Monday, January 7, 2008

Crossover Dreams and the Post-Modern Black Aesthetic

written by Kevin Walker and Anietie Antia-Obong

We are officially living in the Age of Crossover as a pop aesthetic has overtaken and defined African-American art and commerce. As a marketer, this has been one of the most interesting developments I have witnessed recently. Given that I am such a music fan, I began noticing this trend earlier in ’07. Music, of course, is one of the key ingredients in the overall pop culture environment.

Just take a close listen to the techno-house beat and Daft Punk sample used in Kanye West’s masterpiece Stronger. Is Stronger hip hop? Yes, he is rapping in the song, but the hook and the music all have a very pop feel. Kanye and Timbaland kind of started this. But now Snoop Dogg has come out with a very good pop song called Sensual Seduction. It is in every since of the word a pop song.

In film, the top earning actor is Will Smith. Will Smith is assuredly the icon of the Post Modern Black aesthetic. He is connected to his heritage yet the film vehicles that he chooses are those that typically have the most appeal to the masses. Even Spike Lee’s last film Inside Man had a multiracial cast and in no way touched upon any ideals of Black Nationalism.

So what is driving this? I think it is part of the idea of the post modern and pop black aesthetic that is driven by the desire to sell art to as many people as the market will allow.

Having lived through the 70’s Blaxploitation, Pro-Black, Soul Train era and then the Public Enemy/Spike Lee era of Black Consciousness and Black pride, I have personally witnessed this transformation of African- American art and business. Those eras were defined by the need for black expression mainly geared toward other blacks. Now in this era of Crossover, black artists are striving to create art for the masses, largely driven by the growing corporate domination of the entertainment industry which requires artists to fit the mainstream aesthetic.

This sensibility is impacting many other areas of pop culture and consumerism and it definitely has implications for us as multicultural marketers.

We believe that going forward targeted African-American advertising will be more subtle in leveraging cultural cues and will begin reflecting the “racially blended” styles that are developing more and more in general market communications. Like Kanye West’s Stronger, African- American advertising will feel more like general market advertising and will be more universal in its appeal. The challenge to traditional African- American agencies is how do you stay relevant without allowing general market agencies to steal their clients?

As an Agency, CultureLab’s main goal is to connect through true consumer insight. We develop our communications not from the perspective of ethnicity, but from an understanding of the interests of various groups and cultures within the African-American community.

One Youth Nation Under A Groove

written by Kevin Walker and Anietie Antia-Obong

I am a HUGE fan of George Clinton and his wonderful, whacked out, zany genius. Not only is George Clinton one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, but he is a prophet as he predicted that we would all be living as “One nation under a groove getting down just for the funk of it!”

This idea is quickly becoming a reality amongst general market youth. Our research shows that despite ethnicity, many young people consume the same media, enjoy the same hobbies and love the same brands.

One of the primary missions for our agency, CultureLab, is to bring account planning and research discipline to the multicultural youth segments. That said, we maintain constant contact with youth across the country and monitor emerging trends relevant to them.

In a recent CultureLab focus group, we discovered there were huge islands of common interests despite ethnic origin or social class. For instance, when asked “Where do you spend most of your time on the internet?,” the overwhelming response was Youtube. Youtube was discussed as the “go to” site when you have time to burn and want to entertain yourself.

Also, the majority of the group (ages 18-23) stated Google was their homepage. Sneaker hoarding, skateboarding and gaming (specifically Nintendo DS ) were the popular hobbies/activities. (Although it should be noted those of Asian ethnicity expressed that they spent more time playing games networked via wi-fi with other players.) In terms of brands, the overwhelming favorite was Apple with Apple having the most coveted and hottest gadget out there, the iPhone.

The whole idea of this “one nation” youth concept was further underscored on a recent trendspotting trip to LA. We went to the Fairfax District near Melrose and Fairfax and discovered long lines of kids waiting to get into the hottest street wear and sneaker shops. Upon more careful observation, we noticed that it was a complete mixture of racial groups. There were many young people of Asian descent and there were equal numbers of Whites and Hispanics. It was literally a representation of the proprietary CultureLab segments of focus: Urban Renaissance (urban blacks who are trendsetters), Urbanized Whites (whites who are influenced by and naturally comfortable with Latino and black culture), Cultural Blenders (typically suburban youth of Asian or Eastern Indian descent), and Reggaetonistas (urban-acculturated Latino youth).

