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For African American consumers, tired of watching their cultural heritage be appropriated for the financial benefit of corporations, there is an increasingly accessible option: Don’t buy from them, and make purchases from black-owned businesses instead. For African American entrepreneurs, such trends suggest a relevant route to establish their appeal and market their offerings as particularly appropriate.

From an historical perspective, calls to buy black represent a swing in the pendulum. Whereas once, African American consumers could nearly only purchase from black-owned businesses, the modern civil rights movement sought to ensure there were no such limits imposed. With this opening of the market though, many smaller, family-owned, and specialized firms were essentially crushed by larger, national, well-funded corporations. The large companies sought access to minority populations, and their buying power, offering more products that met their needs, such that consumers increasingly could find various products in easily accessible, one-stop shopping channels. These large companies are determined to maintain such sales to the large and growing market of African American consumers, whose buying power recently was estimated at $1.3 trillion and predicted to grow to $1.5 trillion by 2021.

But many consumers regard marketing and targeting efforts by large corporations as both insincere and insufficient. Especially when companies and brands engage in culturally offensive and racially insensitive actions, consumers would prefer to avoid buying from them, just as environmentally conscious consumers might avoid buying from a firm known for its polluting activities. Furthermore, impersonal corporations might be unaware of the specific needs of black consumers. For example, few national retailers stock items like edge brushes that help black women style the baby hairs along their hairlines.

In response to these needs, many new businesses are establishing broader platforms to ensure people can purchase nearly anything they need from a black-owned firm. The BLK + GRN store in Washington, DC, stocks natural products produced by black artisans; We Buy Black is an e-commerce firm with a platform that hosts a wide range of consumer products (e.g., batteries, pet food) made by companies run by African Americans.

Although some socially conscious consumers of various ethnicities already have embraced the buy black movement, suppliers and retailers note that they also continue to struggle to convince people of the viability of their business models. Despite their status as the fastest growing group of business owners, black women also are the demographic least likely to receive venture funding. Furthermore, discriminatory stereotypes continue to plague the companies. Sellers thus report that the inevitable mistakes that plague any small business and service provider prompt a total lack of forgiveness. Consumers seemingly take any problem or issue as a reason to discount black-owned businesses’ professionalism. Using a familiar example of a persistent service failure and its outcomes, the founder of a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging black-owned businesses explains the problem: “People still go to McDonald’s, and they still ask for a milkshake or ice cream, knowing it’s not going to happen. If it’s a black-owned business, now I have to write a whole dissertation on Facebook.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Explain some of the various factors in the marketing environment that have prompted the growing movement to prioritize making purchases from black-owned businesses.
  2. What sorts of sales tactics should entrepreneurs adopt to encourage consumers to buy black?

Source: Anthonia Akitunde, “Buying Black, Rebooted,” The New York Times, December 25, 2019