New Study and Ongoing Insights Challenge the Rush to embrace Cross Cultural Marketing

“One of the latest buzz words to enter the marketing lexicon is “cross-cultural” It paints an idealistic picture of a color blind society, one in which consumes’ similarities outweigh their differences regardless of ethnic groups.” —Is Cross Cultural An Industry Breakthrough or Threat to Ethnic Shops by Michael Bush – Advertising Age  (1/31/2011)

At first glance cross-culturalism represents to marketers that the blurring of the lines between different races provides them with a unique opportunity to reach a broader segment of the population with less effort and investment. Some may even see it as a “stamp of approval” to continue to ignore the opposing viewpoints of ethnic marketers and consumers who have been saying that cultural relevancy related to race is the key to real engagement.

We are moving towards a cross-cultural society, it is clearly going to be our future but it is not yet our present.  The reason why – marketers believe they are more forward thinking to not look at race or cultural as it relates to race. They tend to be more comfortable adopting the “people are people” or “we’re all from the human race” approach. As a result, many marketers fall short of effectively and positively connecting with different ethnic groups because they have not yet fully embraced the differences between them and these segments.   It’s as if they believe examining differences is rude or is not PC.  The better practice is to celebrate ones difference without judgment.

Different is not deficient.

Marketers want big ideas. Big ideas are the result from tapping into real insights. Real insights are more than light bulb moments. They are gleaned from opening up to people and situations that are completely different from our own. Sometimes we have to embrace being uncomfortable to become comfortable with one another.

There have been several major studies that explore the changing Black-American population including:

  • How Black Americans are different and more segmented today than ever
  • How young Black Millennials are experiencing the “Boomerang effect” in that they are learning about their blackness later (than Boomers) and are leveraging their blackness to create success for themselves and the Black community
  • How the definition of the Black family is changing given that 73% of Black births are to single moms,
  • At the same time, being a single Black mom no longer means you are a “bad mom”
  • And while Black Americans are making huge strides in education, politics and business, many balance their desire to stay connected with Black identity and Black culture
  • There are countless successful new media platforms created by Blacks for Blacks in support of the strong and powerful Black social network and Black blogosphere.

This is the new Black America.

However, few marketers are paying attention to these new developments and are not engaging in meaningful discussions about how to better engage Black America. While the landscape is changing, marketers are racing to stay ahead of this trend and may be racing away from the reality of the present:

“Black is the new Black” and the numbers and insights prove it.

The Burrell: Project 40 Study conducted by Burrell Communications ( is one of the most important studies today, because it highlights the important cultural differences within and between Black America and other segmentsiIt underscores the power and influence that Black America brings to the the marketplace, and importantly, it challenges cross cultural marketing’s “one size fits all” approach.

Faye Ferguson, co-CEO of Burrell Communications speaks about marketers’ often  missed opportunity to connect with the broader African-American segment by the continued use of outdated research standards: “Most research conducted in the African-American community is done with upper and middle-class consumers – who don’t necessarily reflect the attitudes, behaviors and opinions of the majority”.

Ferguson makes a good point.   I reference this overlooked segment in my new book, Black (Still) Matters in Marketing ,under the name the “Profitable Invisible Middle”.

Black America tends to be viewed in extremes today, both by society at
large and by marketers: there are the high-profile celebrities, entertainers,
and sports figures on one side, and the impoverished, crime ridden, anddown and out on the other.

This flawed perception results in the rest of us – The Invisible Middle –being- being ignored or marginalized, according to  the late Herb Kemp who co-authored with me What’s Black About It? So, Burrell, understanding this “Invisible Middle” phenomenon, conducted more than 500 in-person interviews across 11 major markets – of which 80 percent of the respondents had never participated in a market research project before. This gave voice to those “Invisible Middles” in a way that’s never been done before and provided Burrell with a clearer portrait of the average African-American consumer.

  • One of the most important findings from the Burrell: Project 40 Study is that 73% of Non-Hispanic Whites and 67% of Hispanic believe African Americans influence mainstream American culture.   This is nothing to sneeze at.

This finding clearly speaks to the value that Blacks have in the marketplace and also explains why companies like McDonald’s and P&G get it.   First, these marketers invest in ethnic marketing because it’s good business – and not as a charitable contribution> Second both companies understand the value of leading their mainstream marketing efforts with ethnic insights.

Another important insight from the study is marketers’ misunderstanding of African-American advancement, and their desire to remain culturally distinct at the deepest, most important levels.

As many as 63 percent of African Americans are open to other cultures, and enjoy experiencing foreign customs as they relate to food, fashion and music, but those experiences do not change who they are when they are at home. Eighty seven percent of those surveyed are actively attached to African-American culture, and make an effort to balance their cultural interests with their own cultural identity.

This practice also speaks to the many ways to be Black in America: Blacks today are more different from each other in very meaningful ways.

Toure’, a journalist, writer, MSNBC contributor and author of his newest book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to Be Black Now quotes Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Studies at Harvard and editor-in-chief of, who said if there are 40 million black folks in America, then there are 40 million ways to be black. .

The “game face” is still a part of the African American experience.

We have seen and are experiencing the migration of several African Americans from urban areas to suburban areas, and where Black children have grown up in mostly white communities. At the same time, many African Americans still feel a need to present a different image of themselves to the public than the image they share when among other African Americans due to fear of judgment, the lessons of history and their desire to succeed.

Thirty six percent admit that they experience this cultural suppression often. This includes situations at work and school, as well as in social settings. This is not a Baby Boomer issue, but is real for many Blacks across all age groups and socio-economic statuses. When questioned about this behavior, many admit to having a “Black face” and “White face” – their “game face.” Simply put, when talking to whites, many African Americans believe that in order to counteract any negative or erroneous stereotypes related to African Americans, they often use language and accents that seem and sound “less Black” – i.e. more white. They are keenly aware that people outside the Black community may view their different speech patterns and language negatively.

The “game face,” this “double consciousness,” is probably the most ubiquitous – but also one of the most misunderstood aspects of Black culture.

African Americans continue to seek more positive representations of their culture in the media.

“Despite all the progress that’s been made, there’s still a nagging sense of being looked down upon, of being judged, of being disrespected. What keeps this difference alive is that these suspicions aren’t always paranoia.”

—Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist, Washington

Post, and author, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America

Nearly every respondent from the Burrell: 40 Study could more easily identify negative, inauthentic portrayals of African Americans in the media than positive ones, with 88 percent agreeing that discrimination is still part of their day-to-day lives. This spans across movies and TV, as well as within the advertising and marketing industries. In particular, many expressed the belief that African- American characters on TV tend to be one-dimensional: 75 percent agreed that there should be more TV programs directed toward African Americans and 68 per cent want to see more commercials directed specifically to African-American audiences.

Creating a meaningful and engaging message can’t happen by looking past race nor does looking past race make us “good Americans,” better marketers, or creatives. Taking race off the table means overlooking cultural insights that could help connect with Black audiences on a deeper level. It robs marketers of the chance to build a strong relationship with the audience.

While we are moving towards a post racial society, we don’t live in a post-racial society today. Not yet.

When marketers recognize the potential and value of connecting with Black consumers, they will realize that “Black is the new Black.” And the move towards cross-culturalism will have begun.