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End Marketing Apartheid Now

The meteoric rise of Barack Obama juxtaposed with the viral infection of Michael Richards and Don Imus brings to mind the stereotypes that have long plagued the business of marketing.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that the rise of Obama and the fall of both Richards and Imus roughly coincided with a spate of newspaper stories about marketing practices that expose arguably ugly assumptions about who buys what, and why.

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The most controversial of these stories appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Written by Jeffrey Trachtenberg, the piece took on the issue of whether books written by African-Americans should be segregated from all other books in America’s retail stores.

The issue is heating up because last year African-Americans spent more than $300 million on books, which is twice what was spent in the early 1990s. Both memberships and sales for the Black Expressions book club are growing in double-digits, at a time when overall bookstore sales are falling.

Surprisingly, some prominent African-American authors are not totally enraged about this retail segregation. Brandon Massey, who writes in what otherwise might be classified as the “horror” genre, realizes that merchandising his books in a “blacks-only” section of the store helps his base find his books. But he also understands that the practice probably limits his sales, too.

No sales data exists that supports which approach sells more books, but as Mr. Massey observes: “Most non-black readers aren’t going to go to the African-American section.” That’s the way Barnes & Noble sees it, too, while Borders and Waldenbooks apparently continue to opt to segregate.

Only slightly less incendiary — and decidedly more complicated — was a story written by Steven Gray in the Wall Street Journal about General Mills and its attempts to re-package its Betty Crocker brand of corn muffin mix for greater appeal to African-Americans.

Ostensibly, this story was just another case study of how a major marketer used consumer insights to re-introduce an otherwise declining brand. There actually was a lot to appreciate about what General Mills did to reposition its brand to appeal to a consumer segment that previously had largely ignored it.

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The complication was that General Mills’ efforts took direct aim at the erstwhile category leader — Jiffy brand corn muffin mix — marketed by Chelsea Mills, a relatively small, black-owned company. Adding to the controversy was the General Mills decision to feature B. Smith, the famous African-American restaurateur, on its re-designed package.

This was potentially a powder-keg move because, for some, it brought back memories of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and the use of African-American “characters” to help sell packaged goods items. The move didn’t backfire, though, and sales of “Betty Crocker Authentic Cornbread and Muffin Mix” increased 23.3 percent in a year’s time.

It would be interesting to know how much of that increase came from African-American households versus the rest of the population. The article didn’t say. It’s probably a safe bet that the improved packaging, especially B. Smith, played well on both sides of this particular marketing divide.

It could be that with its race-oriented strategy General Mills ultimately is limiting itself — not unlike the way Broadway Show producers have limited themselves over the years. Conventional wisdom has it that to succeed on Broadway with a musical, you need to attract just one kind of consumer: “white, middle-aged women.”

The producers of “The Color Purple” have totally blown that particular bit of marketing dogma to pieces, according to yet another article in The Wall Street Journal. This piece, penned by Brookes Barnes, ran about a week before the Jeffrey Trachtenberg story about the segregated bookstores.

Mr. Barnes began by noting that shows featuring African-American characters — like “Dreamgirls” and “The Wiz” — traditionally play to audiences that are only about 25 percent black. Overall, less than four percent of all Broadway Show ticket buyers are black. Apparently, they don’t call it The Great White Way for nothing.

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“The Color Purple” didn’t buy into that kind of prejudice. The marketing strategy combined an ad campaign that conveyed “movement and happiness” with a media strategy that targeted “smaller neighborhood publications and newsletters” that normally didn’t advertise Broadway shows.

The show’s website was redesigned to raise the comfort level of tourists by including hotel packages and tips on how to get around Manhattan. Ticket prices were lowered to entice first-timers to take a chance on a Broadway experience.

The result is that “Color Purple” plays to audiences that are “over 50 percent black, with some performances in the 80 percent range.” However, for all the keen insight, the point is that everything the show’s producers did to build a black audience almost certainly would work as well with other audiences — and other shows that don’t necessarily feature black themes or talent.

That message came through loud and clear about a year ago, when I asked Mike Linton, then the chief marketing officer of Best Buy and now a senior vice-president with eBay, a series of questions about how he went about targeting consumers by age, gender and ethnicity.

Mike simply didn’t take the bait. He didn’t deny that Best Buy sometimes ran some ads along ethnic lines, but he also said that the segmentation was more about consumer behavior than ethnicity or any other demographic pigeonholes.

“We don’t talk about individual segments,” he said, adding: “I would say that without a doubt demographics matter less and less — not just to marketers but to everybody.” He went on to say that the best approach was to customize each store so that it is more attractive to anyone who is likely to shop there.

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Perhaps fashion designer Stephen Burrows, who is African-American, summed it up best in a New York Times article by Eric Wilson about the influence of black styles on the way the world dresses.

“I don’t know that we have a style any longer,” Mr. Burrows said. “I don’t see it as being black or white or any other color. It’s just a sense of style …”