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Ethnic marketers capitalize on GTA's shifting demographics

Sheromi Amirthanayagam, 27, is searching for her mother in what could be the setting of a South Asian Where's Waldo illustration: a Brampton supermarket.

Ms. Amirthanayagam, a Sri Lankan immigrant, weaves past the handful of brown faces standing in front of waist-high displays of gnarled cassava roots, thick fingers of okra and pebbled bitter melon.

She peers down the frozen-food aisle, where a man in a turban is evaluating the frozen Indian-dessert options: gulab jamun and rasamalai.

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And then, near the checkout, she spots her mother behind a few other middle-aged South Asian women, pushing a cart topped with a five-kilogram bag of basmati rice, imported from India.

A few years ago, this crowd might have squeezed down the narrow aisles of a cramped ethnic supermarket in search of specialty foods, but today they're getting what they need at a No Frills off Highway 410.

Statistics Canada predicts that by 2031, 63 per cent of the GTA's population will be "visible minorities" (a Stats Can term that clearly needs some rethinking), with South Asians and Chinese leading the pack – that's up from the 43 per cent counted in 2006. With the minority set to become the majority, the GTA has become ground zero for marketers from major retailers, banks and wireless providers trying to attract "the ethnic consumer."

When Ms. Amirthanayagam watches Bollywood films on OMNI Television, she'll often catch ads for No Frills interspersed with the ones for Scarborough-area jewellers or the Harbourfront Centre. The production values are impressive, she says.

"They do really well at advertising for holidays like Visakhi and Diwali and all that. They really know how to attract the right customer that they're targeting."

Data collected by Statistics Canada in 2006 shows the cities of Toronto, Markham, Brampton, Mississauga and Richmond Hill experienced a major surge in visible minorities from the previous census year (2001). Markham had the highest proportion of visible minorities in the country – they made up 65.4 per cent of its population. About half were Chinese and one-quarter were South Asian. In Brampton, the census subdivision that ranked behind Markham, 56 per cent of residents were South Asian.

Last month, grocery giant Metro purchased a majority share of Adonis, a grocer with a steady following of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern consumers. This came two years after its competitor, Loblaw, snatched up T&T, a major Chinese supermarket chain. Both deals give Metro and Loblaw access to suppliers and business strategies geared to reaching ethnic consumers. When you've been preaching to predominantly white, middle-class consumers for decades, you need to turn to the pros to shake up your game.

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The methodology Shirke, Ethos's managing director, says.

Sometimes, all that's preserved from a mainstream ad is the storyline – the text is completely re-imagined and models recast in what Mr. Shirke calls "transcreation." But that can't be done every time on every budget, especially if he is tasked with preparing ads in Chinese, Urdu and Punjabi.

The conundrum of cultural subtleties ethnic marketing firm in Liberty Village, has tried to combat.

"People stereotype us. South Asian – they want to show a Taj Mahal and tiger and they think they're speaking to us. For the Chinese, they want to show kung fu and they think they're speaking to us," he says.

Dr. Hernandez says a deeper issue with marketers is they fail to understand generational differences call for different ad strategies. The newcomer requires different treatment from the established family or the Canadian-born children of immigrants.

Sachi Mukerji, president of Monsoon Communications, says his firm has tried to address that in its television ads. The No Frills ones are targeted at newcomers and highlight cost-saving (both the South Asian and Chinese commercials have the same storyline: a family sits at the kitchen table trying to balance their budget before heading to No Frills).

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But the visible-minority Loblaws customer is a different breed.

"You go to Loblaws because you've matured into almost a mainstream person," says Mr. Mukerji. In a Chinese commercial, a middle-class family heads to Real Canadian Superstore to pick up groceries to impress a relative visiting from Hong Kong.

The problem with quantifiable datastudied the demographics surrounding various store locations in the GTA, created custom products and turned to South Asian staff for assistance in producing radio spots and print ads to run in CanIndia News.

But four years later, Kerina Elliott, vice-president of human resources, store operations and administration for the company, says there is no quantifiable data that shows the campaign was a success.

"We would love to be able to tell you that it moved the needle by a certain percentage but we cannot verify that," she wrote in an e-mail. "We hope that it raised awareness within the ethnically diverse communities in which our stores operate."

Even if "awareness" is all they gain, no big brand wants to be left in the dust by its competitors in the race for the ethnic consumer's attention.

Amy Mui, a sales and business development manager at Sing Tao Daily, one of the GTA's biggest Chinese newspapers, says major retailers and banks have placed ads with her paper since she started at the paper a decade ago but "it's starting to become more aggressive in recent years."

The poorly translated token Chinese New Year ads have evolved into slick, original copy timed with that holiday but also placed throughout the year.

Grocers will display a different array of sale items than the ones referenced in mainstream media to play to cultural tastes, Ms. Mui says – a bottle of mirin instead of balsamic vinegar; sesame oil instead of olive oil. The goal is to show shoppers they can find the products and brands from "back home" at their stores.

While Ms. Amirthanayagam says her family considers No Frills their main grocery store, they still shop at Oceans Fresh Food Market, a Brampton-based multi-ethnic grocery chain as well as a handful of Tamil shops. Media exposure and variety can only go so far with some consumers.

"My mom just shops around for prices and that's why she goes to the Oceans and the Tamil stores," she says. "There's some exported goods they don't sell here because a lot of times they … only cater to East Asians and miss some of the brands."

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About the Author

Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter who writes about race and ethnicity. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in the 905 region. Previously, she was a feature writer for Globe Life. More

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