Black America Is the Soul of the Urban Market

So Yes, You Do Need an African-American Agency

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Tru Pettigrew Tru Pettigrew
I've been getting approached more and more these days by executives and brand managers of Fortune 500 companies about the best way to connect with and market their brands and products to urban consumers. But what I find most interesting is that many of them immediately ask me to define or profile the urban consumer for them after they have indicated that they want to pursue this consumer. Across a wide range of consumer categories, the quest to attract this influential group is clearly growing, but across the boardrooms, they're still seeking a better understanding about who this consumer is.

Questions arise: What role does hip-hop play? What role does race or ethnicity play, if any at all? These are all worth discussing. But, I think the underlying question I haven't been asked and I greatly suspect they want to ask is: "Do I really need an agency that focuses on African Americans to effectively resonate with an urban lifestyle audience?" My answer is a resounding "yes!"

Why? Although the urban lifestyle does transcend race, ethnicity and geography and is characterized by a diverse group seeking the leading edge of trends and culture that city life offers, it is rooted in Black America. Understanding where Black America comes from and how we came up is key to understanding what drives our attitudes and behaviors and affords brands the ability to make a true connection with the urban consumer.

I know there's still apprehension from some who may also ask, "Will adopting an urban strategy make us a 'Black Brand'?" And to that, my answer is "no" (and that's another big conversation for another day). But without an understanding of the root of this urban audience, you'll miss truly reaching and affecting the urban consumer.

Take a quick look at the history of Black Americans, and you'll understand why they are at the core of urban lifestyle. From the time of slavery through present day, Black Americans have created music, language, dance, and style as forms of self-expression, communication and survival. As Plato teaches us, "Necessity is the mother of all invention," and because Black Americans have historically been the underprivileged in America, it's been necessary for us to create, innovate and invent for survival. As progress was made over the years, self-esteem issues still lingered from times of slavery and segregation, which led to an ongoing need and desire for respect and affirmation. This is still at the core of what has driven a lot of the behaviors and identity of Black Americans. And the results of that need and desire are typically manifested through actions and behaviors that allow them to show off their individual style and to be seen as "hip," "cool" and better than those around them.

And the urban environments in which this audience historically resided is most definitely a factor to what defines this aspirational lifestyle. With city living, Black consumers became more competitive, more open-minded, more culturally curious, more entrepreneurial in spirit and even more materialistic to a degree. Being close to the energy of successful business, to new trends and styles emanating from the urban environs and the feeling that anything he or she can do I can do better, fueled a "keeping up with the Joneses" reality.

As hip-hop gained its strength in Black America and thus, inner-city communities, it was adopted by others that shared a common interest in hip-hop lifestyle. Hip-hop was inclusive by nature, so it did not discriminate. Although hip-hop was originated by a culture of Black people, it was based on a lifestyle, and that lifestyle was aspirational and inspirational to a nation of young people and that also begged, borrowed and stole from a diverse range of cultures. It was influenced as much as it influenced others. And as hip-hop lifestyle became more prevalent and accepted by popular culture, it then transcended into a more universal urban lifestyle.

It's easy to see how the urban lifestyle trend has quickly spread, reaching far across the globe as new media options and high-speed connections enable anyone, anywhere with similar aspirations to join the party. But as the audience widens, it's critical to understand and remember what drives the trend. And what drives the trend is the mindset of the consumer -- who at the core, is black. And I say, if you want an authentic taste, you go to an authentic place.

Given that many trends born out of Black Culture have eventually become popular American Culture, it can be easy to forget the origin and the importance of recognizing the unique "ingredients" that propelled that trend into the mainstream.

Race or culturally appropriate teams are still often the "big pink elephant" in the board room when marketers start talking about their urban strategies. Black culture is a significant link in the DNA of the urban lifestyle and that point must be recognized in order to truly understand what's at the core of the attitudes, opinions and behaviors of this group. I'm here to say that yes, you really need an agency that focuses on African Americans to effectively resonate with an urban lifestyle audience. It matters. Adopting an urban strategy won't make your brand "Black," but a strategic urban strategy does begin with a smart team that does have African-American relevance.

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Tru Pettigrew is president of Alloy Access, New York. Read more in the bio section.
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