavan says. “Referrals were big too: There’s a reach one, reach all model at work here because of those factors.” 

A further factor in how CALD behaviours manifest can be attributed to media channel fragmentation and connectivity. Many multicultural communities during the pandemic were getting information from outside of Australia.

“Suddenly, there was not only conflicting state versus federal messaging, but many CALD communities also had their home countries and consumers overseas influencing their decision making,” Raghavan says.

Boundy believes conflicting information during Covid, along with constant changes to both the narrative and response to the pandemic, made referral and community influence at a grassroots level through trusted sources and channels even more important. “CBA’s Community Engagement team drew on long standing relationships with grassroots community groups as well as strategic relationships with government and multicultural bodies to support our customers and Australians more broadly.”

CBA also quickly published and regularly updated its Financial Support Guide as the pandemic progressed. “While we considered translation as we have done with many other bank communications, because of the changing environment, we partnered with grassroots multicultural groups through our Community Engagement team to disseminate in their CALD communities,” Boundy comments. 

Nandkeolyar echoes how critical language dependency proved during the pandemic. “Many audiences struggle to digest important information if it is not in their own language,” she says. “Many CALD consumers also experienced the same isolation and fear as mainstream audiences. However, in many instances it was heightened by being far away from their loved ones with international borders closed up. Products and services that acknowledged and served these needs undoubtedly stood to win.”

Minassian describes his brand’s approach to multicultural engagement as one of building trust. “Imagine the scenario around a new migrant or an older Indian diaspora or Philippines segment – they are used to buying from people, and they’d tell me how to do it. I’d trust them as they’re part of my community,” he says.

“During Covid’s early days, it was about bridging that gap and building trust not in terms of our brand or service but around transacting digitally. There was a spike around fraud, for example. So trust and security were certainly what we messaged heavily. Within that framework, getting community leaders to endorse and advocate for how you do things and change in behaviours gets a lot more cut through than just saying ‘trust us’.”

Campaign cut through during Covid

Other examples of successful campaigns during the pandemic abound. One was CulturalPulse’s work with the building and construction industry in Victoria on the ‘CovidSafe Worksite’ campaign.

The agency was approached two weeks prior to Victorian worksites re-opening on 28 September 2020 during the transition from stage 4 to stage 3 Covid-19 restrictions. Master Builders Association of Victoria and 16 other BIG1 organisations worked quickly to develop an eight-week campaign strategy targeting Victorian construction employees and their families encouraging Covid safe practices. Their aim was to ensure multilingual homes and construction workers were fully informed of Covid safe messaging on their return to work.

A five-step messaging approach was adopted, and landing pages and marketing collateral created in 16 languages, totalling 240 assets and landing page links. Weekly dissemination of messaging in each language to each community group was done through the CulturalPulse network including social media, multicultural media groups, community groups, community leaders and associations.

Highlight results include more than 1.5 million reached across digital and media channels, and digital reach of 603,000 including 287,000 unique views. Of this, 54% of engagement came from non-English-speaking background users, led by Punjabi speakers, followed by Simplified Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, and Dari. The digital campaign achieved 4x greater clickthrough rate against industry comparisons.

“The key thing was they [Master Builders Association of Victoria and industry organisations] understood as an industry the need and got together quickly. That wasn’t easy, particularly across all the different trades,” Raghavan says. “There were 15 trade unions that all had existing cultural insight. One had a high number of Vietnamese workers, another had Iraqi builders, a third had Afghani tilers. An example they shared was Afghani tilers would come to a construction site during lunchtime and want to sit in a circle to share and eat food with their hands together.

“So the site manager needed the resources to get that safety message across. It was a good example of an industry pulling together.”

A progressive multicultural approach

As the pandemic progressed, marketing and communicating with CALD audiences progressed too, with both good and limited effect. Neuro-Insight CCO of global, Peter Pynta, saw governments applying a distinct cultural lens in marketing and communications as certain messages in certain communities failed to get through.

“Behaviours were very different and communications effectiveness was very different as a reflection of cultures and their behaviours, so a specific strategy for cultural groups needed to be refined. We all know external contexts are fluid and they ‘colour’ the way messages [advertising] works in a variety of ways,” he says. “Advertising that also changes in a relevant way, with this context, was always going to reap the benefits.”

Yet Raghavan questions New South Wales Government’s response after realising media approaches weren’t getting to multicultural communities, even as he praised putting money towards in-language communications and involving CALD leaders in campaigns. Herein lies the gap, he says.

“They skipped over multicultural marketing as a field of expertise and went straight to multicultural community engagement because that’s what they know. They invested about $50 million into Multicultural New South Wales, which has a list of cultural communities. But they’re not communicators or marketers; they’re not communications people,” he says. “This is where there’s a broader government issue around regulation: Multicultural is a sector they’ve stepped into and they’re trying to regulate too much, rather than just relying on expertise. But it’s being missed because the media agencies aren’t getting it done.”

Raghavan flags channel choice as another gap in brands engaging multiculturally during Covid. “Where did they place the information? They placed it on their website. However, people were not going to go to the New South Wales Government Health website and click on the Nepalese translation to get my latest information. They’re just going to get the referral in WhatsApp. So there was a ‘build it and they come’ reliance,” he says.

“That was what was unique about the work we did Healthdirect. We were tracking clicks and driving people by culture to their website and landing pages. They wanted us to pull back from the landing pages, and just drive awareness generally because each message was changing a lot.”

