The annual Essence Festival not only drew record attendance this year, as 540,000 people from around the globe descended into New Orleans to see some of the hottest names in entertainment, it set what could become a new standard for diversity and real inclusion among mainstream brands.
I'm talking about how co-sponsor MSNBC handled its coverage of the events. The network charted a bold, new path, going beyond the normal "fly-by" reporting of the festival to having a presence for the entire event.
I was blown away to see live broadcasts coming not only from the popular African-American TV hosts and anchors that you would expect, like Tamron Hall, Melissa Harris-Perry, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Toure' and Joy Ann-Reid, but also from MSNBC stars Chris Matthews, Alex Wagner and Ed Shultz, who are not black.
MSNBC doesn't opt for the "sprinkling" of diversity. On any given day, viewers are exposed to journalists, business experts, political analysts, scholars, academics and authors who are brilliant, well educated and well spoken, but who are also a diverse group based on race, gender, lifestyle and religion. Diversity-hungry black viewers are no doubt drawn to the network when they see the African-American anchor and host of her own show, Melissa Harris-Perry with her signature braids, moderating a roundtable of people of different hues and expertise -- a black Ivy professor wearing an unstructured "natural do," a gay woman from Pakistan who heads a large non-for-profit agency and an Asian journalist -- who are chatting up politics, social-justice topics and issues that speak to a broad audience, but are particularly relevant to the black community.
Props go to the direction that comes from the top. According to Ebony.com, MSNBC President Phil Griffin said this: "I think we made a commitment, we decided, that in order for this channel to succeed, that we had to reflect the country. This meant that we had to be part of the country in ways that the other channels weren't."
Given senior management's buy-in and the desire to "get" black culture, MSNBC reported an astounding 60.5% increase in black viewership earlier this year.
So many companies have large promising black audiences, yet don't invest in them for the long term. They'll exploit the profits from "black sales" and use those dollars to support general-market brands. The longer-term investment goes into mainstream audiences, so that over time, consumers will get to know the brand and see themselves as part of the brand story. When companies experience profits, they will invest more in that segment, to grow the brand and the profits. If marketers budget to grow black audiences at all, it's usually an amount too insignificant to move the needle. That budget usually comes with a short-term investment and unrealistic expectations of immediate and large sales gains. When this doesn't happen, black-oriented budgets are quickly reduced or eliminated.
A black agency that I worked with represented a large consumer-packaged-goods company. The agency was given a budget of $250,000 for a national campaign for a brand that over-indexed with African Americans in several markets. However, the budget was just enough to run a spot radio ad in one or two markets and maybe some local print and outdoor. The client was pleased with the work, but disappointed when sales weren't off the chart sales in three months and made no additional investments.
MSNBC has a different attitude, which played well with the festival's intentions this year. Essence changed the title from Essence Music Festival to Essence Festival, to address a broader purpose for the black community, as well as serving as host to some of the hottest names in entertainment. Beyonce' returned to headline, along with top celebrities like, LL Cool J, Steve Harvey and Jill Scott.
Griffin described his network's broader purpose: "It wasn't like we said, 'Oh, we have to have a diverse person on here and there' . . . We made a decision. We made a commitment in ideas, issues and everything -- the audience followed, and that goes back to four or five years ago. As we grew, we recognized that it was the right thing to do. It's giving a voice to people in these kinds of programs who don't always get a voice. Our look is as diverse as any on mainstream TV. I'm incredibly proud of it."
May MSNBC continue its investment in black consumers, black events and black media.