Marketing to African-Americans must not end with Black History Month

February is here, and for 28 days, thousands of corporations across the country will rally their African-American marketing initiatives around Black History Month.

February is here, and for 28 days, thousands of corporations across the country will rally their African-American marketing initiatives around Black History Month. Companies will promote their diversity efforts, increase their ad spend among “urban” media, host Black History Month-themed special events, and donate millions of dollars to well-deserving nonprofit and community organizations.

I applaud these companies for speaking to African-American consumers at a time of the year when it is important to recognize the accomplishments and contributions of blacks to this country. Yet I also encourage them to go beyond the month of February and make marketing to African-American consumers an integral part of their year-long communications efforts. As a McDonald's campaign so directly and profoundly states, African-Americans are “365 Days Black.” Companies that understand this sense of cultural pride and make an ongoing, long-term investment in multicultural outreach can break through the brand clutter and begin to connect more deeply with ethnic audiences. 

African-American consumers look for campaigns that speak directly to their culture. They are highly sensitive to messages and images that resonate in a culturally sensitive and authentic way. More importantly, they recognize if they are considered a valued consumer segment. Consistency proves that. One-shot deals demonstrate the opposite.

Multicultural communications is not just about a month or holiday, goodwill, philanthropy, or doing what's right. Marketing to African-Americans, in an increasingly diverse marketplace, is about generating a greater market share among a consumer base that is extremely brand loyal. It's about business and what makes sense.

Let's take a look at the facts. According to the Resilient, Receptive, and Relevant African-American Consumer 2013 Report presented by Nielsen and the National Newspapers Publishers Association, African-American buying power is currently about $1 trillion. Yes, $1 trillion! The segment's gross national income is larger than many countries and expected to increase to $1.3 trillion in three years. Further, black households shop more frequently than total market households, spending 30% more of its average annual income at retail than the rest of the population.

African-Americans have traditionally outpaced the general market in spending. They spend billions on housing, food, healthcare, cars, and apparel. Beyond the numbers, they love to be among the first with the hottest, latest, and greatest products. They are trendsetters and cultural influencers. What they buy are often statements of their culture, lifestyle, traditions, and identities. This is a huge business opportunity for consumer goods companies that have yet to tap this market. Those that have will build brand loyalty for generations to come.

Brands should identify ways to align their products or services with the lifestyle or needs of the African-American consumer market on an ongoing basis. Create signature programs that offer solutions or help consumers fulfill aspirations. Commit by executing initiatives that are multi-year and include an integrated marketing strategy, incorporating PR, advertising, social media, and community relations components. Procter & Gamble's My Black is Beautiful is an excellent example of this. The campaign was designed to celebrate black women and their standard of beauty while also forging a relationship between these women and several of P&G's beauty brands. Since 2007, My Black is Beautiful has connected with black women through experiential events, social media, paid and earned media, and philanthropy. The program works because it taps black women on an emotional level. Through marketing, it reaches them at a variety of touch points. It demonstrates how P&G products fits into women's' lifestyles and addresses their beauty needs. The program sells the products and creates a positive company image.

As PR practitioners, we can help our clients and companies maximize the opportunity this emerging market offers. We can develop targeted African-American communications efforts as part of larger, general market campaigns by identifying or creating ways to make the initiatives culturally relevant. Coca-Cola does this well. As part of its overall 2012 Olympics campaign, the brand partnered with an African-American athlete and promoted the collaboration as a way to inspire young people to be active. You can retain an African-American subject expert or celebrity as a spokesperson. Tie the program to an African-American charity. Engage consumers through a mix of traditional black press – urban radio, community newspapers, and online outlets – and social media.

Do your research to learn African-American interests, values, spending patterns, and media-consumption behaviors. Opportunities will become apparent. Most importantly, make sure your messaging is smart, authentic, culturally relevant, and sensitive.

In the spirit of Black History Month, embrace our nation's similarities yet celebrate our differences in all of your communications programs. Take this month to kick off African-American campaigns, but don't stop there. Adopt multicultural outreach – to all ethnic audiences – as part of your integrated marketing communications strategies. Understand that today's minorities are tomorrow's majorities. Engage them now, remembering consistency and culture is key.

Alexis Davis Smith is the president and CEO of PRecise Communications, an Atlanta-based communications firm, and president of the Black Public Relations Society of Atlanta.

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