How to Reach Affluent African Americans

Mark Dolliver, Adweek, February 2, 2010

{snip} A forthcoming book, titled Black Is the New Green: Marketing to Affluent African Americans, makes the case that luxury marketers are guilty of missing out on one such lucrative market. Written by Leonard Burnett Jr. (co-CEO and group publisher of Uptown Media Group and Vibe Lifestyle Network) and Andrea Hoffman (CEO of consultancy Diversity Affluence), the book also offers counsel on how to go about reaching “AAAs,” its shorthand term for “affluent African Americans.”

Slated for publication in March via Palgrave Macmillan, the book says many luxury brands appear oblivious to the fact there’s any such thing as an AAA audience, even though such households now deploy some $87 billion in disposable income. With the image in their heads of a handful of wealthy black athletes and entertainers, these marketers overlook the existence of 340,000-plus AAA households–headed by professionals, corporate executives, entrepreneurs and the like–with yearly income of at least $150,000.

But there are also, as the book notes, brands that have been savvy enough to go after AAAs, though not savvy enough to do it well. One problem is that marketers often seem to adopt a hip-hop approach as their default mode in addressing black consumers, irrespective of the age or social class of the audience they’re hoping to reach. Sure, interest in hip-hop has broadened over the years. “However, the reality is that the vast majority of the significant affluent African American niche is not part of hip-hop culture,” the book explains.

THEIR TASTES HAVE MATURED

It’s partly just a function of AAAs’ age: “They are no longer 18 to 34 years old,” says the book, “but 28 to 44 years old.” It ought not to surprise anyone that they’ve outgrown some of the interests they had in their younger, less-prosperous days. {snip} That brand “might have made a better choice in terms of reaching the AAA audience by choosing to employ an image of Halle Berry, or Phylicia Rashad, or even an undiscovered black model from Africa in their ads–in other words, choosing someone who registers on the AAA radar, someone who inspires their aspirations.”

Many marketers have allowed themselves to be misled by the sheer tonnage of media attention to hip-hop and urban style. “Continual media references to urban and hip-hop have created a one-dimensional vantage point which overshadowed this market,” says Hoffman in an interview via e-mail with Adweek. {snip}

{snip} The simple passage of time means the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and ’60s feel remote for many AAAs. Says Hoffman: “It’s important to note that AAAs were birthed out of a generation where race barriers were lower than in their parents’ or grandparents’ time.”

BEYOND THE CIVIL-RIGHTS STRUGGLE

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If a marketer ties a disproportionate amount of its marketing to events like Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, it risks being out of sync with the AAA audience. “If you are McDonald’s, it’s probably part of a larger effort that simply stands out during celebratory times,” says Hoffman. “However, as luxury brands begin to embark on or ramp up their efforts, their touch points might be very different. Occasions do have a place in the hearts and minds of African Americans as a whole, but what differentiates the AAA audience is that while they respect and value their legacy and heritage, they are not constrained by it.”

Luxury marketers can tap into AAAs’ civic concerns, of course, but it helps to do so in an up-to-date manner. The book points to environmentalism as a case in point. It’s a cause with added resonance for community-minded AAAs, since struggling black neighborhoods are often situated in areas that bear the brunt of pollution. {snip}

{snip} “AAAs, like any affluent audience, are keenly aware of environmental issues, not only in underserved communities but across the globe. According to some very preliminary research, the broader opportunity exists from food brands and cleaning supplies to baby products and beyond.”

INCLUDING ETHNIC MEDIA

{snip} When it comes to choosing media for a campaign that targets AAAs, the book cautions against adopting the following assumption: “Oh, this is just another kind of luxury client. We’ll be able to reach them with our general marketing because, once people get to a certain level of wealth, they assimilate.” While agreeing “AAAs may have more in common with what you view as your core customer base than you originally thought,” this doesn’t mean they’ve ceased to have a distinct identity. {snip}

{snip} [T]his audience “notices when the luxury brands that fill the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair are absent from ethnic media.” And they’ll take this as a telltale sign of whether an advertiser truly is “welcoming” of them.

{snip} “If a brand feels that they have the wrong creative–meaning no black person in the ad–they aren’t operating off research,” says Hoffman. “Our research shows that this consumer is also OK with quality creative as long as it’s found in the targeted media, marketing and lifestyle outlets that are relevant to AAAs.”

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WORD TRAVELS FAST

If AAAs suspect a brand isn’t authentically welcoming of them, they’ll let their peers know about it. The book notes that the AAA audience is “a tightly knit one.” And that means word travels rapidly among them: {snip}

“That’s one of the things that make this audience so special,” says Hoffman. “Grassroots and word-of-mouth marketing are highly relevant. Recommendations from peers who had good experiences are worth gold. It’s free advertising. Brands who aren’t participating in this are leaving money on the table. This is where involvement in the digital space, or events and partnerships with organizations such as the National Black MBA Association, are critical and should be standard components to any marketing mix.”

Hoffman also quotes some recent research by her Diversity Affluence firm that points to the online aspect of this: “Affluent African Americans do not just shop online but use it often for information, entertainment and communications. Of growing importance to Affluent African Americans is online networking. More than 82 percent of respondents subscribe to personal networking sites such as Facebook.com and to a slightly lesser degree (72 percent) Affluent African Americans use online social networking sites such as LinkedIn.com. Such sites are budding opportunities for personal and direct marketing to this unique group.”

SMALL EVENTS, BIG IMPACT

This propensity for spreading the word means small-scale events can have a big impact. {snip}

This, too, reflects a recurring theme in the book, that partnerships with cultural institutions (as well as educational and philanthropic organizations) are an effective way for brands to align themselves with the interests of AAAs and get their attention in a positive way. {snip}

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