black people on an equality march in the USA 1964

Unconventional Linking: Black History Month

October 16, 2018

October is Black History Month in the UK and, as people increasingly look to brands to do good and do better in areas like diversity and representation, we’ve been thinking about how brands can successfully engage black diaspora audiences.

Image © @janellemonae via Instagram

With phenomena like #BlackGirlMagic, September issues and the success of brands like Nike and Fenty Beauty, brands’ attention to ethnic diversity is the best it’s ever been. We know that people connect more deeply with communications material when they see themselves reflected, but this is particularly important for black audiences, who have historically been explicitly or implicitly excluded by many brands. In categories like beauty and fashion, for example, a lack of representation in imagery or product ranges often projects, ‘this brand isn’t for black people’. This is a message black people are very used to receiving.

There are considerable risks and challenges when it comes to targeting black audiences. Black people are discerning and hyper-sensitive to inauthentic attempts by brands to gain their loyalty. It’s common for efforts to appear tokenistic, as if a brand is jumping on the ‘diversity bandwagon’ – attempts can simply fail to resonate or, at worst, greatly offend.

But, as we’ll explain, black audiences have the potential to be highly influential brand ambassadors, and incredibly valuable sources of inspiration. They’re also constantly on the look-out for brands that are willing to extend a direct, genuine invitation to connect. The risks may be high, but the benefits of getting it right are substantial.

Why Engage Black Audiences?

In case you need convincing, here are three compelling cases showcasing the benefits that brands stand to gain from targeting black consumers.

The Business Case: Black People Over-Index in a ton of consumer categories – on both sides of the Atlantic, according to Nielsen and the IPA. In the US, black people proportionally outspend their white peers in more than 15 categories, from dry grains to grooming products. In the UK, black women spend six times more than white women on haircare and spend a greater proportion of their income on fashion and footwear. They’re also voracious consumers of media. Consider British Vogue: their first black editor-in-chief Edward Enninful has been vocal about diversity and blackness in the fashion industry. Since his appointment in April 2017, the magazine has enjoyed a “25% increase in digital engagement and a 1000% increase in revenues from experiential event”.

The bottom line: catering to black needs has huge profit potential.

The Human Case: Black Culture Wields Significant Influence

As black people have been marginalised, they often make a place for themselves at cultural fringes – and that’s where a lot of exciting creative development happens.

Black culture is often at the vanguard of mainstream popular culture, influencing the development of trends in music, fashion, language and media. We can see this in success of brands like Beats By Dre and Air Jordans but many other places too. Whilst black culture’s resonance is particularly powerful among Millennials and Gen Z, its impact cuts across generations and consumer groups.

Image © Stormzy

We see this effect in phenomena like Grime’s recent rise to mainstream status (getting its own iTunes category in 2016), with terms like ‘throw shade’, ‘Bae’, ‘Woke’ (and less recently, ‘YOLO’ and ‘On Fleek’) making their way into mainstream lexicon, and with hip hop artists topping the mainstream charts more than ever before. TV shows by black creators that target black audiences now have a significant proportion of non-black viewers, like Black-ish (79%), Donald Glover’s Atlanta (50%), and Issa Rae’s Insecure (61%). And the monumental success of Black Panther earlier this year speaks for itself.

Often, the black experience creates a need to project a particular self-image, one that can challenge pervasive stereotypes of blackness. In a 2017 report, Nielsen use this to explain why black women in particular are early adopters when it comes to brands and products, “because they know that style projects confidence,” and “staying on the cutting edge and projecting an impressive personal image are important to Black women”.

The bottom line: black culture influences how mainstream audiences choose to spend their money.

Whilst this culture-creating, trend-setting phenomenon isn’t new, it’s more noticeable, traceable, and is happening faster than ever before thanks to the internet, and to the proliferation of social media.

The Brand Engagement Case: Black people are social media heavyweights, digitally engaging with brands more than any other ethnic group.

