NEW YORK — Apparel marketers are taking some steps to boost their appeal to African Americans — but they’re still behind the curve, compared with such industries as automotive, electronics, financial services and personal care.

This story first appeared in the March 19, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Several dynamics are feeding the problem: African Americans are spending a smaller share of wallet on apparel — even though it’s still more than the broader U.S. populace; African Americans are a diverse market and targeting any segment too narrowly is liable to alienate the larger group, and apparel brand marketers tend to see their labels as portraying a singular image — and are loathe to stray for fear of alienating their core customer.

In contrast, retailers including Macy’s, H&M, Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, Sears and Marshalls were credited by marketing executives for mounting a more meaningful appeal to African-American apparel shoppers than have general-market fashion brands, or those positioned to speak primarily to white consumers. Retailers’ forays have included ads using black models, such as H&M’s full page in the April issue of In Style; Macy’s sponsorship of the Essence Girl What’s Cool Mall Event, coming up April 5th at the Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, N.J.; Kmart’s Urban Direct magalog, aimed at its black customers, and Wal-Mart’s ongoing outreach to African Americans, as seen in its “diva-tude” institutional ad in the April issue of Essence.

Opinions differ regarding the most effective marketing tactic. Some prefer ads and promotions featuring an African-American model, or diverse models; others contend it’s most important to select a targeted vehicle or event.

There was agreement, however, regarding the dearth of apparel advertising aimed at African Americans. For example, when asked how it is that the 220-page April issue of Essence has just five apparel ads, Pamela Macklin, the magazine’s fashion director, replied: “That lack of [apparel] advertising is something that bewilders me. I am totally clueless.”

One possible explanation, said observers, is that African-American women’s propensity to spend a bigger share of their discretionary dollars on apparel than their white counterparts is not widely known in fashion circles. As Yvette Moyo, president of Marketing Opportunities in Business and Entertainment, a Chicago-based manager of events for urban marketers, noted, “Urban hip-hop brands such as Baby Phat, Sean John, and Rocawear are more willing to invest money to appeal to African Americans because they know it’s an undervalued market. African-American women spend more of their discretionary income on apparel for themselves than other groups.”

Indeed, from September 2001 through October 2002, African-American women, who account for 13 percent of American women ages 18 and up, spent $4 billion on apparel, or 0.96 percent of their median annual household income, according to Mediamark Research Inc. Those expenditures marked an increase of 5 percent over spending of $3.8 billion in the prior-year period. By comparison, white women, who account for 82 percent of women 18 and older, spent $32.1 billion on apparel, from September 2001 through October 2002, or 0.74 percent of their median annual household income. That share of spending was slightly lower than the 0.76 percent of median annual income spent by all American women. Black women now generate 11 percent of American women’s spending on apparel versus the 85 percent share expended by white women.

The mistaken impression that African-American women’s median annual household income of $31,157 — 37 percent less than the $49,097 median for households of white women — suggests less willingness on the part of black women to spend on apparel, when, in fact, they spend more on it than other groups, observers pointed out. And Marshal Cohen, co-president of Port Washington-based market researcher NPDFashionworld, for one, maintains many brands are afraid that targeting a lower-income customer will turn off their primary consumer target.

“The lower-income consumer aspires to look and live like an upper-income consumer, but [most] fashion brands don’t want to market to the lower-income group for fear of alienating their core customer,” Cohen said.

Beyond that bias, there is simply a broader perception that African-American women comprise a niche audience that’s “nice to have,” said Donald P. Ziccardi, chief executive officer at Ziccardi Partners, Frierson, Mee Inc. —but apparel players also think “no special marketing effort” is needed to reach the group. “Most fashion brand marketers believe their message will reach African-American women through general women’s publications,” related Ziccardi, whose clients include Ellen Tracy, YM, Fortunoff’s and Midori. “I don’t think we’ll see a change in the foreseeable future.”

Nevertheless, observers maintained some progress has been made in the past year or so.

For one thing, apparel marketers targeting African-American women are no longer attempting to address the entire group in a single campaign. Instead, they’re starting to draw sharper distinctions, either by leveraging psychographic or demographic traits.

For instance, African-American women are more likely than Caucasian women to say that owning luxury products makes them feel better about themselves — by 42 percent to 26 percent, according to Harris Interactive research conducted in November 2002. But designer apparel trails sectors such as prestige fragrance, luxury cars, financial services and electronics in capitalizing on this trend. Tiffany fragrance and Dior Addict are advertising in Vibe and Essence, as are Jaguar, Cadillac, Lincoln Aviator and Nissan Shift. Morgan Stanley and Verizon Wireless are currently running prominent print and TV campaigns aimed at African Americans.

“Radical-image urban spending is about buying cars, electronics and jewelry,” said NPDFashionworld’s Cohen, in referring to the process of spending most of one’s discretionary income on a few big-ticket purchases. “Wardrobe used to be part of that phenomenon, but it’s not anymore. That’s hurt brands from Tommy Hilfiger to Nautica to Polo.”

In addition, black women tend to buy more brand-name apparel than American women overall. Cambridge, Mass.-based STS Research found 63 percent, or $3.8 billion, of the $6 billion worth of casual sportswear bought by African-American teens and women last year bore national or designer brand names. That share represents a hefty 8 basis points more than the 55 percent, or $17.9 billion, of the $32.8 billion worth of national and designer brand casual sportswear bought by the rest of the country’s teens and adults.

That brand bias starts early among African Americans: Youth-market researcher Zandl Group found 40 percent of African-American females ages 13-24 mention brand names when asked about their favorite clothes. In the past 12 months, the most popular brands among female African-American teens and young adults, according to Zandl Group, were Polo, followed by Tommy Hilfiger (especially in the Midwest and South), Fubu, Ralph Lauren, Rocawear and Sean John. For jeans, they preferred Express, then Gap, LEI, Mudd and Polo. And the group’s favorite apparel stores were Gap, followed by Lerner New York, Dillard’s, Old Navy, Express, Target and Filene’s.

The slowly rising profile of apparel ads aimed at African-American women has prompted some to question the relative importance of using African-American models and the choice of the advertising medium itself. For Essence fashion director Macklin, there’s too much emphasis placed on celebrities, athletes and musicians, in marketing to African-American consumers. “We can’t negate the influence music has on fashion,” Macklin acknowledged, “but there are so many other images that may have more mass appeal. If a consumer doesn’t relate to a particular musician, they may feel a fashion ad doesn’t speak to them.” In contrast, Macklin maintained there’s a broader appeal in fresh, healthy, modern-looking models, like those in ads in the April editions of In Style (H&M); O/The Oprah Magazine (Liz Claiborne); Teen Vogue (Levi’s Type One), and Essence (Lauren Ralph Lauren).

For apparel advertising aimed at African Americans to establish a bigger presence, it will have to become a bigger issue for fashion brand marketers. As Sam Shahid, president and creative director of ad agency Shahid & Co., said, “You don’t see it being addressed. There doesn’t seem to be such a big voice about it like there was in the Sixties. The conversation comes up, but I don’t know that fashion advertisers find it necessary to address,” offered Shahid, whose clients include Tse and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Essence’s Macklin, for one, begs to differ. “[African Americans] continue to spend the dollars, yet this is a market that continues to be ignored,” she emphasized. “Where’s the romance?”

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