Royal Bank of Canada advertisements in the early 20th century told newcomers, “When you arrive in Canada … it will be in your best interests to visit the nearest branch of this Bank as early as possible and deposit your spare cash.” For as long as there has been mass migration to Canada, there has been marketing aimed at newcomers.
Banks and other businesses continue to court migrants energetically. Today’s migrants, of course, are not just the European farmers targeted by the Royal Bank ad but people from all over the world — especially Asian countries like India, China, and the Philippines. Migrants are tremendously diverse in language and culture, so it is perhaps not surprising that in recent decades those marketing to new Canadians have been preoccupied with cultural differences. A starting point for multicultural marketers has often been the question of just how “ethnic” their target groups were. That is, how different were they from the Canadian mainstream?
One problem with this strong focus on cultural difference is that it assumes boundaries that no longer exist. What is the Canadian mainstream? Are the 39 per cent of Canadians who are immigrants or the children of immigrants really outside that mainstream? The 1.6 million Canadians of South Asian origin or the 1.3 million Canadians of Chinese origin could each form a city larger than Calgary or Ottawa; are these groups best understood as “niche groups,” “minorities”? It is absolutely true that the millions of migrants who make Canada their home are changed by their life here. But they also change Canada. There is “acculturation,” but it is mutual.
The reality of contemporary Canada is that the old boundaries between mainstream and minority no longer hold.
A second problem with the old cultural-difference approach to “ethnic marketing” is that there is much more to migrants’ outlooks than their ethnic culture. Creating relevant products, services, and messages demands more than an acknowledgement of migrants’ backgrounds. It demands an understanding of the expectations and preferences they have developed as consumers in their countries of origin. It also helps to understand how their needs and priorities evolve as they undergo the settlement process in Canada.
Our research with migrants — both newcomers and more settled people — suggests that migrants see the Canadian marketplace through a Cultural Lens that is coloured by three elements:
- ethnic culture
- pre-migration consumer experiences
- their settlement journey
Only by understanding each of these three elements can we develop a truly meaningful picture of how migrants view products, services, and messages in Canada.
We all have an ethnic culture that we absorb from our society and especially our families. It is composed of things like language, religion, and deep-seated values. Everyone has an ethnic culture — not just migrants. Still, moving into a different society can make people more conscious of their distinct cultural outlooks. (Those who encounter little social difference may remain unaware of the role their ethnic culture plays in shaping their preferences.) For marketers, it is important to remember that the influence of ethnic culture in consumer choices may be strong or weak depending on the product category.
Food is heavily cultural; a mobile phone plan is not.
Pre-migration consumer experiences
Much of migrant consumer behaviour, perceptions and brand relationships are formed outside of Canada.
Despite the globalization of many aspects of consumer culture, different markets continue to have distinct qualities — not only in their offerings, but in the rhythms and conventions of the customer experience. These provide the frame of reference when they are evaluating the products and services offered in Canada.
This can lead to differing reactions from new Canadian consumers. In some cases, adapting to a new consumer environment is positive. For example, many Indian newcomers report that they prefer Canadian-style supermarkets to typical grocery retail experiences in India. Other adaptations are frustrating. Filipinos, the world’s most prolific text messagers, are astonished to find that some Canadian mobile plans actually charge them for every single text.
From brands to retail environments to the conventions of customer service, migrants are navigating a new world as they go about their daily lives. Businesses operating in Canada should understand how migrants’ expectations have been shaped by other commercial environments.
The journey of migration and settlement is far bigger than a flight across an ocean. It usually unfolds over about a decade as individuals develop new habits and make choices about how to live in their new society.
The influence of one’s ethnic culture evolves during this period, but not in a straightforward way—with one’s heritage culture gradually replaced by “Canadian” culture. Rather, it ebbs and flows depending on the phase of settlement. We find migrants usually experience four main phases in their settlement journeys:
Disorientation: This stressful phase is a scramble for the basics: finding groceries, connecting phones, getting bank accounts. Convenience and simplicity are top priorities. Ethnic culture matters relatively little at this time.
Orientation:The basics are established and some stress subsides. The Orientation phase is often a fun period, when newcomers take pleasure in exploring their new context in a more relaxed way—and seeing if they can track down those favourite foods from home.
Settlement: A year or two into their Canadian experience, the novelty is gone and things begin to feel normal — for better and worse. On the upside, people feel more established. On the downside, the fantasy of a new life in Canada has given way to reality. It’s a difficult psychological transition, even if the reality is fine. This is a time of refining arrangements (“Did I get suckered on this mobile plan when I arrived?” “Is this the right neighbourhood for me?”) and making more deliberate choices.
Belonging: Migration is a profound experience that echoes throughout one’s life. In practical terms, however, the Belonging phase is the end of the settlement journey. Migrants are settled both practically and culturally. Depending on the individual, this may mean a diverse social group, strong Canadian identity, strong ties to their own language and cultural group, frequent visits “back home,” or any combination of these. Belonging looks different for different people; but when migrants reach the Belonging phase they have reached the final destination that feels right to them.
Each of the three elements of the Cultural Lens changes over time, but all three persist. And it is important to keep in mind that although the settlement journey is especially intense for migrants, they are not the only ones who are changed by their settlement process. Influence flows in multiple directions among Canadian-born and foreign-born, as trends like K-Pop and karaoke, ramen and Russell Peters, bangra and bubble tea swirl through cities and where multicultural means mainstream.
Robin Brown (@RobinBrown) is Senior Vice President at Environics Research Group and co-author of the upcoming book “Migration Nation: A Practical Guide to Doing Business in Globalized Canada.”