Black people have created a unique online community. ‘Black Twitter’, for example, is a nucleus for all things of cultural significance to black people/people of colour all over the world. This includes social activism (#BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite), social commentary, breaking news, cultural humour, and the creation of many of the internet’s most popular memes and sayings – for example, ‘Netflix and Chill’.

This community is extremely powerful when a brand is able to tap into it. As well as being a hub for witty, creative and culturally resonant content, Black millennials and Gen-Zs are more likely than any other ethnic group to be engaging with, discussing and generally supporting brands or companies across social media platforms.

Nike is one of many brands reaping benefits of this: their campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick boosted sales by 31%, and was clearly designed with the particularities of black social media use in mind. It was meant to be shared and co-opted by the community – and it absolutely was.

The campaign image became far more than was initially intended or imagined. A human brand with immense cultural capital in millennial and Gen Z circles, Nike has developed an extremely successful, symbiotic relationship with black people.

The bottom line: black people have the potential to be incredible digital brand ambassadors.

On the other hand, the discerning black digital community exerts its wrath when a brand has made a mistake or is revealed to be inauthentic, turning it into a pariah. For example, Stylenanda was effectively #cancelled after its ‘black hand’ blunder for attempting to reap the benefits of appearing progressive and inclusive by faking diversity.

Image ©: Stylenanda

So, How Do You Get It Right?

Authenticity is key here, so it’s important to start from a place of genuine commitment, rather than a shallow or tokenistic effort. Whilst every brand and category has a different set of challenges and guardrails, here are three practical things to consider when engaging black audiences.

 1. Co-creation

In order to successfully engage black people – or any marginalised group – it’s important to have a diverse team. Whether this is through hiring diversely, or connecting with consumers via co-creation workshops (get in touch with us to find out more), making sure black people are part of the conversation and the creative process is key to successful and authentic engagement.

Co-creation is vital because:

It enables greater cultural understanding that’s attuned to the nuanced differences in the needs, motivations and experiences of black audiences. Successful co-creation means listening and learning from black audiences, so that achieving resonance at a deeper level becomes much more achievable. Gaining this valuable perspective enables you to better judge what works, what doesn’t, and why – for example, when it’s appropriate for a brand to pick up a hashtag, term or cause that’s relevant to the black community, and when it absolutely isn’t.

It immediately boosts credibility and resonance. Examples from both Nike and Cambridge University show how co-creating and sharing your brand’s voice illustrate this. Nike’s ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ campaign was a diversity triumph and a huge social media success, partly because people of colour took the mike themselves and expressed their own experiences. Rather than a top-down approach, Cambridge University have partnered with Stormzy to create a scholarship in order to address their challenge of recruiting diversely – this makes the Cambridge ‘brand’ much more inviting to black candidates, and Cambridge’s desire to connect is far more credible.

It makes sure you avoid cultural appropriation. Black people are well aware that their culture is a gold mine – it’s something that’s been cultivated in large part due to being societally excluded in various ways. Many of the brands that tap into black continue to exclude or ignore black people – or, even worse, alter the material to make it more palatable for non-black audiences. They then claim ownership by severing the material from its black origins. This happens in fashion, music, art – from cornrows becoming ‘boxer braids’ to Chuck Berry with rock’n’roll. Brands that do this are effectively saying ‘we love black culture, but not black people’. Co-creation means appreciating black culture its origin and collaborating with black people to appropriately weave it into your communications material.

Image ©: H&M

You avoid mistakes and biases. Blunders like H&M’s ‘Coolest Monkey In The Jungle’ image (and that Pepsi Ad) often attract the critique that ‘no black people were involved’ in the creative process. Whilst huge blunders like this are rare, more common are the subtle mistakes and biases that inhibit brands from reaching their resonant potential with black audiences.

For example, brands can unknowingly propagate stereotypes, or default to ‘safe’ representation. Safe representation involves consistently selecting only a narrow (and often prejudiced) representation of black people, like exclusively using black models with light skin or Eurocentric features. These choices carry a slew of sociological connotations around which images and ‘types’ of black people are acceptable. Whilst the attempt at diversity might appear to be successful, it can feel tokenistic and show a lack of insight into the black experience and issues of concern. Co-creation helps a brand develop sensitivities that pick up on biases like this.

