marketing buzz:
focusing on ethnic outreach

Meg Matt, contributing editor

Have you been hearing more about ethnic marketing lately? Ethnic outreach programs are cropping up across the energy landscape at a brisk pace, and with good reason. In the United States, people of African, Asian, Hispanic and Native American ancestry account for more than 25 percent of the total U.S. population. By the year 2010, non-whites are projected to make up the majority of the population in California and Texas.

So with this type of growth occurring, utilities are stepping up their efforts to communicate with their diverse customer segments. However, ethnic marketing is not accomplished solely through translating marketing information from English to the target market’s language of origin.

According to Penni Conner, vice president of customer care at NSTAR, you have to understand how to market in non-traditional ways. “Our market research shows that just changing the collateral to Spanish is not effective. Each audience is unique. Being successful in this market requires positioning your company as a valued and trusted resource in order to promote word-of-mouth referrals.”

NSTAR, an investor-owned electric and gas utility in Massachusetts, has identified three ethnic groups out of its customer base that it believes have been under served in the past. These include Hispanic-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Portuguese-Americans.

“Our marketing approach for these segments will not be the same,” said Conner. “We will use non-traditional methods which include more community-based activities. We look for trusted spokespeople who are part of the community.”

Conner cited a recent air conditioner turn-in event that resulted in nearly 2,000 units being turned in over a three-day period. “We had the mayor turn in his air conditioner at a press conference.He had his city’s cable camera crew there, and just the fact that he participated and then ran the event on the city’s cable channel, provided us with a big credibility boost,” said Conner.

Successful ethnic marketing programs recognize the differences among ethnic groups and cater to the wants and needs of these groups.

“It’s like decorating a cake,” said Conner. “The ingredients of the cake are similar, but it’s the frosting that communicates that this cake is for a boy’s birthday, a baby shower or a retirement party. It’s the same with ethnic marketing. You take a good product that people want and need and you put the right icing on it.”

Evaluation of your ethnic marketing program is crucial. “We offered a program in Spanish, and then did our follow up phone surveys in English,” said Conner. “We now do our follow up surveys in the language of the customer.”

When asked what a utility should do for its ethnic customer groups, Conner recommends the following:

“- recognize that you do serve a diverse customer base and develop ways that you can add value.

“- talk to your customers. They’ll tell you what their needs are and how best to communicate with them, etc. Use a language line in the call center so you can speak to them in their own language.

“- don’t try and reach every ethnic group at the same time. You’ll overstretch your resources and end up frustrating the customer.

“- make one or two enhancements each year.

Utilities differ from consumer product retailers in that energy and water are considered basic human services. In an article in Brandweek, Maria Dias marketing manager at AT&T Language Line Services says that utilities, health care managers and financial service firms are essential services that should be able to speak the languages of its customers. Something that NSTAR is doing quite well.

Matt is founder and principal of The Matt Group, an integrated marketing communications firm specializing in the energy industry. She has more than 25 years of internal and external communications experience, including brand strategy, competitive assessments and marketing. Ms. Matt began her energy career at Arizona Public Service, where she provided communications planning and support to virtually every stakeholder group of the investor-owned utility. She can be reached at 480-704-0897 or at

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