Because of world events surrounding social unrest, brands have been scrambling to learn about African Americans and how to be supportive during these "transformative and unprecedented times," according to Cheryl Grace, SVP, US strategic community alliances and consumer engagement at Nielsen.

Grace revealed insights into how brands can do just that. She discussed consumption habits and behaviors of Black consumers and called on brands to be “thoughtfully inclusive” in their marketing approaches and media choices. Grace did so at CMSWire's DX Summit this Oct. 21 and revealed insights from Nielsen’s "The Power of the Black Community – From Moment to Movement," the 10th annual report in Nielsen's Diverse Intelligence Series on African American consumers released the same day of the conference.

“Ensuring that the opportunity to connect culturally (with African Americans) is really very important because more than 80% of African Americans say that they relate better to ads and images that connect with their culture,” Grace said. “Thoughtfully inclusive means that you are not simply dropping a Black actor or actress into a script that was perhaps written for a non person of color, but that you're going to be thoughtfully inclusive about how you reflect them.”

Brands in Spotlight After George Floyd Death

Movements like Black Lives Matter have gained steam around the world as millions have called for civil justice since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer May 25.

African Americans and consumers in general kept a close eye on brands in the initial weeks of global protests. According to a June report from GfK, an intelligence and consulting service, 58% of all US consumers — and 73% of African American consumers — say they have seen companies acting as “a force for good” during the protests. However, about half of all US consumers and African Americans say they have noticed brands serving as a “negative force” during the social unrest. GfK found that 74% of Americans say that companies’ actions during the protests will influence their desire to do business with those brands going forward.

“Our new research shows that US consumers — and African Americans in particular — are watching brands closely during this crucial moment,” Stacy Bereck, managing director of consumer insights for GfK, said in a press release. “Hanging back is no longer an option; but saying and doing the right things are also essential. With sentiments changing almost daily, brands need to monitor the consumer landscape closely and react with skill and judgment.”

Related Article: Why and How You Need More Diversity in Your Marketing

Black Spending Power in Trillions

The protests and calls for civil justice have also raised the bar for brands to truly consider why diversity matters when delivering a positive customer experience. It’s great that organizations are paying attention to their diversity, equity and inclusion practices more than ever before, Grace added. But are your marketing and customer experience teams doing the same?

“I'd like to start with a headline you rarely see when you hear about African Americans in the United States: our spending power,” said Grace. “It's currently at $1.4 trillion. $1.4 trillion of annual spend probably impacts all of your businesses in one form, shape or another. And yet, it's not often discussed in professional settings. It's not discussed in your marketing meetings, or your growth and planning sessions. Blacks tend to get relegated to stereotypical DEI conversations as it relates to business and to crimes and poverty as it relates to the news cycle. And it's a missed business opportunity because our consumer power is actually growing.”

Grace noted the Black demographic segment is expected to increase spending power to $1.8 trillion in the next three and a half years. “Your company would probably not want to overlook countries like Canada or Russia or Australia or even Spain,” said Grace, directing her message at US marketing teams. “And yet, that's exactly the equivalent of what you're doing when you're leaving African Americans out of your marketing mix domestically.”

Screenshot of African American women who won beauty contests, part of Cheryl Grace of Nielsen's Digital Experience Summit presentation Oct. 21, 2020.

Expanded Economic Opportunities for African Americans

If the trillion-dollar spending opportunity didn’t grab your attention, some other findings from the Nielsen report released Oct. 21 may. In the last decade, researchers found, there have been more successful Black brands, Black-owned businesses and investment in expanded economic opportunities for African Americans.

African Americans are nearly three times as likely to take to social media to show support of their favorite companies and brands, according to the report. Furthermore, African Americans are now 58% more likely to expect the brands they buy to take a stance on issues and 37% more likely to buy from a brand when they do.

The Black Lives Matter movement has influenced allies to take action as well. Nielsen researchers cited the example of Hispanic consumers outpacing African Americans in their expectation that the brands they buy from support social causes as well.

Learning Opportunities

Some other key findings from Nielsen around consumer habits for African Americans include:

  • African Americans are spending the most time on their smartphones compared to the total population.
  • In one week, African Americans spend over eight hours social networking, about three hours watching videos and over one hour streaming audio on their smartphones.
  • Smartphone ownership for African Americans has grown from 44% in 2011 to 98% in 2020 — faster than the total population.

Related Article: Why a Platform of Inclusion Is Vital for Data-Driven Diversity

‘A Double Opportunity to Win’

Brands need to understand that Blacks respond well to positive images of other Blacks conveyed in media, Grace added. Blacks are heavy consumers of beauty products and are image driven, according to Grace, who also said Blacks are 20% more likely than the total population to agree they would pay extra for a product that is consistent with the image they want to convey.

Further, 41% of Black women agree they like to live a lifestyle that projects a positive image to others. And, 55% of African Americans say they feel really good about seeing celebrities in the media that share their ethnic background.

“Now that's a staggering 79% higher than the general population,” Grace said. “So again, it points to just how important image and seeing ourselves being reflected on the images that we see on the screen are important to us. And African Americans aren't the only ones who respond favorably to seeing Black trendsetters reflected in advertisements in programming. 67% of Hispanics and 73% of non Hispanic whites believe Blacks influence pop culture, which means inclusivity of Blacks and our culture is a double opportunity for you to win. Not only do you attract African American audiences to your brands and your products and your services, you also attract all other demographics as well.”

Genuine, Thoughtful, Sensitive Approach

The opportunities are there. But the "how" is just as important when marketing to African Americans, according to Grace. Be genuine. Be thoughtfully inclusive. Show sensitivity and embrace humor, Grace added.

While it’s great to see big brands providing donations and support to efforts like Black Lives Matter, Grace said organizations can also provide insights or support to small suppliers who are diverse, help grow the brands of Black-owned companies, advertise on platforms that have predominantly black audiences and ensure that products and services are readily available in Black communities.

“Thoughtful media: how you connect with African Americans is just as important as connecting in the first place,” Grace said. “Highlighting and showing Black men in a positive light is a start.”

She cited a Lincoln Financial commercial which showed three generations of Black men in a positive light, “each helping each other as Black men do.” “But we're not often seen to get credit for doing that,” Grace added. “I encourage you to check out this ad because it is such a positive way and shows how African Americans can be shown in ways that are not in a line with how they're reflected on the evening news.”