Ethnic Platforms Lose Out to Digital Platforms

How Can We Win Back Part of the Niche Budget?

By Published on .

Doug Melville
Doug Melville
Eleven years ago when I graduated from Syracuse University, multicultural marketing was one of the most important platforms for reaching trendsetting youth and forward thinkers. Multicultural masterminds in urban America created, owned and developed ways to monetize buzz and word of mouth. Most importantly, these platforms were tied into the corporate media and part of ad and marketing spending.

Some called multicultural nontraditional, some called it experimental, some called it grassroots, but the platform's core remained the same: a good strategic below-the-line way to create value for your brand. Corporation's turned to this "multicultural toolbox" to find the platform that best allow their brands to hit urbanites. In 2001, there was so much demand for these platforms, I started an agency out of my bedroom solely focused on monetizing them. I helped brands focus on street teams and premiums, block parties, mix tapes, flyers, in-market events, e-mail blasts and wrapped vehicles. And as our firm grew in size (and finally got an office), we began to do niche based print/magazine buying and spot media -- all focused on the forward thinking consumer.

A next generation of multicultural platforms were then developed by the Jay Z's and Diddy's of the world. They used their brands, their influence, their videos and their music as a way to develop clothing, fragrances and licensing platforms to leverage against other marketing and advertising opportunities. They built agencies and relationships to bond with the urban consumer. Ad agencies and brands assigned budgets to these non-traditional categories and looked at these niche relationships and campaigns as a necessary part of their spend. These platforms had ad dollars set aside and assigned for multicultural owned and operated formats.

Let's fast forward to today. Nontraditional platforms no longer hatch in the street, but in Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs (iPad/iPhone/iAd), Eric Schmidt (AdWords/YouTube/Droid), Dennis Crowley (Foursquare), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jack Dorsey (Twitter) have redefined "nontraditional" as "digital" (digital was formerly known as "new media"). And in the digital world, the most profits go those that own the platforms. Measurability and metrics now define platforms.

And for the multicultural segment it couldn't come at a worse time.

Look at Nielsen's 2009 Multicultural Ad Spending Report and things don't seem so great. On the surface, multicultural ad spending outpaced the general market. But the reality was that only one multicultural category increased in both African-American and Spanish-language media: cable TV buys. Other than that, everything else was down.

For African-American Media, four of the five categories showed brand defection.

  • African-American network TV spending: down 72%
  • African-American national magazine spending: down 33%
  • Spot radio spending: down 10%
  • Syndicated TV spending: down 16%
For Spanish-language Media, six of seven categories measured decreases: local magazines, local newspapers, Spanish-language network, spot radio and spot TV.

Which is why the release of the iPad and the preview of the iPhone OS4 were so important. As the technology industry continues to develop proprietary platforms to get people more engaged through technology, many in the ad industry -- and particularly those in the multicultural space -- are losing their ad positioning. Budgets are going to be more committed to platform ad spending instead of multicultural ad spending. And it doesn't help that the data shows that multicultural is becoming less innovative and more of a one-trick "ethnic cable media buy" pony.

While executing multicultural campaigns will continue for years, true multicultural innovation and platform development has seemingly become more and more extinct. Remember: He who owns the platform, profits the most.

For advertisers, what used to be simple game of low-cost experimental checkers has now become an expensive game of digital chess. Every piece of the digital toolbox affects every other piece, and there are no shortage of marketing-budget-draining platform options.

There is the iPad, in addition to 50-plus competitor tablets in the works. Then there are QP Codes for the scanning of new products. There are four major mobile platforms to consider: iPhone, Droid, Blackberry and Palm. Don't forget social media (how could you) and search. And this doesn't even include augmented reality.

If that wasn't enough to drain the ad/media/marketing/man-hour/R&D budget for the "niche" sector, you then have to battle one final format war -- programming codes HTML5 vs. Adobe Flash.

Those that develop the ads have less power than those who develop the platforms, which was part of the reason the hip-hop generation and hip-hop culture had such a major impact on spending, trends and American in general. We owned hip-hop, we owned the platform, we held the power, we set the terms.

The multicultural sector must be challenged to come up with a new invention or product, a 'multicultural digital toolbox' or some compelling platform offerings, if it expects to continue to gain headlines in the digital age.

But true to the form of economics, when someone wins, someone also must lose. In this case, even in a Census year, the digital toolbox seems to have snatched the momentum and relevancy away from the multicultural tool box.

At least that is what it says on my iPad.

Douglas L. Melville is currently the president of Red Carpet Runway and a strategic adviser for various entertainment brands and personalities.
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