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Marketers missing "invisible' audience

As popular as they are, Cliff and Clair Huxtable just don't ring true with some people, a marketing expert says.

The fictional doctor and lawyer starring in The Cosby Show paint a picture of well-balanced family life and financial security. But some in their TV audience _ black and white _ think the scene unrealistic because they assume that very few African-American families are headed by well-to-do professionals.

Well, they should think again, said associate professor Miriam Stamps. Stamps, a University of South Florida marketing expert, has dedicated more than 10 years to researching affluent African-American consumers.

She presented her findings at a recent USF research conference, part of the Minority Enterprise Development Week activities in Tampa.

Her conclusions: Moneyed minorities, particularly blacks, are largely ignored in advertising and marketing because few market researchers know they exist. Consequently, companies trying to reach the black consumer market may miss out on the segment that can best afford their products or services.

"Affluent blacks and middle-class blacks are almost invisible" in market research, Stamps said. "But there are plenty of families like (the Huxtables). I could rattle off their names all day long."

Many marketers define affluence as having a household income of $50,000 or more a year. By that measure, nearly 1-million black households, or 2-million African-American adults, are affluent, according to FIND/SVP, a New York market research publisher.

Those numbers are expected to more than double in the next 15 years, Stamps said.

Overall some 19.3-million American households are affluent. (The most affluent segment, with incomes of $100,000 or more, has grown faster than the other segments in the past five years.) Whites account for 91.4 percent of the affluent. Blacks make up 13.6 percent of the population but only 5.4 percent of the affluent.

Like the general populace, the African-American rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer.

"There's been a real bifurcation of black incomes," Stamps said, "not because more people are moving into the middle and upper classes, but because the lower class is doing so much worse, it pulls down the (income) average."

Marketers aren't ready for this income split, said David A. Weiss, president of Packaged Facts Inc., a New York market research firm.

Although ad agencies and marketing professionals for years have advocated niche marketing _ the practice of narrowly targeting a marketing approach to specific types of consumers _ they have been slow to do the same with minority consumers, Weiss said. Instead, the black consumer market is viewed as a monolith of low-income urban dwellers, he said.

"There is no Joe African-American," Weiss said. "Any effort to sum up the community in a single image is going to be galling to African-American consumers."

In their defense, marketers find affluent African-Americans hard to track, he said.

For instance, the number of African-Americans living in suburban areas increased 55 percent between 1978 and 1988, from 4.5-million people to 7-million people, according to census data. But more than 50 percent of all affluent African-Americans continue to live in inner-city areas, close to less affluent people.

Also, census takers notoriously under-report blacks, making life difficult for direct marketers trying to target the right homes, Weiss said.

It's still an undeveloped science, Stamp said. Market researchers only began paying attention to black consumers during the civil rights era.

At the time, "

"low income' and "black consumer' were terms used interchangeably in marketing studies," she said.

In the early 1980s, some marketers attempted to label upwardly mobile blacks as "strivers," using their lifestyle habits and values _ or "psychographic" data _ to define affluence. But, Stamps said, even those researchers assumed that when strivers arrived at middle-class or upper-class status, they would behave like whites.

"There's the attitude that affluent blacks were just white folks in black face," Stamps said.

In some ways they were right, Stamps said, but in many important ways they were wrong.

For example, like affluent whites, affluent blacks tend to read more magazines than those who are less well off. But affluent blacks differ from affluent whites in which magazines are most widely read.

Affluent blacks prefer Ebony, Black Enterprise and Essence magazines. An ad in these publications answers an important question for blacks, Stamps said: Does the advertiser mean to include them?

Like upper-class whites, affluent blacks shop at better-priced stores, even when discount shopping.

"The middle-class strivers tended to go to Service Merchandise discount stores," she said. "Lower-class consumers went to Woolworth _ stores that had an image of being lower class."

However, affluent African-Americans are more concerned with "self-esteem" issues, particularly when shopping, than white counterparts, she said.

"So when a sales clerk doesn't pay any attention to me, I'm of two minds as to why," she said. "He or she might be a rude sales clerk, or maybe they are not helping me because I am black."

There are easy ways to target moneyed blacks, Stamps said. Some social organizations such as the Links and Jack and Jill are comprised primarily of upper-class and middle-class blacks, as are such professional groups as the National Bar Association and the National Medical Association.

Links is a women's community service group similar to the Junior League. Jack and Jill involves children in social and cultural activities. The National Bar represents black lawyers, and the National Medical Association serves black doctors.

Liquor, cigarette companies, the travel industry and some luxury car manufacturers have successfully targeted these groups, Stamps said, by running ads in their publications and sending representatives and free samples to their conventions. But few financial services companies, boatmakers or even home security manufacturers, among others, have followed suit.

"African-Americans aren't looking for affirmation in advertising; they're looking for orientation _ marketing that is truly oriented toward the great variety within the African-American community," Weiss said.