Do consumer brands actually know and understand the black consumer? This question has become an important one in the last couple of years: in 2013, the UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing found that the black middle class had about R400 billion to spend, compared to R320 billion by the white middle class.
A good understanding of the black consumer market has become a matter of sound business practice. Yet, I get the sense when looking at some of the advertising messages that are being broadcasted to black people that brands don’t know their audience at all. Some messaging is downright patronising – you may remember one advertisement showing a black family dancing in traffic because the mother had bought fried chicken. Other messaging is seemingly based on an outdated understanding of black consumer needs: I would argue for instance that black people need financial services more diverse than funeral policies.
With the black middle class clearly being a market segment that cannot be ignored, why is there this disconnect? As I see it, the problem is that brands are not having constant conversations with black people. They have an imperfect understanding of black lives and needs. For whatever reason, perhaps because of language and cultural barriers, these conversations are not happening. It is impossible to understand someone that you don’t talk to.
The examples of this disconnect are not just evident in advertising and marketing. You need only read the news or watch television to see a nation of different groups talking past each other, not to each other.
It’s not easy for brands to talk to people they have nothing in common with – and I hope that as business and ad agencies continue to transform, understanding will improve. But in the meantime, how can companies in Sandton or Cape Town’s Foreshore have meaningful conversations with people living in Alexandra or Langa?
Since 1997 Soccer Laduma, now the world’s most read football newspaper, has nurtured and built a relationship with its some 3.2million mostly black readers. But what did we, a newspaper based on Cape Town’s foreshore serving a majority black readership, do to not fall into this disconnect trap?
Looking back, I think it’s that we understood that our common passion of football wasn’t enough to sustain Soccer Laduma.
Listening to the concerns and suggestions of our readers is as much part of what we do as analysing football is. Readers’ comments and opinions inform how we run our business and where future growth goes.
For instance, one of our reader concerns is that the average football fan today has no voice in the business of football. The huge money that has come pouring into the beautiful game has pushed out fans. This has unfortunately become true of the Premier Soccer League as well. In response to this, we launched the Soccer Laduma Supporters Club across South Africa and online, where fans can give their opinions and be part of the conversation.
Since August last year, 320 physical branches have been established across the country, and online we have about 14,000 active members, while 8 000 members are active offline. Of course, Soccer Laduma Supporters Club conversations are primarily about football, but football fans also have other interests. For that reason we decided to set up the Soccer Laduma Supporters Club to function as a conduit to a much-needed two-way conversation between brands and the black middle-class.
The Soccer Laduma Supporters Club also conducts market research providing scalable insights for brands that want to reach the black consumer market. But more importantly, the Soccer Laduma Supporters Club allows the black consumer market to tell brands what it is they want.
By recognising, early on, the disconnect brands face when attempting to interact meaningfully with black consumers, we sowed the seeds to Soccer Laduma’s success: we share a common language, we listen and we aim to understand. The response over the years has shown us that black consumers are eager to have these conversations and to be understood.
The question for brands is, are they willing to do what it takes to hear and understand black people?