Mutual Respect and the African-American Consumer

Since we began publishing Black Enterprise Magazine almost 30 years ago, the number of black-owned businesses in this country has grown from around 45,000 to more than 621,000. The number has jumped by 46 percent in just the last decade, outpacing the growth rate of all new businesses by 20 percent.

Sales, a crucial measure of success, have risen by 63 percent in the last ten years for businesses owned by African Americans according to the 1992 U.S. Census Bureau report. The top 100 black-owned businesses, tracked in Black Enterprise Magazine as the “B.E. 100s,” now boast annual sales of more than $13 billion.

I mention these figures to make a point. The white-dominated business world needs to understand that we don’t want charity. We want to do business. We don’t want guaranteed success. We want the opportunity to earn it. And we are earning success today in numbers greater than ever before, launching new businesses and leveraging a collective annual income that exceeds $400 billion.

If you are selling or marketing to the black consumer market, you need to sell its buying power, not your social consciousness. Modern Maturity doesn’t pitch advertisers by telling them that if they market to senior citizens they will get extra points at the pearly gates. Sports Illustrated for Kids doesn’t sell ads to candy bar companies because its sales staff convinces them of the redeeming social value of feeding the children.

And when Black Enterprise Magazine makes a sales call, we don’t want to talk to the community affairs representative, we want to talk business. Whatever your product or service, sell its business value, not its social value. Business doesn’t take the Baby Boomer, senior citizen, or Generation X market for granted. They would be foolish to take the African American market for granted.

But they do just that. Out of ignorance or lack of exposure or simple bad business judgment, many white businesspeople have narrow, often warped images of the black consumer market. I have been butting my head against that ignorance all of my life. But I have also been making a very good living by correcting those false impressions and closing deals based on the information I have been prepared to provide. In general, white advertising buyers don’t want to hear about the black consumer market, but if you show them how buying space in Black Enterprise Magazine will be six times more effective than buying it in TIME, they tend to sit up and take notice. If you keep throwing snow at the wall, eventually some of it will stick.

If you are having trouble getting through to people during a sales pitch, don’t get mad, get out the charts and statistics. Make them understand that African Americans are the most brand loyal, quality-conscious group of consumers on the planet. When we get good service, we show our appreciation by coming back. When we see a company that respects us, we respond in kind.

Several years ago, I was visiting with my mother before going out to a sales meeting with Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric, and when I told her where I was going, she said, “I always liked that man.”

“But you have never met Jack Welch,” I said.

“Oh, no, not him, the other man from G.E., the man who took off his hat to me and called me Mrs. Graves when he came to fix the refrigerator in our old house,” she said.

I was two years old when that refrigerator broke down and the repairman came. My mother had purchased G.E. products all her life because one of its white servicemen showed her proper respect more than 50 years ago. That is product loyalty. And that is typical of the black consumer. We respect those who respect us.

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