It is not unusual to use race as a demographic classification in the U.S. Marketing campaigns; government plans; segmentation studies; social programs- everyone pays attention to the race classification! For years, however, I have contended that race is not an appropriate demographic characteristic in the segmentation of population groups for marketing purposes. Maybe it was at one point in time; but our world today is demographically very different from what it was as recently as the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are no clear race divisions that correspond to typical group behaviors like there used to be many years ago.
To see my point here it may help us to think about what we mean by race. Race is usually defined by the physical features and characteristics of a group of people. Hundreds of years ago people that shared similar physical characteristics also shared the same social and ethnic makeup and tended to live in the same region of the world. People were not able to travel like they do today and there was hardly any interracial mixing. The colonization of the Americas started to change things a bit; but even in the United States, a country that was formed with a foundation of diversity, there was great social pressure for race segregation. For years people kept themselves divided by race. Things, however, started to get a bit confusing.
As centuries went by the Black African people that were brought in as slaves to Caribbean Islands became an integral part of the population of those islands. In some of these islands, like in Puerto Rico, the Blacks mixed with the Whites (mostly from Spain) and the native Indians resulting in the mixed race characteristics of the Puerto Rican people. Other Caribbean countries, like Jamaica, stayed mostly Black; yet the Blacks there have a completely different culture from Blacks in the United States. The same holds true for other races. Maya and Aztec Indians mixed with Spaniards in Mexico and Central America to form the characteristics we see in the people from those regions.
This is a good time to remember that Hispanic or Latino is not a race. This is a big area of confusion in the U.S. because Hispanic has been listed and often continues to be listed as a race classification in all kinds of government, business, and academic forms. Latinos with predominant Indian physical features in the U.S. do not know how to classify themselves on these forms and see Hispanic as the most obvious classification. In reality, the Hispanic classification was created partly to define this group of people that we were unable to classify otherwise. This is not all necessarily bad. Great historical accomplishments were achieved by Mexicans in Texas who set out to legally prove that they were not really white. Until the U.S. government began to recognize this distinction (by a ruling of the Supreme Court no less!), Mexicans who were accused of a crime in Texas were judged by a jury “of their peers” that did not include any Mexican. But I digress…
The fact remains that Hispanic or Latino is not really a race. When people in the Southwest say that someone looks Hispanic they are probably seeing native Indian features that are common in many Mexican immigrants. Likewise, when people in New York say that someone looks Puerto Rican they are recognizing the typical Puerto Rican race mix characteristics. Now, you would think that it would be appropriate for people from Guatemala who have a rather pure Maya heritage (many do) to say that they are of the Indian race. Not so. For one, saying that you are Indian in Latin America is still considered derogatory; a belief that comes from Spanish colonial times when Indians were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. And more importantly, when any business, government, or academic form lists Indian as a race they mean American Indian; which surprisingly is not seen as inclusive of Aztecs and Mayas (let alone Caribbean or South American Indian natives).
In the United States, anyone with a mix that includes Black is considered Black. I never understood the reasoning behind this but the definition is very well documented. In other countries the definition is a bit different. In the Dominican Republic, for example, it is customary to consider a person White if there is White in their heritage or if the family is mostly of lighter skin. I have met many Dominicans with dark skin who are adamant about classifying themselves as White. In Puerto Rico there is a complete spectrum of skin tones between black and white; yet most Puerto Ricans will say they are White. Who is to judge what the race is when they are mixed races? This becomes worse as people continue to relocate and intermarry. It is becoming so confusing that the census now has a whole battery of questions regarding race mixes and Hispanic ethnic heritages in an effort to include all the options; but what we need to do is to simply give up on this whole race classification nonsense!
From a marketing perspective knowing a segment by their race is of little use. A Black person from Haiti has little in common with a Black person from Atlanta; let alone a Latino Black. To define African American as an American ethnic group (not a race) is valuable. Blacks who share the U.S. American heritage share the same cultural traits and exhibit similar behaviors. In defining African American as an ethnicity, however, I would not include Latino Blacks or newer Black immigrants from other countries. Marketing to Asians as a race is even more ludicrous. They do not even share the same culture or language. Marketing to Asians is only valuable when separated into the specific country segments. BUT… marketing to Hispanics as a whole works! Why? Because Hispanic is NOT a race.
While I will not argue that there are many differences among Latino segments, the fact remains that there are some very strong commonalities. We do (for the most part) share the same language, very similar values when it comes to family, a tendency to be religious or spiritual, a passion for food (even if our foods are different), a Latino wit or sense of humor that is often very different from that of Anglo Americans, a similar immigration experience, an emotional nature, and a unique way of connecting with one another that relies heavily on instincts, emotions, and non-verbal communication. Marketing to the commonalities exhibited by all Latinos does work!
My advice to marketing researchers is to forget about the race because it does not really matter; what we are trying to get at when we segment people by race is their ethnic background. Let’s segment by ethnicity, not by race. And let’s stop believing that we are different because of the color of our skin. The physical features are not what make people different; their attitudes and opinions, which stem from their culture and upbringing, do set them apart.