SBJ/January 24 - 30, 2005/Opinion

Serve honey, or stick ’em with a pitchfork?

Pitchfork and honey. In Asia, is Nike using one, the other, or both at the same time? It’s an intriguing situation offering lessons for aspiring multicultural marketers.

China’s State Administration for Radio, Film and Television recently banned a Nike TV commercial featuring LeBron James in a battle with a cartoon kung fu master. Some Chinese consumers viewed Nike as offending the nation’s dignity. According to The Wall Street Journal, some Chinese complained on Internet bulletin boards that “All Chinese were defeated in the end, even China’s totem dragon.” Another said, “This is hurting China, showing Chinese people are incapable.”

No doubt Nike and celebrated agency Wieden & Kennedy did their due diligence before releasing the spot. In fact, the company’s marketing director in China said: “We were encouraging the idea that players can overcome their fear internally … to improve themselves. We believe that this kind of approach is very Asia-relevant.”

If Nike did stub its toe, the company should heed the sage advice of a sales trainer from my past who said, “The most important thing is not what you say, it’s what the listener hears.”

However, it is too quick to suggest Nike blew it; the opposite may eventually prove true. We are watching a high-stakes wager that being provocative will sell more shoes than being courteous. Consider that not too long ago Nike offended sensibilities in Singapore, a city known for its tidiness, by plastering ads on bus shelters. Perhaps corporate imperialist arrogance will still rule the day.

Was Nike’s banned TV ad a cultural blunder? Maybe not. This is a high-stakes wager that being provocative sells more shoes than being polite.
Think about it: Who are Nike’s potential customers, Deng Xiaoping contemporaries or the sons of Tiananmen protesters? In the 1950s the establishment equated rock ’n’ roll with acts of Satan long before Mick Jagger requested Sympathy for the Devil. Pioneer rock promoters were censored — and subject to witch hunts, too — but rock ’n’ roll is now still alive and regularly featured during Super Bowl halftimes.

Not that long ago the NBA solidified its comeback with street-talking, smash-mouth basketball. It’s hard to fathom that well-heeled fans and corporate season-ticket holders would stand for gangsta rap at quarter breaks, yet David Stern’s posse balanced it with the awesome talents of NBA athletes.

So then how do you, the well-intentioned team marketing director, approach the mysterious cultural divide and sell more stuff while avoiding embarrassment (and getting fired)? Should you introduce your property with a provocation?

Probably not. In most situations your best chances for success lie in a culture-centric approach with depth, texture and liberal doses of respect.

Your first duty is determining exactly who your potential customer is, who influences and who makes the purchasing decision. You will see dynamics in traditional Latino households where machismo (Dad is king) still exists, but the strong influence of Mom has emerged from obscurity.

Find out what’s going on by engaging professional social scientists to perform clear-headed research. Refresh it periodically since multicultural audiences are rapidly changing. Rarely does one size does fit all. Not only are there considerations such as country of origin, language and cross-generational acclimation levels, but all the while the acculturation factor is stirring the melting pot of American culture.

Coke smartly demonstrated an understanding of its audience years ago by playing not only to youths, but also to Moms who made the actual purchases in the grocery store. Together with the Houston Rockets they created the BasKIDball Promotion that staged basketball clinics on Saturday mornings in the parking lots of retail grocery partners. Coke paralleled the fundamentals of basketball with those of good nutrition. This promotion nicely crossed ethnic lines. Radio messages combining good eating and playing lessons ran throughout the season on English and Spanish language radio stations. And clinics were held in a variety of ethnic neighborhoods within the largest city in the South.

Unless you happen to be promoting Cheech and Chong Night at your ballpark, don’t fall prey to cultural stereotypes. For decades we have been conditioned by images like fat, sweaty Sergeant Garcia stupidly chasing Zorro. Rid your mind of these thoughts by getting the real story firsthand. Make a point of having an occasional meal in multicultural neighborhoods, or go to a movie theater, participate in a fund-raiser or attend a church service. The grocery store is the hub of social activity, so plan on checking out the scene Saturday mornings. Chances are you will see many similarities to your own families, but the differences will be distinct and instructive.

Now, tell your story in ways that signal you understand and believe in your audience by choosing themes that resonate. Draw upon earnest emotions such as struggle, celebration of community, spirit and respect. Develop these stories beyond your advertising through strategic philanthropy throughout their communities.

Your property has many options of good things to say to emerging audiences. Take your time and do it right. You can’t afford not to invite them to the your table and serve honey.

Tom Cordova ( is principal of Orlando-based Cordova Marketing Group, which specializes in multicultural marketing, venue naming and marketing plans for leagues, teams and entertainment properties.

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