Publicis Media Addresses the Importance of Cultural Fluency and Connecting With African American Consumers

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The fact that marketers and brand teams remain challenged in crafting messaging and activations that connect with African American consumers is no secret. Recognizing that there is a persistent knowledge gap within the marketing industry, Publicis Media recently conducted the online panel "Importance of Cultural Fluency for Impacting African American Consumers" to address the problem head-on. Spotlighting experts Valicia Brown, Joshua Ott, and Arnetta Whiteside, this in-depth conversation drilled down on why cultural fluency is essential for brands that want to connect with African Americans.

Language and culture are the twin strands that influence how we make sense of the world and our place within it. Both language and culture are invisible, in a sense; they exist all around us, though we rarely actively think about them. In short, they just are. Their hidden nature and intangible essence are precisely why they deserve the type of analysis they received in the Publicis-led conversation. Language and culture are elusive and require the kind of expertise shown on the panel to make cogent insights that can be translated for brands.

Coming to terms with what is meant by "cultural fluency" is a great place to start. Arnetta Whiteside (pictured top left), associate director of research and knowledge management at Cultural Quotient —Publicis Media's multicultural center of excellence — when asked to define the term, said, "Cultural fluency understands that there are other cultures that need to connect with your brand, even when the marketer doesn't know how."

It is essential to realize that there are gaps in brands' existing understanding of the market opportunity as it involves culture. Whiteside went on to introduce cultural competency, taking the idea further, stating, "Cultural competence refers to persons or marketers knowing how to uncover the insights and nuances of different cultures to create connections that resonate and are authentic to that culture. Fluency is understanding the need to connect. Competence is knowing how to connect."

African Americans' reach as innovators and drivers of culture is well documented. Trends in music, fashion, language, art, and so many other elements of cultures' connective tissue can find origins in the African American community. It's evident that brands looking to access this type of culture would have no choice but to become fluent and competent in it. However, this hasn't been the case, and brands are often not only late, but also launch misplaced efforts that fail to resonate.

"Many brands think they can reach blacks in their general market outreach by either casting or inserting black talent," said Valicia Brown (pictured top right), director of video and content at Spark Foundry. "Often, marketers are scared of any amount of social backlash, that they opt to play it extremely safe, missing opportunities to connect with a key audience."

Joshua Ott (pictured top center), vice president of business development at UrbanOne, added decision-makers to the mix, saying, "Some brands and media agencies lack the necessary representation to properly understand what's important to the black audience and the influence they have on brands. Conventional wisdom no longer serves brands well. Unconventional wisdom is the new path."

African Americans, while not the largest demographic, have an outsized impact on culture. Tapping into unconventional wisdom requires allocating resources and expertise to better position the brand's offering. "Brands must reposition their efforts around audiences with impact instead of audiences high in numbers.," Ott explained. "This means oversampling the black audience to reflect their economic impact."

Culture is organic and natural, which is why it is so powerful, and we respond to it so effortlessly. What brands try to create using the lens of authenticity, culture accomplishes without labels. The desire for brands to be culturally fluent must also take into account that fluency must be earned and comes with responsibility. Brands that are not interested in culture, yet seek to exploit a specific ethnic group, for example, will fall flat. Culture requires patrons, not gentrifiers.

Cultural Quotient's Whiteside explained the role of empowerment in that equation, saying, "Allow for others to help guide the conversation and structure of engagement. Empower talent to voice their opinions about an initiative without deeming their opinion insignificant. Provide an opportunity to test and fail, to learn best practices of implementation."

Fluency and nuance go hand in hand, and part of being a patron is making the distinction. Culture is not monolithic and shouldn't be treated as such, Spark Foundry's Brown said. "Brands have to enable and trust allies who understand [and] live the culture. Understand that every black person is not the same, but be true to your brand and who your real target is."

Cultural fluency represents a tremendous opportunity for brands to identify trends, reach the right audience, and empower internal and external stakeholders. Organizational missteps can be frustrating, but the general perception is that when done right, brands and culture can be a powerful force. If we can push past uncomfortable notions, there is much to be accomplished, as UrbanOne's Ott pointed out. "Being comfortable is the last thing we need to feel at this moment," he said. "In marketing and society, we must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations that include as many different voices as possible — in turn, learning how to be culturally fluent."

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