Photo collage credits (clockwise, from top left: dapperafrika; Damion Reid; Zuvaa; dapperafrika)

The Future of Black Consumer Engagement

Afropunk should be a wakeup call to marketers that they have to approach black consumers differently.

Anyone who still thinks the keys to connecting with young black consumers are hip hop and basketball would’ve had a rude awakening at this year’s Afropunk Festival. The festival, which hosted 60,000 predominantly black attendees over its two days, is now in its 11th year, and serves as ground zero for those who favor the unconventional in music, fashion, comics, sci-fi, comedy, film and visual art. While the name may conjure notions of black people in colored fro-hawks, leather jackets and Dr. Martens (a returning sponsor this year) who only listen to punk rock, this year’s festival boasted a wide-ranging lineup including headliners icons Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones and Lauryn Hill; Detroit rap royalty Danny Brown; 90s urban fusion band Candiria; thrash kings Suicidal Tendencies; guitar god Gary Clark, Jr.; avant-electronic bassist Thundercat; up-and-coming Americana singer Adia Victoria, to name a few.

In fact, I’ve long made the case that marketers were missing the opportunity presented by the festival’s ever-growing audience. The Afropunk audience is influential; they’re globally-minded; tech-savvy; determined to make their voices heard. And most feel that brands don’t get them, even though festival sponsors such as email provider MailChimp; Sailor Jerry rum; energy drink Red Bull; MAC cosmetics; and Coors Light beer, to name a few, were in the mix.

But this year — more than at any time before — the festival’s predominantly black attendees were making a statement — one that’s reflective of the times in which we live. If not reckoned with, marketers’ efforts to effectively reach this audience will be further complicated.

Understand: Given the rise of Black Lives Matter, itself a new Civil Rights movement, we’re at a kind of say-it-loud-I’m-black-and-I’m-proud moment again. And there are several streams of cultural phenomena that have brought us here including a 30+ years long, genre-busting Black Rock/Afropunk music movement; two terms of the first African-American president of the United States; a digital revolution that has powered grassroots movements as disparate as Tea Party, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements; black women reshaping network television and dominating professional tennis; two of music’s biggest pop stars, Kanye West and Beyonce, are black; and, a digital culture that promotes, if anything, self-expression.

So, what did we learn at Afropunk, an event that attracts the leading edge of the black consumer market? That unlike in decades past, the blackness on display was unapologetic — “Africa on acid,” as someone told my friend and fellow strategist Kevin Walker — one that speaks to the need for self-affirmation, as well as for celebrating the inspiring ways that global African diaspora is connected. In that way, it was about reasserting the humanity that many feel is so often ignored or dismissed in ways both institutionally and interpersonally.

What’s this mean for brands going forward?

A premium will be put on social listening. Understand what catches the audience’s attention. Does your brand know the importance and implications of hashtags such as #BlackGirlMagic (self-affirmation), #VMAsSoWhite (cultural appropriation) or #AfricaIsNow (celebrating culture from the continent) and how they’re indicative of slow or fast culture that’s important to this audience?

Be about real diversity. Marketers can’t just settle for showing brown faces. To appeal to this new generation that’s being shaped by and is shaping the Black Lives Matter movement, a premium will be put on those move and speak as boldly and authentically as this audience does. That means really encouraging diversity in both creative and communications, as well as within the ranks of marketing and management. If something looks to this audience in the least bit like you’re appropriating cool, you’ve lost them.

Support the community in meaningful and impactful ways. What does this community care about, and how can your brand help? How can it amplify emerging voices? How can it provide spaces for future growth? How can it be seen as a partner?

Finally, it would be a mistake to think of Afropunk attendees as just the market segment on the leading edge of black culture. They are, but they’re not outliers. There are many more who feel the same, spanning ages, geographies, and occupations. While the masses may not dress as creatively as Afropunk attendees, the hunger for affirmation and respect runs deep, and is being demanded.

The brands that thrive with this audience will put a laser focus on delivering just that.

Rob Fields is a Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve TalentBank Member as well as a Forbes contributor and strategist who focuses on helping brands thrive at the intersection of marketing, business and contemporary culture. Follow him on Twitter at @robfields.

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