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A South Asian grocery store in the Toronto area (DEBORAH BAIC/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
A South Asian grocery store in the Toronto area (DEBORAH BAIC/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

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It was a well-intentioned stab at marketing to ethnic customers. To mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. commissioned television spots for its No Frills supermarket chain on multicultural television, touting specialties such as halal chicken and ground beef.

But something was off. The voice-over in the No Frills commercial was in Punjabi. But the Bollywood movie during which it aired was in Hindi.

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"It's the equivalent of running an English ad on French television," says Gavin Barrett, creative director of multicultural marketing firm Rao, Barrett and Welsh, who noticed the gaffe when it appeared on OMNI Television.

Welcome to the latest minefield for marketers - one that they must get right. By 2031, one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority group, and one in four will be foreign-born, according to Statistics Canada. Retailers have been slow to cash in on the massive change in Canadian demographics. Now, they are racing to serve the burgeoning market of new Canadians, stocking everything from kecap manis and okra in their grocery aisles to darker shades of makeup foundations at their cosmetic counters. But they are still struggling with how to advertise and promote their new products. They suffer from language slip-ups or bland, predictable ads that simply trumpet savings to budget-conscious multicultural consumers, without trying to grab their attention with flair and humour.

"A lot of clients prefer the safer option," says David Innis, partner in Fat Free Communications, which specializes in marketing to Canadians of South Asian descent. "They indulge in, basically, tokenism… They're scared about offending and saying the wrong thing."

Loblaw spokesman Bob Chant says the company was unaware of the inappropriate language use in the recent No Frills commercial, and had planned for a Hindi version of it to run with the Hindi movie.

Despite the hiccups, some retailers - including Loblaw - have raised the stakes with cheeky or unusual marketing to lure multicultural shoppers. Home Depot has taken the initiative of running workshops for Asian consumers in their own languages, helping them learn about do-it-yourself chores which, in their homelands, they didn't need to do because they could hire cheap labour.

For merchants, the need to respond to changed demographic shifts is an urgent one. "Every retailer needs to address this issue quickly," Perry Caicco, retail analyst at CIBC, said in a report last week. Over the next decade, about 70 per cent of the growth in Canadian consumer spending will come from visible minorities, especially those from Asia, he says. Retailers also face the challenge of competing with savvy ethnic stores here. "Ethnic grocers may now be as big and powerful as Wal-Mart," he says, referring to the discount titan.

Retailers have begun to acknowledge the need to chase multicultural customers. About a year ago, Loblaw acquired T&T, a top Asian supermarket chain based in Vancouver, and is now borrowing from the T&T playbook for its mainstream store shelves. Loblaw recently started to carry Japanese-style mochi rice balls, Stassen pure jasmine green tea and Silver Swan soy sauce, a Filipino favourite. "It is for me a huge opportunity," Loblaw president Allan Leighton told a retail conference this week. "We have to be the No. 1 player in ethnic. Everything we're doing is very much focused on this particular opportunity."

At Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. , "we have not been successful in driving our ethnic mix," Jurgen Schreiber, chief executive officer of the country's largest drug-store chain, says. This year that's beginning to change as Shoppers moves to central purchasing of multicultural inventory for about 10 per cent of its stores in distinct ethnic neighbourhoods. Products include basmati rice and eyelash enhancers (popular among Asians at Vancouver stores), although marketing to new Canadians is limited to in-store signs, spokeswoman Tammy Smitham says.

Amid the challenges, a few retailers are working at piquing consumers' interests in different ways. Loblaw last year used a clever play on words in an ad to promote Indian foods eaten during the Vaisakhi harvest festival. "Vaisakhi is coming," the ad asserts. "So is every Tom, Daljit and Hari."

South Asians connect emotionally with the message because they gather in large numbers to feast during Vaisakhi celebrations, says Mr. Innis, whose firm produced the ad for Loblaw. "The solution is really simple: advertisers should apply the same criteria to multicultural advertising as they do to mainstream work."

Wal-Mart Canada turned to real people to try to reach out to new Canadians in television ads a few years ago. The spots showed South Asian and Chinese families talking about settling into their new life in this country. One man explained how he felt to see snow for the first time - like stars falling from heaven - and shopping for coats, gloves and toques at the discounter. "They let him speak his mind," says Ramesh Nilakantan, a former executive with ad agency Publicis, which did Wal-Mart's advertising. "It wasn't scripted. When you're a new Canadian, you're not familiar with what to buy." And you don't necessarily want to spend a pile of money.

Others are trying to go beyond advertising to entice the ethnic consumer. Home Depot this year has drawn overflow crowds when it held workshops at its stores in Cantonese (in Richmond, B.C.) and in Hindi and Punjabi (in Brampton, Ont.) Store staff advised on how to paint a room for $99 and other simple do-it-yourself tasks.

"You're moving them from a do-it-for-me culture to a do-it-yourself culture," says Mr. Nilakantan, who was on the team that helped develop Home Depot's multicultural workshop strategy. "You're talking to a person who can't even put a nail in the wall… Drywall, for instance, doesn't exist in India. All the walls are cement."

Still, the challenges for marketers remain immense. In India alone, for example, there are 21 languages, 2,000 dialects and seven religions, Mr. Nilakantan says. Some people are vegetarians, others don't eat pork and still others don't eat beef. Is it any surprise that Loblaw was caught with the wrong language in its No Frills ad?

Yet getting it right can generate a big payoff. New Canadians can be extremely loyal to brands. "When they come here as new Canadians, they're extremely vulnerable," he says. "Anybody who reaches out to them at that stage is somebody whom they will value. That's the opportunity for marketers to reach out to them in the early days. In almost all cases , they will stay with you for life."

Editor's Note: This online version contains an insert that was not published in the original newspaper version or the earlier online version of this article.

Follow on Twitter: @MarinaStrauss

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