In sheer numbers, black Boomers may be smaller than their white counterparts. But for marketers, they are a giant, untapped demographic.
The 78 million members of the Baby Boom generation have riveted marketers ever since they wet their first diapers. Now aged 37 to 55, these consumers have been credited with everything from the rise of rock 'n' roll to the ascendancy of the sport utility vehicle. Where Boomers go, marketers are sure to follow.
But not all Boomers have captured the same share of attention. Although it's hard to believe that 11 percent of this most heralded generation could have slipped by without much analysis, the nation's 9 million black Baby Boomers have managed to do just that.
Why? Because most marketers have neglected to define black Boomers as a separate cohort. Instead, marketers have lumped them together with their white counterparts. But while black Boomers may have shared the same formative experiences that have defined the Baby Boom generation - the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, etc. - over time, they have responded to these events differently from whites, experts contend. While white Boomers have moved beyond some of the social values that defined their generation, black Boomers continue to hold on to those values today. Says Darryl Mobley, publisher and president of black Boomer-targeted Family Digest Magazine: "Black Boomers wear eyeglasses of a different prescription."
That means as consumers, black Boomers respond to different marketing messages from their white counterparts. For instance, while white Boomers are arguably less inclined to buy products because of their social value, black Boomers still insist on it. "African American Boomers tend to ask `What are you, the company, giving back to our community?'" says Alonzo Byrd, vice president and head of the African American communications department at Fleishman Hillard, Inc., a communication firm based in St. Louis.
To understand the forces that have shaped their consumer mentality, it's important to realize black Boomers' legacy. Although the largest share of the Baby Boom was in white births, there were also a significant number of black babies born. In 1945, there were about 324,000 black births. In 1964, there were more than 600,000 births to black couples. These children were not destined to live the same lives as their parents - a fate that was shaped in the schoolhouse. The parents of black Boomers were the last undereducated generation of black Americans. In 1940, 42 percent of all blacks had less than a fifth grade education, and only 8 percent had completed high school. By 1990, when most of the Baby Boom generation had completed its education, 78 percent had at least a high school diploma. As white Boomers became the most college educated generation at the time, the educational transformation among black Boomers was even more significant. It laid the groundwork for their solid transition to middle class status.
While education was important to this transformation, many of the lessons that black Boomers learned weren't in the classroom. Growing up in a world of segregation and racism created attitudinal nuances that are not always present among white Boomers. As a black Boomer who recalls being turned away from a South Carolina hotel because of his race, Mobley says that civil rights issues have simply remained a part of their lives in ways that they have not with white Boomers. Indeed, blacks believe that discrimination still plagues society today. According to an analysis of the 1998 General Social Survey by Susan Mitchell in American Attitudes (New Strategist, 2000), nearly 6 in 10 blacks say that, on the whole, they have worse jobs, income, and housing due to racial discrimination.
Traditionally, marketers have seemed hard-pressed to understand how the pervasive legacy of discrimination has shaped the way African Americans respond to their messages. When marketers target other ethnic groups, they know they're dealing with another culture because of the language difference, says Marilyn Halter, professor at Boston University and author of Shopping for Identity: The Marketing of Ethnicity (Schocken, 2000). But when it comes to black consumers, "you're making a pitch based on nuances of cultural difference," she explains. Adds Howard Buford, president and CEO of Prime Access, Inc., a New York City-based ethnic marketing firm: "Black Boomers tend to view products and services as not being `for them' unless they have a specific reason or invitation to use the product and service, because in the past, they were not included."
Companies that seek to sell to this segment must extend a specific invitation. But while that invitation is necessary, it's not sufficient. Byrd believes that cause marketing is the most effective way to reach this target group. And cause marketing to black Boomers is not exactly the same as cause marketing to white Boomers. According to the 2000 National Opinion Poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C-based think tank, blacks identified more problems in today's society than whites. Although education tops the list of political concerns for people of all races (more than a quarter of blacks and a similar percentage of whites chose education as the single most important issue facing the country today), there is a racial divide on other issues. For instance, 16 percent of blacks chose crime, violence, and drugs as the top issues of concern, compared with just 7 percent of whites. Whites, in contrast, were most concerned about family values, political corruption, and the Clinton scandal. A far greater percentage of blacks see employment-related problems as the most important issue of the day - 14 percent compared with just 4 percent of whites.
Understanding these differing views on issues can reap benefits for marketers trying to reach black Boomer consumers. Boston Bank of Commerce, which is black owned and operated, targets its Unity Visa card to black Boomers. Rather than funneling cash payments back to frequent flier or frequent buyer programs, this card allows consumers to direct funds to national and local civic organizations. The key to the program is that it allows cardholders to pick their charity of choice. This resonates especially well among black Boomers because "they can relate the benefit of the product back to their own life experiences," says Buford. He believes that being able to see the impact their dollars have on their own communities is a positive experience for black Boomers.
