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Reaching Out to the African American Market

Reaching Out to the African American Market

Recently, marketers have spent much time and money trying to reach the ever-populous Hispanic/Latino community. But not to be overlooked is another group -- African Americans, particularly African American-led businesses.

According to the US Census, between 1997 and 2002 revenues generated by African American-owned businesses rose 25 percent to $88.8 billion. In the same period, the number of such businesses grew by 45 percent.

Recognizing this growing influence, marketers are realizing that more attention needs to be placed on targeting this promising demographic, and not just at the b-to-b level. As more African Americans lead businesses, they also gain more spending power.

“Hispanics have gained visibility because of the Census numbers, but we need to drive past the numbers,” says Alex Alonso, multicultural director of Carat, an independent media agency network. “The African American entrepreneur is on the rise, and that’s why we can’t just walk away.”

The challenge marketers face is how. Here are seven ways experts suggest marketers can be more effective in reaching African Americans -- whether they run a business, a household or a personal checking account.

Cross the Digital Divide

African Americans are moving online. The digital divide -- or the gap between those who have computers in their homes and those who don’t -- is closing. Internet penetration among urban African Americans could grow from 45 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2010, according to the recent "FOCUS: African-America" study by Horowitz Associates. The study also projects strong growth in high-speed Internet penetration in this segment, from the current 28 percent to 46 percent in the same period. Consequently, eMarketer, a market research firm that covers the Internet and e-business, projects that 56.6 percent of African Americans will go online by 2010. That means marketers have more access to the community than ever before. Take advantage of it.

Put Yourself in their Shoes

Like anyone, African Americans want the corporate world to understand and relate to them. To be well-versed in their culture and needs, conduct research, focus groups, and product and ad testing. Most importantly, speak to African Americans -- entrepreneurs and consumers.

“Put yourself in their shoes,” says Michelle James, brand research director at Essence magazine. “Be in their communities.” Better still, employ a diverse team at your company to get firsthand knowledge of various market segments from the start of every campaign.

Be Consistent

Black History Month isn’t the only time of year to consider your African American audience. You need to communicate with your target audience consistently. That’s according to Reggie Mars, accounts supervisor of the Northeast for, an online advertising network focused on urban, African American and urban Latino markets. Get face time even when publications are not featuring a list about important African American leaders, he says.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Language, even among the English-speaking, can be misinterpreted. Word choice must be carefully weighed. James points out that some companies have failed to reach African Americans because their slogans didn’t resonate. For example, she says, one skin cream bombed with readers, because it called itself a “brightener,” which made African American women think it would bleach their skin. The company would have had more success, suggests James, if it had said the product made skin “glow.” This could have been easily fixed simply by talking to African Americans before going national -- or even international -- with packaging plans.

Don’t Make Assumptions

One of the biggest mistakes marketers make is failing to talk to their targeted demographic and making presumptions. Perpetuating widely held but misguided beliefs about racial, ethnic or religious groups is an easy trap to fall into. Alonso says clients often tell him that all African Americans like hip-hop music. In reality, mostly young people of all different races form the fan base for hip-hop artists.

African American women are often portrayed as being frantic and unorganized in commercials, which is a real turn off, says James, because most of them feel like they’re taking charge and many of them are the heads of their household.

“Stereotypes are too generalized and may be dated,” says John Barnes, executive vice president and managing director of Carat USA.

Avoid Stereotypes

Avoiding stereotypes and racism is an obvious must. It is in the best interest of marketers to carefully consider their campaign strategy. Mars and James suggest portraying African Americans in the roles to which everyone aspires.

For example, Macy’s uses a diverse group of models in business attire to show off apparel that is for women seeking high-achieving careers. Profiling successful African Americans, says Mars, is motivational -- and it might give your product or service additional appeal. He suggests showcasing leaders like Renetta McCann, the chief executive of Starcom MediaVest Group. “This can really help young people dream bigger,” says Mars.

Create Loyalty

Other experts say that capturing hearts leads to loyalty among customers and word-of-mouth support. The community shares information about the brands they trust, says James. If you get grandma to use the product, you’ll likely have her daughter and granddaughter using it, too.

Your general interest market includes African Americans. Therefore, you must consider their feelings and needs every time you set out to develop a product, service or general interest campaign. Understanding how all the various market segments interact with one another is the key to success in an increasingly multicultural world, says Alonso. Pantene, for example, was not selling its hair products to women of color because they have different kinds of hair types with different needs than the company’s usual customer base. As a result, Pantene came out with a line of products, Relaxed & Natural, just for women of color.

So what’s the bottom line? At the end of the day, marketers with experience in this demographic stress that people are all different even if they share the same skin color, and digital media and other technology will continue to be pivotal in recognizing this reality through its ability to differentiate via communication and approach.

“The one-size-fits-all model is archaic,” says Alonso. “It has been for a while.” And there’s no turning back now. If you want your bottom line to grow, you can’t leave any potential clients behind.

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