Why McDonald’s, Coke And General Mills Made African-Americans Their Lead Consumer
Many companies take the approach of designing products, services and experiences that are targeted at the majority.
Occasionally if there are resources and a strong business case, they turn their attention to serving niche audiences. But there are increasingly more anecdotes that support leaning into a different approach moving forward.
Design for the niche, win the masses.
A few weeks ago while I was in New York, I ate at a restaurant that was entirely gluten-free. I am gluten-free for health reasons, and it was a rare treat to go to a restaurant knowing I could eat everything on the menu.
My friends who ate with me do not have dietary restrictions, so they don’t care if the food is gluten-free, as long as it tastes good. But I care. And because when we’re together, they want to include me, they will look for a restaurant that has plenty of options for me to eat.
That restaurant was designed for the niche audience of gluten-sensitive consumers. But it is enjoyed by the masses, who just enjoy good food. Conventional wisdom says you should design for the majority, even if it means alienating diverse customer groups with unique needs. But as the U.S. quickly marches toward being a minority-majority society, the days of winning with this approach are numbered.
The mass market is eroding, and people who are part of a niche don’t live in a vacuum. As such, you’ll need to get good at authentically engaging with niche audiences, particularly the ones that can help you influence other groups.
This isn’t just applicable for restaurants in New York City. Many big brands, including McDonald’s, Ford and General Mills have adopted this strategy and it has paid dividends for them.
In an Advertising Age special report, leaders from these companies explained why they’ve made African-Americans their lead consumer. Mark Addicks is retired now, but as the chief marketing officer at General Mills he gave insight into why they made that strategic choice.
It’s hard to imagine the American cultural landscape without the influence and impact of African Americans. They represent all of the iconic cultural markers of our society: business, music, entertainment, fashion, sports, government, education. In every aspect they’re seen as cultural thought leaders…
He went on to add:
My advice to marketers seeking to connect with African-American consumers is to think of them as lead consumers to influence your market. You can start to market their ideas to the general market; they can influence an entire campaign if you get close to them. Although they represent 12 to 13% of consumers, their influence on consumption can be much bigger than that. You can do brand campaigns with African Americans at their heart that can drive the entire business.
In the report, the McDonald’s Chief Marketing Officer Neil Golden echoed that finding. In referring to two of their most popular campaigns over the last few decades he noted they were “remarkably insightful to African-American consumers, yet still have a high relevance for the general audience.”
Jim Farley, group vice-president at Ford shared how this insight became a core driver of their Explorer launch:
One of our most popular campaigns with dealers and consumers was a TV commercial for the new Ford Explorer with comedian Kevin Hart. It was developed for African-American audiences, but [then] we used it for the general market —it was one of our key ads for the Explorer launch.
We’ve seen this play out on a number of different fronts. Earlier this year, the movie “Black Panther”, which featured a nearly all-black cast and had a storyline set in Africa, smashed a boatload of box office records around the world to become the fourth highest grossing film in U.S. history. While many African-Americans (even those who weren’t diehard fans of the Marvel franchise) flocked to go see the movie, there were plenty of eager non-black moviegoers that contributed to its massive success.
The music festival Coachella led with diversity earlier this year when they booked Beyonce as the first black-woman headliner ever. Not only did they attract all Beyonce’s fans who may not have previously been interested in Coachella, but they continued to satisfy their existing base. Beyonce’s opening weekend Coachella performance was live streamed on YouTube. It was the most watched Coachella performance ever, and the most watched music festival performance ever for the entire YouTube platform.
One of the reasons why this niche-first strategy works so well is that it draws an audience closer to you that has largely been ignored by other brands. When you design products, services and experiences with them in mind, they quickly recognize and appreciate that you are speaking to them.
And while you are showing your niche audience that they do indeed belong with you, you’re not forsaking your other customers in the process. Michael Smith, senior vice-president and general manager at Scripps Network explained why this is the case:
According to research we have seen over the years, if you make something with an all-White cast, a White audience won’t notice it. But a minority audience will notice it..And if you make something that has a signicant presence of minority characters or a minority host, White audiences don’t notice that either. White Americans are just not as conscious of the ethnicity. But audience members of color will really feel good about it.
If you haven’t done so already, start experimenting with a niche first strategy as you work to grow your business and stay relevant. When you choose the right group and engage with them in an authentic way, you will position yourself to solve their problems like none other.
In the process, not only will you be poised to earn their loyalty. But you’ll win their friends who are outside that niche as customers too. It will be a win for all.