How Brands Can Better Address African-American Consumers

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How Brands Can Better Address African-American Consumers
How Brands Can Better Address African-American Consumers

When marketers think about demographics, they sometimes default to basic parameters — age, gender, marital status, income.   But culture is also becoming an essential factor in crafting a message to an audience.  Efforts to court African-American consumers are the best examples of what to do — and what to avoid.

Historically a niche effort

For years, marketing to black consumers has been a niche effort.  Publishers of cultural magazines like Ebony and Jet fought for advertiser dollars. Earl Graves, founder of Black Enterprise, in his memoir about publisher resistance in his early days, described how he had to prove an audience — and potential consumer spending —  even existed in the African-American community. 

Fast forward to 2018, and you see undeniable proof of increase spending power among the black middle class – even in a time when the prosperity of the overall middle class seems stagnant.  For example black women’s consumer preferences and brand affinities are driving total black spending power toward a record $ 1.5 trillion by 2021 (according to African-American Women: Our Science, Her Magic, a Nielsen report released last September).  

Black women, according to Nielsen, perceive their purchase behavior as trendsetting, which in turn implies there’s a marketing opportunity to establish products or services as trendy among black women who are early adopters.

One basic fact underlies these observations: The size of the African-American middle class, despite some economic volatility, has grown substantially since the Civil Rights era. 

Knowing where to find the audience

But there are also other, more technical, factors. The rise of digital marketing has added sophistication to the identification of location and personal interests, making it much easier for a business with marketing on any scale to find and define an audience.

The wider access to media programs, from traditional media to social media, has made the marketing potential of the African-American community much more transparent than it was in the early days of Jet and Black Enterprise.  The box office success of the Marvel Studio movie Black Panther — over $ 1 billion in ticket sales to date —demonstrates the potential of making a successful appeal based on culture. While the movie benefited from the success of the other Marvel franchises, the main character’s history stems from afrofuturism, a sci-fi niche that incorporates African cultural norms.

The end result is a visible link to cultural values, under consideration in the context of a purchase decision, to studies and data across industries.  This is happening for a number of demographics; the Hispanic audience, for example. As personalization is increasingly embraced, marketers must take a savvy approach to understanding cultural values beyond stereotypes.   Customers will return that appreciation in long-term sales and branding.

How to make a start on culture-based marketing

So where do marketers begin to incorporate cultural interest? One starting point is considering how demographics are selected in an analytics solution.  Affinity reports identify topics of shared interests within a visitor segment, so it can give good guidance for culture-based content marketing.  

Hashtags regularly used by cultural groups might also seem like a great place to start; but care must be taken. They are perfect for subgroups with shared cultural and behavioral interests. It’s important, however, that marketers be watchful of the conversation first, guarding against wading too far into social issues that would make their intervention look like cultural appropriation with a commercial motive. Using a social media management dashboard (Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, for example) can help —  they break social media streams into columns based on hashtags or profiles. 

A third option involves creating correlation and regression models by applying programming like R or Python.  Regression models can use data from different sources to identify a correlation exist, and then establish the relationship to a dependent variable. Marketers can create trial models, using demographic data found in open source data repositories like Kaggle and   For example, zip codes for traditionally Hispanic or African-American neighborhoods are available within some datasets.  Using data from those neighborhoods can help marketers engage with locations which might be responsive to culturally aware social media and paid search ads.

A fourth idea is to use R or Python to correlate dimensions from social media and analytics solutions that cannot be displayed within those solutions.  For example, a hashtag within a Twitter feed could be correlated against conversion metrics from an analytics solution, to determine causality between commentary and purchase action.  A regression model based on comparing social media sentiment and conversion behavior is possible, proving the effectiveness of social media commentary in driving purchases. 

Yes, it can go badly wrong

One consequence of acknowledging the role of culture in brand marketing is the need to be alert to brand risks. The recent uproar over arrests at a Philadelphia Starbucks is an example. Starbucks quickly responded to the incident by offering nation-wide bias training.

It’s also necessary to recognize that bias can impact algorithms.  I recently wrote about how an algorithm for Amazon inadvertently incorporated redlining elements in its algorithm’s assumptions in planning an Amazon Prime same-day delivery service.

To avoid this kind of gaffe, all advanced analytics teams should walk through their assumptions about data.  Many portals and platforms like GitHub make it easier for enterprise teams to view data fields before the data is added.  Reviewing assumptions can reveal where cultural bias can enter a model. Making results reproducible and sharable is not only good practice but can help ensure  that conclusions are based on data instead of stereotype. 

Recent successes in marketing to African-American consumers shows that understanding the culturem, while conducting the right technical analyses of audiences and individual personas, can go along way to embracing the customer’s authentic, voice and to building enduring CLV.

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