The striking thing about what we saw is that it was a whole movement around finding the rarest and most coveted street wear and sneakers. It was a feeding frenzy for the hottest lifestyle accessories for sneaker freaks and skaters of all cultures.

For marketers, it’s very important to understand the complex consumer and attitudinal dynamics involved in staying relevant with these groups. At CultureLab, we are constantly in contact with the younger, multicultural demos in order to monitor and stay up-to-date on emerging trends. This approach allows us to create cutting edge campaigns that really register with this ever-changing, dynamic group.

Intra-Racial Stratification Among African-Americans

When Tom Burrelll, one of the godfather’s of African-American advertising started his agency, Burrell Communications Group, in the early seventies, his primary mission was to help marketers understand that you cannot communicate to African-Americans as though they are “colored” white people. He taught the advertising world that advertising communications could be more effective and relevant if true cultural insights were reflected in targeted advertising.

During the emergence of this new discipline of ethnic marketing, African- Americans were pretty much a homogenous, socioeconomic group. At that time, the civil rights act of 1964 had only been in place for 7 years and African-Americans were just beginning to enter the world of corporate America in masse.

Fast forward to the current environment today relative to ethnic advertising and African-American advertising specifically. As a testament to his vision, Burrell Communications Group is an award winning agency that now has over $300 million in billings annually. However, the original mission of Tom Burrell and his namesake agency is a little more complex.

Today, African-Americans are a more segmented socioeconomic group. As a result, how advertisers market to this segmented population must also change. One of the most intriguing debates amongst experts in African-American advertising is whether so called “targeted advertising” is still relevant to most African-Americans. Or is the General Market agency approach of creating advertising with a few black faces mixed in with others just as effective?

We argue that it is a combination of both. We also believe that one of the most important trends going forward is the growing stratification based on class, education, and income within the African-American group. In the recently released Pew Foundation Research report, 37% of African-Americans polled say that “blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race”. The same report also uncovered the sentiment that many middle class blacks no longer share the same values as those blacks in the so-called underclass.

These are palpable developments that will definitely have an impact on targeted communications and media consumption. Back in 1971, many blacks were filled with optimism and hope for a better future. But in 2008, that hope is fading as blacks are less upbeat about the progress of the race.

In my own observation and analysis of the dynamics of targeted African-American advertising, there are some trends that are emerging:

1. Intricate knowledge of attitudes, lifestyles and consumer behavior of affluent African-Americans will become more important for luxury brands, apparel and consumer electronics.

2. Agencies that have built their reputation and expertise around “mass” African-American outreach will stagnate on the new account side. The carouselling (the same accounts moving from one Black agency to another) of traditional CPG, fast food, and automotive accounts will continue.

3. General market agencies will continue to siphon off accounts from ethnic agencies due to client cost pressures.

4. The importance of the “Urban Soldier” (young black underclass males and females) will increase for traditional black media outlets and advertising agencies. This is due to the growth of the black underclass and further marginalization in income, education, and opportunity.

5. Middle class and affluent blacks will continue to adopt values of whites and others and will be more open to general market messaging and entertainment programming than those in the “Urban Soldier” segment.

6. Niche marketing to affluent blacks will increase through the use of tactics like targeted promotional events, targeted print, online social network marketing, mobile phone marketing, word of mouth advertising and advertising through community organizations.

In this day and age, if agencies are to be effective in developing communications targeted to African-Americans it is important for them to take a true account planning approach: 1) Dig for insight, 2) Understand the roles that socioeconomics and class play in media consumption and 3) Never look at the African-American consumer as a monolith. Demonstrated understanding of nuance and complexity of the consumer will increase relevancy. CultureLab as an Agency practices this approach regularly in the development of targeted communications for our Clients.