They Speak English, Don't They?

Yes. But You Still Have to Know How to Speak to Them

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"The speak English, don't they?"

Carol Watson Pepper Miller
I first heard this statement seven years ago while attending a client meeting. It was delivered by a senior manager who used these words to communicate the rationale among marketers for not targeting African-American consumers. Today, this rhetorical question has become the mantra, of sorts, for many marketers who believe Black folks have totally assimilated into the lifestyle and culture of the predominant White culture. Wrong.

In an article that appeared in the Cable Advertising Bureau's new African-American Marketing publication, Race, Relevance and Revenue, the contributor, AAAA's Media Matters, discusses how African Americans are acculturated, not assimilated:

...acculturation more accurately describes the African-American experience. Acculturation can be defined as a group's ability to live, function and contribute to a given society, yet not be a seamless part of its mainstream...

Culturally, there is still a separation (of African Americans), especially among older generations. There has not been a complete blending or embracing of the majority culture or vice versa.1

Nevertheless, the multicultural marketing mindset is to embrace commonalities among the different cultures and races. While this approach is not necessarily invalid, numerous surveys, case studies and qualitative research findings demonstrate that celebrating cultural differences can lead to lucrative opportunities for marketers.

Most African Americans are different, even distinctive, as citizens and as consumers. According to Dr. Na'Im Akbar, the pre-eminent African-American psychologist, educator and author, African Americans maintain one distinguishable characteristic compared to any other race or ethnic group -- the combination of the psychological baggage from slavery, post slavery and discrimination. We have labeled this characteristic "The Filter" and believe it explains why most African Americans are overly sensitive, have a higher propensity for demanding respect, and are more likely than other racial groups to see more and see differently when it comes to marketing communications.

I get a lot of push back from the Jewish community on this theory. "I experience discrimination all the time because I'm Jewish" is what I often hear. My response is: "If the two of us show up anywhere together, folks don't see Jewish but they do see this brown skin I'm wearing!" True, discrimination doesn't discriminate. But because of The Filter, many African Americans have a higher propensity to expect to be discriminated against and, thus, often look for signs of discrimination.

Instead of getting defensive about the word "slavery," marketers need to embrace The Filter as a useful cultural-marketing insight. Marketers who understand this acknowledge the differences, apply The Filter characteristics to their marketing plans and have experienced great success -- be they large corporate behemoths or local not for profits:

For example, Procter and Gamble (P&G), along with ad agency Burrell Communications, developed a culturally relevant ad for Tide with Downy. It featured a Black father and child. Fast forward: The ad generated landside awareness of the product and brand among African Americans and, importantly, helped P&G achieve the highest return on investment of any Tide brand. Had the spot featured white characters, it would not have received the same response.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had a very "white only" image among both Black and White publics. However, after conducting market research and applying The Filter insights to their marketing plans, "Classical Tapestry" -- a three series concert program designed to target African Americans -- is enjoying its fourth successful season.

Recognizing differences can lead to opportunities! Yes, African Americans speak English, but are you talking to them?

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1"African Americans are Acculturated, Not Assimilated" by AAAA Media Matters; p.26 "Race, Relevance and Revenue Insights on the African-American Marketplace," Cable Advertising Bureau, June 2007.
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