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Does Ethnocentricity Sell? Part 2: Niche Media

February and Black History Month are just about over, so, building upon my last post about Black History Month and advertising, I'd like to discuss the topic of ethnicity in niche media markets.

Advertising tied to Black History Month not only capitalizes upon a federally observed event — not quite a holiday but close — but also seeks to tap into the massive purchasing power of black consumers, estimated at $845 billion in 2007 according to the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth. One year-round strategy for taking advantage of this figure is to tailor not only marketing but also actual products and services towards black consumers. Indeed, many black-owned businesses, such as Johnson Publishing Company, whose brands include the magazines Ebony and Jet and Fashion Fair Cosmetics, have been built by serving this niche when other companies did not. But now that most companies are now dedicated to serving and marketing to a wide range of demographics, are ethnic markets still a lucrative niche?

On one hand, the answer remains a resounding yes. In the media industry, publications like Ebony and Essence have a strong readership among black consumers. The eventual media whirlwind surrounding the "Jena 6" emphasized the importance of black news media in bringing attention to the case. And despite being habitually criticized within the black community for its programming, BET remains strong (in fact, it's set to launch a channel in the UK). Yet the critiques of that television network are emblematic of the challenges for this ethnic market as a niche: in particular, the notion that there still exists a unified market of black consumers.

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a survey that indicated that 37 percent of black Americans (nearly two out of five) believed that blacks could no longer be regarded as one particular race. Indeed, like any other group, black consumers have a diversity of tastes and opinions that are often demarcated by class and age. And, even within the market of black consumers, there are niches to consider — Essence and Black Enterprise are two examples of publications geared toward such markets.

Many recent efforts to capitalize upon these smaller niches, however, have failed. An example that comes immediately to mind is newer magazines targeted at black females. Among the publications that have folded in the category are VIBE Vixen, Suede, Heart and Soul, and Honey (though the latter two have been revived, Honey as a Web-only publication). Although most new magazines come and go, publications for black women face an even greater challenge because they are vying for a thin slice of a very saturated market.

Also interesting is that most of these publications were not targeting black women overall but particularly young (18-30) black women. The Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) market profile for "blacks/African Americans" (click here to view the PDF) devotes a section exclusively to the teen market, which it classifies as 12-18 year-olds. While this demographic is a bit younger than that targeted by Suede, for instance, the point remains that marketing for younger black consumers is a different animal than marketing for their older counterparts — as most observers would expect.

One significant difference between the two group is that younger black consumers are more accustomed to a wider array of choices of media. Yes, they still read Ebony and Essence, and many of them bemoan the disappearance of publications like VIBE Vixen. But given "mainstream" media's much closer attention to multi-racial and multi-cultural markets, newer publications within this niche may not attract the same strength of loyalty. And even if they attract a core readership, these publications have a less compelling pitch for advertisers — if other publications with a wider readership include this niche readership, then that's where the ad dollars will go, not to the new upstarts. (This article from CIIJ discusses this last point.)

On the other hand, a brand like TV One might be poised for success, at least in the short term. TV One, a joint venture of Comcast and Radio One, the company founded by Cathy Hughes, is positioned as a alternative to BET for the many who criticize its programming — predominantly the more negative images associated with rap and hip-hop. Like Radio One (and radio in general), TV One's programming skews toward an older demographic — viewers more likely to watch a network designated specifically for black viewers.

Also working in TV One's favor is that over the course of its existence, BET has gradually leaned toward a quite young demographic, although it didn't originally start that way. (Back in the day, there was "Softnotes," which featured smooth jazz, right alongside "Rap City.") So, the time may very well be ripe for a niche network for older black viewers, which TV One would fill quite well. (The New York Times' December article on TV One makes this observation.) However, as the generation that BET primarily serves ages, how long will this model last?

These examples bring into question the relevance of ethnicity as an indicator of taste in the first place. The shifting definition of "urban" as a marketing term encapsulates this issue. As the MPA market study notes, "urban," once used interchangeably with "black" and "African American," now refers to a non-racial demographic — usually coinciding with devotees of hip-hop culture. Although the exact definition of "urban" is still up for debate, in terms of marketing, it's often a clearer term than "black" because it, unlike "black" or "African American," refers to a particular genre.

In fact, in another media industry, book publishing, the labels "black" and "African American" may no longer be relevant. About two weeks ago, I came across an article on (Henry Louis Gates' new site, which might be described as a site for "high middlebrow" black readers) decrying "street lit," the book segment of "urban" media, and its conflation with "African American literature." The writer called for a new category of literature to be termed "literary black fiction." Besides having an unappealingly elitist air about it, the label doesn't offer much information. While "street lit" titles have common themes, nothing unifies "black fiction" other than the race of its authors. It's odd to lump Zane, a black erotica novelist, with Octavia Butler, a black science fiction novelist, not because of any judgment on the relative quality of their work but because their genres of work are very different.

Looking at these media segments, it seems that the notion of "black media" is quickly changing, if not devolving. While core brands built upon this concept continue to thrive, it's become much harder for new companies to join in as race becomes less reliable as an indicator of consumers' tastes and values. Once again, for advertisers, this means rethinking their approach to multi-cultural and multi-racial marketing.