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.”