African-American Mags Make Play for Marketing

The nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, dominated American magazine covers last year, but for titles targeting African Americans, getting marketers’ attention in this recession has been a tougher proposition.

Black-interest titles to some extent suffered from the same issues facing other targeted media. In a recession, advertisers tend to first cut those outlets that they see as “nice to haves.” Many are independents that lack the resources and scale of multi-title publishers.

Amid this climate, urban music magazine Vibe folded at the end of June after its private-equity owner couldn’t refinance its debt. Ebony and Jet’s ad pages plunged 40 percent and 38 percent (respectively) for the first nine months of the year, per Publishers Information Bureau; while parent Johnson Publishing battled reports that Ebony was for sale. And the dropoff in luxury ad spending forced Uptown, a chain of regional magazines aimed at affluent blacks, to scale back its ambitions.

Essence fared relatively well last year—its ad pages declined 11 percent to 1,136, while the fashion/beauty category itself fell 23 percent. But Michelle Ebanks, president, says the title still isn’t getting its due given that black women spend heavily on cosmetics and apparel versus the general market.

“We’re probably getting 30 percent less than what we should be getting in overall advertising when you think about fashion, beauty, food [and] pharmaceutical advertising,” Ebanks said. “There’s not parity based on where the consumer is spending.”

Given black consumers’ spending levels and their expectation for targeted marketing messages, marketers are mistaken if they cut African American–aimed media, she added. “Running in Better Homes and Gardens is not going to show African-American women that marketers value them.”

Not all marketers have cut back on the category. McDonald’s hasn’t slashed spending in black-interest print media because, explained Rob Jackson, marketing director for African-American consumer market programs there, “They see us in these publications, which has greater meaning. They speak directly to the consumer in a way that mass-market media don’t.”

African-American publications enjoy a strong loyalty with consumers, which makes them an efficient buy for advertisers wanting to reach them, agreed Stefano Curti, president of Johnson & Johnson beauty care.

Ford Motor Co. also has stayed committed to black-aimed media in 2009 on the belief that in a downturn, that audience doesn’t change its spending habits as much as the general market does. “African-American consumers contribute quite a bit to our business overall,” said Crystal Worthem, multicultural marketing manager at Ford. “We want to continue to grow.”

Titles that want to capitalize on that sentiment need to have strong assets outside print, though. At Essence, those include the Essence Music Festival, online video programming and a weekly news segment on CNN. In 2010, its 40th anniversary, it will introduce more fashion and beauty coverage in its issues, including a September issue devoted to those topics. And in January, it will bring out its first research study of African-American women and fashion preferences.

After pulling back in 2009, Uptown also plans to build out its multiplatform strategy. Uptown is working on a lifestyle travel show on Centric, a new programming outlet from Viacom’s BET. It expects to bring Uptown to two more cities in 2010 and expand Vibe, which it bought in summer 2009, to a five-times annual frequency in 2010.

Len Burnett, co-founder of Uptown and a veteran publisher of African American–aimed magazines, said while advertisers still overlook the black audience, the election of a black president has helped make the topic more permissible with marketers. “There’s more of an open conversation about it,” he said. “The economy is so tough, advertisers realize, we can’t overlook any consumer. So it’s much more promising.”