Monday, January 7, 2008

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.

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