Why Social Media Isn’t ‘One Big, Happy’ Space for Multicultural Marketing

There are several marketing trends affecting African-Americans, particularly when it comes to social networks and online communities. According to Pepper Miller, founder of The Hunter-Miller Group, a research and consulting firm specializing in marketing to African-Americans, self-segregation exists in the social media space, and has a huge impact on advertisers. “You really have to understand who you are talking to,” she told Brandweek in a recent interview. Miller also discussed why engagement is a huge part of reaching black consumers, and she offered examples of some successful [and not so successful] ads targeting African-Americans. Excerpts from that conversation are below.

Brandweek: What are some trends/insights your seeing in your research of African-American marketing today?
Pepper Miller: We see companies believe that ethnicity and race are not that important to younger African-Americans. That’s not true. One of the things we’re seeing—and what’s interesting for marketers to understand—is how people are trying to self-segregate in social media. It’s not this unified that people perceive it to be. Again, it’s about understanding behavior. People tend to [base their perceptions of you] on how you were raised, how you grew up, whom you hang out with and how you live your life. Those [facets] of your life show up even in the social media space, and so, one of the things I did was I started tweeting. I don’t have a lot of followers or tweets, but when I do tweet, I try to tweet about something meaningful, not like I’m on my way to pick up a pizza or something. Once, I read an article about Jay-Z in O, The Oprah Magazine, and it was so great that I tweeted about it. So the Jay-Z fan club or someone from that group started following me, and I noticed that there was a diverse group of people who had responded to that piece or were commenting about Jay-Z, but the majority of them were African-Americans. When Joe Wilson yelled out, “You lie!” to Obama that was a hot Twitter topic, so I went online to see who was commenting on this and [once again], the majority were African-Americans. [And], I once spoke with a [woman] with a diverse group of friends on Facebook and she said, “I’m sorry to say this, and I don’t mean to be racist in any way, but I have a block on my white friends. There are just some conversations that I want to have with my [African-American] friends where we can be ourselves and talk openly about things.”

BW: What are some examples of ads/campaigns from marketers that really tap into this demographic?
PM:
Target has a great Christmas ad. It features a father trying to make a better connection with the big screen TV that they just bought. It’s Christmas time and the house is decorated, it’s very festive and Christmas-y, and it’s a funny ad because the father is behind the TV and the camera is facing his back side, but it’s not offensive in any way. He says, “Do you have a picture?” and the kids are saying, “No, not yet,” and they are laughing, and the mom is there. One of the things we talk about in our work is how, because of this [cultural] filter, African-Americans tend to see more and see things differently with regards to marketing. We didn’t conduct a scientific survey on that, but I learn about these [insights] from talking to consumers, focus groups and people [I meet] on the street.


One of the things black people told me they like about commercials is when the father is present. It dispels the stereotype that there is no black father in the home. With the Target commercial, it was humorous because they had a lot of stuff in the home. It wasn’t a [well-appointed] home, but it was a comfortable house, and consumers liked that it looked like a real, normal black family and showed experiences they can relate to. They liked that fact that this family had a lot of stuff in their house, which seemed to indicate that they might be doing OK. And both the father and the kids [because they were gathered around the TV] understood electronics and technology. The ad wasn’t based on any racial or stereotypical situations, but it depicted a universal situation—the fact that black people are living parallel to mainstream. That was the other huge insight, that mainstream marketers have a tendency to show all of us together—one black, one Latino, one Asian—and the reality is, we are all living these segmented but very parallel to mainstream lives. We can have good families, even if the father is not in the home, we can be happy, we buy, we collect stuff, we go skiing, we go to Europe and Morocco, and all over the world, but we tend to go with groups of other black people, with our friends, when we go to these places. The Target commercial [hit on all the right notes] because it showed us living these parallel—but segmented—lives.

BW: What’s a common mistake–when marketing to African-Americans–that you often hear from advertisers?
PM:
One of the things we often hear from marketers is, “We like it, we like it,” when it comes to an agency creating a new ad. They can like it, but they also have to keep in mind, “Does it speak to the consumer? Does it connect with them? And does it motivate them?” One example is the Tide with a Touch of Downy liquid laundry detergent commercials. [In these ads], a black father uses a white towel to dry off his son, and then he hugs him to his chest. We get the message that Tide cleans clothes, but it wouldn’t have meant the same thing to African-Americans, trust me, if [the marketer, Procter & Gamble], had used a white father. So, black consumers who are watching it say, “They really get me. They understand me. I can see myself. I can relate to that message. I can relate to that brand.”

BW: Which brands/industries have traditionally been at the forefront of this?
PM:
One company that continues to be at the forefront of this is P&G. They’ve continued to invest heavily in the black community, even though they’ve had budget cuts and are pulling back on the spending. They are still the biggest, greatest believers of marketing to the black community with several of their brands, from Tide with a Touch of Downy to Oil of Olay and Pantene. Companies have to have senior management buy into this, which is why I think P&G is successful. They believe in multicultural marketing and marketing to African-Americans and continue to spend accordingly to demonstrate that belief.

The same thing with McDonald’s. [One of their senior marketing executives] spoke at an Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) conference once, and he talked about how their marketing teams lead with [multicultural] insights. They begin their creative concepts with: “What are the ethnic insights that [can shape this campaign], and what can we learn from these ethnic communities that will help shape the mainstream communication?” That’s a huge issue that’s happening right now. If you get it right with the black consumer, you will also get the communication right with the mainstream consumer. That’s one of the lessons that McDonald’s has learned. Their “I’m lovin’ it” campaign is one example of how they’re leading with ethnic insights.