Photo: AP

Over the two-decade span from 1990 to 2010, the U.S. population increased by 53 million. About 86 percent of this increase was driven by “multicultural” segments–mainly Hispanics and Asians. To put your practice into the flow of U.S. population growth, you should build these segments into your marketing plan. A good place to start is to get the lingo right.

Here is an example where word choice was not appropriate for the audience: During the 2012 Presidential election campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney attended a Latino Forum sponsored by the Hispanic television network Univision in Miami, at which he responded to a question by saying: “For those young people that are already here, that are undocumented, that were brought here by their parents and therefore are illegal aliens in this country, my view is that we should put in place a permanent solution.”

Although such language has become standard campaign rhetoric, the term “illegal alien” is offensive to many Hispanics, the fastest growing multicultural segment in America. Many prefer to describe this situation as “undocumented.” When discussing an undocumented child brought to the U.S. at a young age, they prefer the term “DREAMer” – after the DREAM Act that would offer such children a path to documentation and citizenship. Whether or not the DREAM Act ever passes Congress, the term has become a fixture in the new multicultural American vocabulary.

Likewise, it is incorrect (and might be offensive) to describe all people in this segment as “Hispanics.” Technically, a Hispanic person has cultural roots in Spain, while a Latino is from a Latin American culture. It is considered good etiquette to inquire which of these terms is preferred by each individual.

To be courteously precise, some women of Latin American origin (such as U.S. Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor) prefer the feminine “Latina.” However, many people of Mexican origin prefer to be called “Mexican-Americans.”

Multicultural segments can be defined by race (African-American), country of origin (Hispanic), cultural background (Latino) or religion (Muslim), and it’s important to be sensitive to how each segment thinks of itself. For example:

  • Most people with cultural roots in China prefer to be called “Chinese” rather than “Asians.”

  • About eight million foreign-born white people live in the U.S. Most prefer to be identified by their national origins–e.g., Lithuanian, Polish.

  • Not all black people in the U.S. are “African-American.” Some identify themselves as Afro-Caribbean or Black-Hispanic.

Key point: Study your target markets and learn the lingo they prefer and feel comfortable using. When in doubt, ask!

Last month, AARP released an informative survey about the retirement-related concerns of African-Americans over age 50, which you might find useful in marketing to this segment.