How to Reach Affluent African Americans

Of all the sins marketers commit, few evoke more scorn from peers than that of “leaving money on the table.” If there’s a population willing and able to buy what you’re selling — if you’d only ask, in a reasonably competent way, that it do so — then failure to reach those people is a needless blow to your brand. 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 purchasing power. 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.

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. “Their tastes, and their pocketbooks, have matured,” the book remarks. Referring to a Gucci campaign that features Rihanna, the book adds: “Just as any well-heeled adult is likely to be unresponsive to a call to the good life from, say, Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan, AAAs have no aspiration to be like — or, critically, even seem to be like — an 18-year-old music star.” 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. “This message has been loud and consistent for at least 10 years, pushing marketers to see one perspective.”

While some marketers commit the blunder of addressing AAAs as if they had the tastes of a 19-year-old, others mistakenly assume AAAs are immersed in serious issues that were top of mind for their parents’ generation. “The AAA life story isn’t limited to the themes usually found in the mainstream media,” the book says. “And neither are their aspirations.” 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.”

Thus, says the book, “the issues, and even the struggles, that characterized their grandparents’ and parents’ generations are no longer primary concerns for these successful professional people.” They haven’t turned their backs on what those earlier generations endured, or on the institutions that were prominent in fighting those fights. But the fact remains that AAAs have come of age in a different time. “For AAAs, the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights-era institutions, while still very much honored and supported, do not represent the pinnacle of either social networking or charitable giving,” the book says. “A very proud heritage is gladly acknowledged, but this is not the sole platform on which the AAAs live their lives.”

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. It cites a successful effort by Lexus to tap into this concern in marketing its luxury hybrid models to AAAs. As part of the effort, Lexus got involved in “the first-ever green issues of two African American media partners” and “held a series of ‘listening lounges’ that featured an up-and-coming recording artist alongside one of their luxury hybrids.”

Hoffman says she has yet to see many other luxury marketers targeting AAAs on the basis of environmental concern, but adds that she “can strongly predict that it’s around the corner. . . . 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.”
The involvement with media specifically targeting AAAs was an important part of the formula for Lexus. And that reflects a recurring theme of the book. 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. “By reaching the traditional luxury market, you may be able to sell the AAA something once, but you won’t become part of their lifestyle,” the book says. “You won’t turn them into a brand loyalist.”

And you may leave them suspicious about how much you really want their business — precisely because they do consume general-market media as well as publications (like the magazine Uptown) that target them specifically as AAAs. That being the case, warns the book, this 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.

The book has little patience for what it characterizes as “the most broadly used excuse” for not advertising in media that target black consumers: “We don’t have the right creative.” This is often a case of advertisers fooling themselves with a belief that an ad must be especially “cool” if it’s going to run in media targeting this audience. “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.”

As the book states the matter, “It’s nice to see images that reflect you and your lifestyle in advertisements, but a good ad is a good ad, no matter what.” Adds Hoffman: “The tone of the ad isn’t as important as where the media is placed, how the brand reaches out beyond ads — i.e., events, partnerships, giving back/philanthropy. Don’t get us wrong, tone is important, but where you are is just as important. Bottom line, are your marketing efforts towards AAAs authentic?”

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: “Research shows that, positive or negative, word of mouth spreads faster among AAAs than within the general market.”

“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 and to a slightly lesser degree (72 percent) Affluent African Americans use online social networking sites such as Such sites are budding opportunities for personal and direct marketing to this unique group.”

This propensity for spreading the word means small-scale events can have a big impact. The book discusses the case of HSBC Premier, a global banking service that caters to the affluent. One aspect of its effort to create a rapport with AAAs was a culinary event (in tandem with Uptown magazine) featuring a tasting menu by an African-born chef, Marcus Samuelsson, who has risen to prominence in this country. The bank credits the event with initiating a surge in deposits. HSBC also had formed a partnership with Evidence, A Dance Company, “participating in the troupe’s winter gala.”

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. “Partnering with the right cultural, educational or charitable organization can be a key in unlocking the good will of AAAs,” says the book.

Since comparatively few luxury marketers have addressed the AAA audience and done it well, those doing so have enjoyed the advantage of an uncluttered field. Will this change as more brands catch on to the existence of this market and figure out how to reach it? Not any time soon. “This is a totally untapped market,” says Hoffman, “and it’s a long way from being cluttered. . . . In a time when everyone is trying to increase market share, why not go after an untapped audience that’s in your own backyard?”