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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

The New Blacks
Smart marketers will recognize the changing African American demographics in America today.
Christopher Wolf addresses restaurant marketing

Sometimes trends evolve and other times they shift abruptly. President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, ruptured food, fashion, and home decorating trends in the 1960s when they moved into the White House. Americans looked to the young and trendy first family as a beacon for taste, setting off a love affair for all things French, including chefs, cooking gadgets, actors, and fashion designers.

Fifty years later America’s newest first family seems destined to have the same kind of cultural impact on Americans’ tastes, even as we stagger through an economic crisis. This time, however, it’s middle-class African-American culture (sorry France) in the spotlight, introducing new influences in a way popular hip-hop icons and sports figures never could.

The Obamas are expanding black family definitions beyond Bill Cosby’s Huxtables and Tyler Perry’s Madea Simmons with real-world examples and lessons.

The Seismic Shift

The potential for influence is not lost on the first lady, who already has put healthy eating at the top of her agenda. In the first few months of this year, Michelle Obama staged several visits in soup kitchens, and even the White House kitchen, to highlight healthful and tasty fruit and vegetable dishes made with fresh, local produce. But quick-service restaurants have no need to fear. Michelle Obama is a real person, not a sitcom or movie character, and she takes her staff to the popular Five Guys Burgers & Fries to indulge in some of her favorite foods.

This spotlight won’t stop with the White House, which is simply staging the coming-out party for middle-class African-American culture. Expect to continue to see a growing number of black representatives, role models, and advocates beyond the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé, and LeBron James in mainstream magazines, talk shows, news features, entertainment, and, yes, the food industry.

Each spokesman will paint a picture for America in varying shades of black. And companies that have an active role in this movement will not only benefit from the consumer segment they support but from a broad cross-section of Americans who know the time has come.

And yet, in a study recently released by Lattimer Communications, a staggering 86 percent of African-American women reported that advertisers need to do a better job of marketing to them, particularly in the automotive, banking, travel, healthcare, and fast-food industries.

They’re right. Nielsen released a report in January revealing that while advertising spending targeted to the Hispanic market increased 2.7 percent over the past two years, spending on African-American–targeted messages decreased 5.3 percent overall and 30 percent in network TV.

Seizing the Opportunity

The great news for quick-service chains is that black Americans already are frequent fast-food eaters: 21.3 percent of them dine at a fast-food restaurant 10 or more times per month, according the 2007 Arbitron/Scarsborough Black Consumer Study.

This data also shows that African- Americans are 25 to 50 percent more likely to dine at certain pizza, chicken, seafood, and burger restaurants versus the general population. This includes (in order): Chick-fil-A, KFC, CiCi’s Pizza, Boston Market, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Hardee’s, and Long John Silver’s.

Some of these chains undoubtedly directly court African-Americans, but others have attracted a higher proportion of the segment with a mass-market approach. Black is back, but this time the challenge is not just to be inclusive of African-Americans in marketing plans but to recognize and speak to the distinctions and segments within the black consumer segment—female, male, economic, and demographic cuts.

“Major corporations tend to use Black History Month, which is the shortest month of the year, by the way, as a stepping point to the African-American market,” says multicultural marketing expert Amy Hilliard. “But when that’s all you do, then you’re viewed as not being serious. It’s an easy out: 28 days. If you don’t do it 365 days a year, then you’re not viewed as serious.”

The Right Imagery

Just by looking at a few recent quick-service campaigns referencing African-American culture, we can begin to understand some of the smart strategies and potentially misguided approaches. Last fall, Subway featured a $5 coupon on its Fresh Buzz Web site with a slang-talking Abraham Lincoln (a.k.a. “Hollaback Abe”) dressed like a hip-hop artist.

In response to objections from members of the African-American community, Subway’s public relations manager, Mack Bridenbaker, told QSR that the “goal was to have a little fun with the campaign, and we certainly meant no disrespect to anybody.”

Hilliard’s take on it: “How you present an opportunity makes all the difference in the world. Hip-hop had its beginnings in the African-American market, but if you stereotype it, you’re in a danger zone. If you use the imagery for everybody, you miss the opportunity of reaching the demographic you want to reach.”

The challenge is not just to be inclusive of African-Americans in marketing plans, but to recognize and speak to the distinctions and segments within the black consumer segment.

Then there is the McDonald’s commercial that aired last year depicting a small boy in full hip-hop attire eating chicken nuggets in time to deejay Casper’s “Cha Cha Slide.” What keeps this from being just another parody, however, is that this blinged-out boy is performing in front of his well-dressed, completely stunned middle-class black family who clearly does not fit the hip-hop profile being played out by the son.

McDonald’s gets kudos because its depiction of a middle-class black family shows respect to a true and under represented slice of African-American culture. It also depicts a reality within the broader American culture: hip-hop is a culture that young people of all races and ethnic groups have come to identify with—often to the bewilderment of their families.

What we learn from these seemingly similar, but oh-so-different, campaigns is that black imagery and humorous cultural references are entirely appropriate and desirable in advertising. But there’s been a new shift in the cultural landscape. The time has come to stop fishing out of the over-tapped hip-hop well. “For years, McDonald’s has been attuned to the African-American market, has done the research to address that market, has the community involvement, and supports African-American entrepreneurs,” Hilliard says.

“They have built in a lot of equity with these consumers, and their sales are up. When you build equity with a target, they stay with you in tough times.”

So start using imagery more attuned to the First Family and the millions of Americans who look to them as the new model for our future.

As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.