About a month ago I was invited to speak at a preeminent youth conference. I’m not sure if it was our PR department or the coordinators of the event that chose the title of my topic, but when I read it, I found myself in a bit of a quandary. The title that was foisted upon me was “African-American Youth: The Soul of the Urban Market.” Although I could craft a tight speech around this topic, I felt as though I’d pull a Wieden + Kennedy’s Dan Wieden (his impassioned speech about diversity at the 4 A’s in April) and flip the topic on its head and talk about something a bit more fertile. In the not so distant past, the “urban” market was defined by stereotypical images of African-American youth clad in baggy jeans and oversized shirts listening to loud rap music.
The definition of today’s urban lifestyle consumer has clearly evolved, outgrowing many of the preconceived notions of what urban is. A study that we conducted at Alloy Access, confirmed that contrary to popular opinion nearly four in ten (39%) urban consumers live in suburban areas, and 35% of that group are white. No longer confined to a demographic living in inner-city zip codes, these urban consumers–ages 12-34 and over 20 million strong–have come to represent a specific mindset born out of the unique energy, creativity, and diversity of America’s urban centers. Closely connected to hip-hop, ethnically diverse with a shared set of passions and strong aspirations to succeed–this is what defines today’s urban lifestyle consumer.
So, inspired by the work of my consumer insights team, I chose to create a presentation that sought to explore how African-American youth, who along with Latino youth, are at the core of what has morphed into what is now a diverse urban mindset (aka mash-up culture). Both groups have begun to shift from being exclusively trendsetters and mega-consumers into creators of social change. In essence, I wanted to let my audience know what has sparked their desire to not only be the creators of “cool” but also agents of change. At this moment in time, the idea of coming from nothing and rising to the top of ones “game,” has taken on new meaning.
There’s a sentiment in R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” that is becoming pervasive amongst African-American youth. This sense of optimism (even within the current economic climate) is in large measure tied to the “Obama effect,” the economic landscape and the rise of online social networking. Obama has inspired African-American (and “urban”) youth with the mindset that they can overcome their disadvantages. Although their day-to-day circumstances may be the same, their sense of empowerment has increased exponentially. The economic landscape (as well as the war and the conditions in their communities) has today’s youth feeling like older generations dropped the ball. Now they have to step up and become the new change-makers. Unlike their “general market” counterparts, the current economic climate is not new to them, it’s simply magnifying how much things are in need of serious change. The economic landscape is causing a reassessment of simply striving for material wealth–which in the past had been a predominant motivator for African-American youth. Wealth for wealth’s sake is in question not only in society at large but, in young African-American’s minds as well. Like in the early days of Hip-Hop, online social networks are providing a platform for the formerly voiceless, like-minded and disconnected to be heard and to unite.
So what’s the impact of all this? African-American and urban youth feel inspired and empowered to positively impact change; they are looking to create a better world for themselves and their communities. They are using their social networks and social currency to connect with other youth. They see service (in addition to wealth) as a means to fame, power and greatness. What we are seeing is the emergence of a new mindset; one that is an evolution of a more self-centered and materialistic mindset. This mindset uses the foundations of Hip-Hop culture-creativity, self-expression, and community building–fusing entrepreneurship and a “give back” mentality that are culminating into a host of social entrepreneurial endeavors. Service has become a means to achieving greatness. In these times, we need to challenge ourselves (and the brands that we help steward) to find causes that are authentic and relevant to today’s African-American (and “urban”) youth and provide them with tools, platforms and spaces to dialogue and take action.
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Tru Pettigrew is the President of Alloy Access. As its founder, Tru is passionate about providing fresh ideas and identifying emerging platforms to make products and brands relevant to today’s urban and multicultural consumers. Tru and his team travel around the country immersing themselves in culture at basketball courts, nightclubs, music stores and barbershops. In educating his Fortune 500 clients, he provides a reflection of today’s multicultural world. Tru started his career performing as one half of a Los Angeles-based rap duo. He executed promotions for Converse, which led to a position with Houston Herstek Favat. He later joined AMP Agency’s Triple Dot Communications (acquired by Alloy) and co-founded its consumer insights division.