2. Brand Purpose

A good way to ensure that a brand’s commitment to diversity feels both credible and authentic is to weave it into the brand’s purpose. Firefish Group CEO, Jem Fawcus, describes brand purpose as “an underlying philosophy and a goal that acts as an organising principle for how a business acts. It’s anything beyond existing to make money”.

Execution is crucial: “if you are going to make worthy, lofty claims, you’d better walk the walk as well as talk the talk, otherwise you will be found out fast, and it won’t be pretty.”

For black audiences (or any marginalised group), this means committing to diversity in every area of a business. From hiring more diversely, messaging, and inclusive product ranges, to interactions with staff in physical retail environments, a commitment to diversity needs to be encountered at every relevant touch point.

Image ©: @fentybeauty via Instagram

Fenty Beauty is a great example. The cosmetics brand launched with an unprecedented 40 foundation shades, touting their expertise in and appreciation for the diversity that exists among darker skin tones (something that most cosmetics brands have failed to do). Inclusivity is clearly embedded in their brand purpose and is executed at every level: in their careful, attentive shade-matching when in-store, in the diversity of its models across campaigns, in the huge range of its products for all skin tones, and in the words and actions of its owner and founder Rihanna. Contrastingly, when other brands follow suit and add more shades to cater to dark skin, the impact just isn’t the same. These extra shades feel like a tokenistic afterthought without changes being made across the business and at every touch point – trust me, it’s incredibly rare to find those darker shades in-store.

Aligning diversity with a brand’s purpose helps ensure everything is executed in a way that feels relevant and right for that brand. It also ensures the sustained commitment that is often required to build credibility with black audiences – it’s a long game.

3. See Past the Risk

It can be tempting for brands to shy away from specifically targeting black audiences when a commitment to diversity risks the alienation of other (less progressive) segments. Nike’s partnership with Colin Kaepernick – and the shoe-burning, sock-cutting saga that followed – is an example of this.

However, in reality, it’s not about risk at all. During one of our recent APG events, Thinking Around Corners, the following question was posed: “How do you get society/a client/a particular culture obsessed with safety to take risks?” Martin Weigel, Head of Planning at W+K Amsterdam’s answer was, “You don’t.”

He explained that strategic marketing shouldn’t be about taking ‘risks’; rather, it’s always about purposefully doing what’s right for the brand. From the evidence above, we know that engaging black audiences isn’t risky for brands. It’s a no brainer. The challenge is in getting it right.

For Nike, the partnership with Kaep wasn’t a commercial risk. They knew exactly what they were doing, and how to execute it. They know their target audience is youthful, ethnically diverse, and politically progressive, and that to make the kind of impact they were seeking, they had to be bold.

Still, by ‘taking a side’, they were able to convey that they were willing to ‘risk’ the collateral damage of alienating a segment of customers, and potentially some revenue, for a cause they believed in. This authenticates its commitment to diversity. Jem calls this a “masterclass in human branding”: given the choice, “the brand would rather have deep, meaningful relationships with this significant audience, than indifferent relationships with the masses.”

Image ©: John Lewis, Adam & Eve/DDB

John Lewis acted similarly by featuring a black family in their 2016 Christmas ad. It was absolutely right for their brand, and they stood firm, despite lots of ‘comment section’ backlash for their choice. In a world where black people still feel excluded by many brands, that kind of commitment to diversity speaks volumes – and the brands that make these choices know that it works.

“Seeing past the risk” means committing to a point of view on diversity and executing it in a way that is right for the brand, and that resonates with black consumers. It also means not playing it safe, whether that’s with representation choices in communications material, with targeted new product development, or by investing more into understanding and co-creating with black people.

Black consumers are constantly on the lookout for authentic invitations from brands to connect – and the brands that are working hard at building a symbiotic relationship with them are reaping the benefits.

Interested in learning about how you can build a relationship with a new audience? Get in touch with us.

Toni Coker is a Senior Research Executive at Firefish UK
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