No discussion of this market would be complete without mentioning the central role of religion in many African American families. Blacks are far more likely to see themselves as religious and spiritual, and marketers that have tapped into this are making headway in the black community. According to Susan Mitchell's analysis, 41 percent of blacks strongly agree that they carry their religious beliefs into other areas of their lives, compared with just 25 percent of whites. Some 35 percent of blacks consider themselves very spiritual, as opposed to 20 percent of whites. And 32 percent of blacks consider themselves very religious, in comparison with just 16 percent of whites. Fifty-six percent of blacks say they've had life-changing religious experiences, versus 37 percent of whites.
As a result, smart marketers are getting religion. And they are beginning to take into account the important role of the church in the lives of black Boomers, says Janet M. Curry, president of Bauman Curry and Company, a Los Angeles-based marketing firm. Indeed, direct mail efforts can also take the church into account, says Jana S. Barklay, director of strategic alliances for AccuData America, a direct marketing firm in Cape Coral, Florida. One of her clients offers a college investment financial planning program service, and rather than targeting black Boomers directly, the company targets black pastors. "We did a lot of research and found that with African Americans of this age, they really listen to what their pastors have to say. It's worked very effectively," she says.
Matters of money and income among the target group are a primary concern for marketers. Because blacks earn less money than whites in general in the U.S. today, it is frequently assumed that the black Boomer market is somewhat less than lucrative. But thanks to increased levels of education for African Americans, they are leveling the playing field. It's important to realize that many black Boomers represent a new class of consumers for upscale products, including financial planning services, according to Mobley. He says that in many ways, black Boomers are analogous to mainstream America in the 1950s and 1960s, when Americans were just getting used to having extra money to spend and save. The challenge for the business community has been to reach the market with an appropriate message. Experts say there's great diversity of income within the black Boomer demographic. Marketers need to target an appropriate message to the 31 percent of the group that are solidly middle class - while not forgetting the substantial number of blacks that lag behind.
Total family income per family member for black households was just over $11,000 in 1998, which is slightly more than half the total income per person of a white household, according to the Census Bureau. The disparity in income is largely due to differences in household formation. Married-couple, dual-earner households have the highest incomes, regardless of race. About 36 percent of black Boomer families are married-couple families, and make up the majority of the black middle class. In 1967, a black married couple earned 68 percent of what a comparable white family earned. By 1990, that gap had narrowed - to 84 percent.
The challenge is to realize that black Boomers are not the black, middle-aged consumers of 25 years ago, says Byrd. Consider that median household income for blacks aged 45 to 49 is $38,643, which is 38 percent more than the median income for all black households. This means that black Boomers are not only an under-recognized consumer market, but also an under-tapped investment market, he says. "The whole boom of investing by consumers has really been about white Boomers. Black Baby Boomers have been standing on the sidelines while this happened."
This is why companies that seek to target this population as investors have to also play an educational role in many cases, Byrd says: "Black Boomers want to participate in the stock market, but they don't have the information or education to do so." He's currently working with the National Association of Investors Corporation on a marketing plan to bring investment information to the market. The approach includes strategic partnerships with the Rainbow/Push coalition, and reciprocal links to highly trafficked, black-focused Web sites, including BET.com. Through Rainbow/Push, a connection will be established with 1,000 churches to work with their congregations on financial planning.
However, marketers should not forget that a substantial share of black Boomers are females, heading their own households. In fact, 32 percent of black Boomer families are headed by a single female, according to the Census Bureau. And these households have not made the same economic progress as those of married couples, says Curry. But just because there's less money to spend in black female households doesn't mean that marketers should ignore the market. In fact, the key to reaching this group is the same as reaching a more affluent black Boomer: go through the community. One of Curry's clients is Lawry Foods Inc., which has had great success targeting female black Boomers through its involvement in African American churches, she says. Lawry's supports neighborhood causes that are often spearheaded by churches, such as the Mother's Against Sexual Abuse walkathon in California. And "Lawry's Partners in Education" program facilitates connections between inner-city schools and community resources.
The most important word of advice on targeting black Boomers? Don't think that a one-time effort is enough. "Many marketers step into the marketplace, and use the big boom theory - they drop a big bomb once a year, during Black History month, and say, `We've marketed to black Boomers, now we should have growth," says Mobley. Marketers should have a constant presence. "If they're really serious about reaching this market, they have to come to the party and hang around for a while," he says. And since black Boomers are only the first generation of middle-class, middle-aged black Americans, the party should go on for many years to come.