Clients often come to us with the request, “How do I reach the African American consumer?” Sounds easy enough, right? But it may not be that simple. Cultural identity in today’s world is an ever-evolving concept that some consumers ponder continuously, and how individuals identify themselves can have a profound impact on their behaviors and preferences.
“Black” or “African American”? It’s quite common that marketers are conflicted about which term is appropriate to use when referring to this audience. While personal identification can vary from person to person, in our research experiences over the years, we have found that “Black” is most frequently preferred to identify this community. This is a slight shift from the early 1990s when African American became the widely accepted term.
Traditionally in the U.S., the qualifier for inclusion into the Black race is complexion or having a fraction/percentage of African genetic lineage. However, it’s important to understand that members of the Black community come in different skin tones, from light to dark, and aren’t always readily recognized as Black. An article in Advertising Age, entitled ‘In Plain Sight’ cites African Americans are the majority of the U.S. Black population at 84% and, therefore, are often seen as reflecting the entire race. “However, this audience can also include Black Hispanics, Caribbean and African immigrants, and biracial counterparts.” The article also proclaims, “many Black Caribbean immigrants, along with Canadians or Europeans of African descent, feel excluded by the term ’African American’—or believe that it does not accurately reflect their cultural background.” And, typically what comes along are the cultural labels/sub-groups and the associated rituals and traditions. Some of these behaviors and attitudes from Black cultural subgroups may have overlap but are often unique to the Black American cultural experience. And to some, being called African American can be seen as a disregard of their own cultural identity/customs. We see these conversations play out in pop culture via discussions around Black immigrant actors who play prominent Black American figures to the political discussions around reparations.
Also, where individuals live has a significant impact on their cultural experiences, values, and perspectives. It’s important to know the historical context to uncover how Black communities originated and where they are currently. One of the most noted events in Black American history involves the large migration of Blacks from the rural South to the Northeast and Midwest. Known as the “Great Migration” or the Black Migration, approximately 6 million Blacks fled the poverty and racial oppression of the South under Jim Crow during the Great Depression for jobs and opportunities in the North.
Generations of family members started their new lives in large metropolitan communities that provided job security and affordable housing. These communities are what we typically associate with Black culture today, Black families who live in an urban context. My husband’s family, for instance, is one of these families. They moved from Mississippi to Gary, Indiana for the promise of jobs in the steel mills. Both my father-in-law’s and my mother-in-law’s families worked hard on the union jobs of the steel mills and were able to build and own their own homes to pass on to the next generations of the family. For decades, this great movement has formed what we know about how Black families live and even how we design research to glean insights around this audience. The perception that Black families only hold a strong presence in northern urban environments has greatly impacted marketing strategies. However, recent trends in the past 10 years allude to a great shift or migration reversal, a move back to the South and into suburban neighborhoods.
The first sign of this trend emerged in the 2010 U.S. Census, where the data shows that since 2000, Blacks have been moving from the urban Northeast and Midwest to the suburban South and West.* Overall, the Black population is showing substantial growth with an increase of 2 million households in 2010 compared with 2000. “Two-thirds of those new households (1.4 million) were in the South.”* In addition, this data shows that growth isn’t occurring in the major metropolitan areas, but in the suburbs: Two-thirds of this growth occurred in the suburbs (approximately 67%)*.
As of 2018, 56% of Black/African Americans live in the South, increasing from 55% in 2010, and 54% in the 2000 decennial Census. Seven of the top 10 states for the Black/African American population are located in the South, and Texas now has the largest population of Black/African Americans (Nielsen AA DIS Report, 2019). Habits, behaviors, trends, and perspectives we associate with Black urban life are typically unique from those we associate with Black suburban life. This data completely shifts what we think we know about Black families in America.
So, what does this all mean to us as brands and market researchers? Based on all of these insights, we know that similar to Hispanic populations, Black culture does reside on an acculturation model of sorts. What determines where consumers lie on this spectrum is influenced by their family lineage, immigration status, (e.g., U.S. born, first, second, or third generation). Therefore, we believe it is important to develop attitudinal questions around these perspectives and points of view to zero in on the specific Black target you are looking to gain learnings around. We anticipate in the future that it will be important to diversify markets and get a good mix of urban/suburban perspectives for a bigger picture of Black American life. At C+R Research and on our CultureBeat team, we pride ourselves on the fact that we are culturally sensitive and treat each project as a unique cultural immersion.
*(In Plain Sight, 2012).