The Changing Face of 'Urban' Consumers

Not Always an Issue of Black and White

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Doug Melville Doug Melville
When you are addressing urban references to your employees, consumers or customer base, how do you define "urban"? The answer could help you get a better understanding of what urban means to your brand.

From my experience, when the term "urban" or "urban marketing" comes up in meetings or conversations, the first thing that pops into most people's heads around the table is "We must be talking about Black or Hispanic."

But that couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that the terms "urban" and "urban America," to which some people have attached an ethnic stigma, refer to what is now the trendiest part of U.S. culture -- regardless of race. Today, to the newer, younger generations, the term "urban" seems to have more of a chic feel, or an anti-establishment twist, than an ethnic feel. While youth are calling the X Games the "Urban Olympics," to previous generations the mention of anything "urban" still brings up associations with inner cities, ethnic clusters or the underserved.

Terms change, and many times not everyone gets the memo. But while you're trying to figure out what urban means these days, you may be losing money and positioning.

In practice, "urban" is a common word, from the Latin urbanus ("from the city"). From a real-estate perspective it is easy to tell the difference between what is urban and suburban based on the mass gatherings of buildings and structures.

But from a marketing, branding or audience-targeting perspective, inconsistencies and gray areas can be found everywhere. Today's urban agencies within the marketing/advertising industry aren't defined as city-based. Rather, they're defined as race-based. Urban budgets and market activation are affected by this. Urban targeting and urban opportunities are affected by this, and it all comes from the boardrooms. I can imagine that many brands create their own definition of "urban" based on their past experiences, and ultimately bow down to the definition favored by HiPPO (Highest Paid Person in the Office).

The use of terms and definitions ultimately drive the field, and urban is becoming lost in translation.

Shouldn't the top urban-marketing campaigns in America be created by the top urban agencies in New York City? By definition Times Square is the largest urban canvas in the U.S., but do most marketing executives think of Times Square as an activation point for their urban objectives or their urban agencies? Probably not. I don't think people look at Times Square as urban. They think of it as premium or metropolitan. And historically -- premium, metropolitan and urban -- have not been on the same page. That is indeed changing -- but only to some extent.

Urban, in practice, is not just a black-and-white issue. But as long as urban agencies are looked at as ethnic agencies by brands, then one of two things needs to happen: Either a) urban agencies need more of the budgeting and activation power and opportunity to truly activate premium urban advertising opportunities or campaigns that are geographically based, or b) the definition of urban across branding circles needs to be consistent so that the playing field is level for the consumers, clients and employees -- and most of all so the best work is created by the best people for the job.

The lack of a universally accepted definition for urban in the marketing space has caused a lack of leverage for today's Black and Hispanic agencies and specialists.

Let's think. On one hand you have Urban Outfitters, which is looked at by many in hip-hop America as suburban. But to the suburban kids, it's looked at as trendy, hip and forward thinking.

Keith Urban, the country singer, has said, "I thought about changing it [my name] when I came to the states because I didn't think it was all that good for what I do." Enough said on that point.

Urban legends are just myths or untruths that become widely accepted as truths.

None of these uses really has much to do with race or ethnicity.

On the other hand, you have the National Urban League, one of the predominant organizations for the growth of African Americans, whose mission is "devoted to empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream" -- an ethnic-based objective.

As trends such as social networking and word of mouth continue to gain importance in consumers' purchasing patterns, the "urban" concept is becoming a little less ethnic, and a little more of a mind-set every day. But with that in mind, the positioning of urban agencies needs to jump through this open door and take the lead before the newest urban mind-set becomes something created by the suburbs.
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