For Minassian, building brand by illustrating other aspects of Instarem by Nium’s value proposition became key as the pandemic progressed. This is where emotive storytelling came to the fore. Creative featuring a Filipino nurse, for instance, captured and acknowledged her journey and applauded her decision to send money home and delay financial prosperity in Australia.

“We saw the human story resonating well with Nepalese and Philippines communities specifically,” he says. “Our Philippines campaign was a great story of these people working hard. Culturally, there’s a whole notion of championing Filipinos that migrate abroad. It’s a different slant on the hero concept, supporting the wider family at home. In other communities, it was less the human story and more around the product value proposition.”

Instarem by Nium also uses referral as a key acquisition lever. “You build advocacy and people are proud to refer you, particularly if there is something in it for them too, let’s not kid ourselves. But you will get a lot of advocates within communities who want to help out their community and aren’t worried about the incentives,” Minassian says. “We did a lot of successful referral campaigns, particularly in the Nepalese community, whose migration is more recent than Europeans or Indians.”

Lessons learned on multicultural marketing

With Australia firmly in post-pandemic mode, the question now is what practices marketing teams take from pandemic times to engage CALD consumers long term.

“Number one is this: What is the opportunity cost of not looking at CALD?” Raghavan responds. “If $400 million of media spend doesn’t have an impact at a time of national crisis, then what does that mean? It really brings to light this reach versus effectiveness point.”

Yet Raghavan admits measurement remains a hurdle for understanding whether marketers are truly engaging with CALD consumers.

“During Covid, we had CALD vaccination rates to show that information. If we didn’t have CALD vaccination rate information, then you had no reference point to know how you’re tracking and whether something’s really effective or not. It talks to the reach versus effectiveness metrics that the industry needs to evolve further,” he says.

Kantar Australia Executive Director, Carolyn Reid, believes multiculturalism in Australia is already out of touch. Just take the fact 29.1% of Australia’s resident population in 2021 was born overseas.

“When we look at some of the recent winners of the Cannes Lions and the Kantar Creative Effectiveness Awards, it demonstrates that we like to think we are multicultural and inclusive as a nation,” she says.

“But what’s most important to recognise is multiculturalism goes beyond inclusion. At its core is in fact inclusion, diversity and accessibility. And while multicultural marketing is a starting point, we, as marketers, must ignite and inspire a bigger conversation.”

One brand Reid believes is doing this well is MasterCard, which uses data insights to support Ukraine refugees by demanding a generosity of spirt of a nation towards others through its ‘Where to settle’ campaign. The creative focuses on using tech for the benefit of humanity.

“What Covid taught us is people turn first and foremost to family, friends and they sought comfort in community. Some parts of society require more empathy, generosity of spirit, and help,” Reid says. “This means being more meaningfully relevant when it comes to multiculturalism, neurodiversity, disability, age, ethnicity, gender identity, and beyond. When this is done with sincerity and not tokenism is when it hits hardest – it’s all about designing to the edges.”

The pandemic wasn’t the biggest trigger for Airtasker to shift towards cultural diversity in its marketing. “The diversity of our nation is,” Lee says. “At Airtasker, we are a community platform to really showcase our Taskers in a genuine light. PR is our largest source of scaled communication in Australia across major news networks and we reflect our diverse community in an authentic way. But we can do a much better job in paid campaign advertising.”

Lasting impact

On a positive note, Nandkeolyar has seen renewed appetite for multicultural marketing post-pandemic, with the influx of migration and Census 2021 results adding to the importance of CALD engagement.

“The pandemic emphasised the value of our strong relationships with the multicultural community sector. Since the pandemic we continue to cultivate these relationships,” Boundy says of CBA’s post-pandemic CALD approach. “The insights from community partners continue to be incredibly valuable in informing our marketing strategy and improving the relevance and inclusivity of our campaign development and delivery.”

At Airtasker, personalisation and the use of AI will be more pronounced in the way it scales all types of multiculturalism imagery and language. “We rally behind LGBTQ+ community as a nation, but it’s challenging to shift towards multiculturalism as it’s such a diverse group,” Lee says. “There isn’t a simple, iconic campaign we can create. But it’s truly the way to behave with an ongoing empathetic nation to reflect a world that is the reality. It’s the small everyday moments in all our communications but it needs to be deliberate, not an afterthought.” 

Through a neuro lens, Pynta highlights a change in ad receptivity from a pre- versus post-pandemic lens. “There were definitely differences in effectiveness. But, here again, I’d encourage advertisers to not only think ‘broadly’ about relevant ads overall, but also to consider how very specific moments within ads could change dramatically as a function of the Covid environment,” he says. 

“For example, scenes that featured people gathering in the cabin of a plane were dramatically less engaging immediately post-Covid. Yes, this type of measurement may seem too micro to worry about, but this is where subtlety, nuance and relevance can win you significantly more impact.

“More broadly, I thought it was fascinating to see behavioural economics in action. Despite all the rational messaging in world saying, ‘just buy what you need’, consumers did the exact opposite. This only highlights the power of emotional, over rational, behavioural motives.”

Raghavan brings Covid’s lasting impact back to the fact CALD audiences have differing behaviours playing out that can be directly harnessed to deliver growth.

“It’s not just sitting in some academic paper by Hofstede. It’s real and can be drawn on in a time of hopefully more than just a national crisis, to unlock value,” he says. 

At a personal level, Raghavan says the pandemic provided CulturalPulse with reassurance its targeted approach to CALD engagement is the right one. “It was a moment of reinforcing the importance of this almost to the extent of this being a human right. It’s a responsibility of agencies and media agencies in particular, to do this right,” he concludes.