Before the rise of digital and social media, consumers had to rely on information from television, radio and print periodicals and newspapers. Unlike today, consumers didn’t have instant access to the latest news, entertainment and product information.
As a young African-American growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, we were the first family of color in our middle class neighborhood. While visiting the homes of my schoolmates, it was common to see Life, Time and maybe occasional National Geographic magazines on their coffee tables. It was quite evident from the cover images of these mainstream publications that their primary audience was not me or my family.
At the time, most magazines and media catered to white businesspeople, homeowners and homemakers. But in the homes of African-American family and friends, you could often find a copy of Ebony and Jet magazines. I didn’t understand the significance of these iconic brands at the time, but they served as an important lifeline to the African-American community and still leave an impact today.
The emergence of African-American publishing
During this time, the African-American community was kept abreast of the current events shaping the predominantly white world that we navigated daily. However, black consumers had to seek out other means to stay connected to and support our community and needs.
Ebony magazine was one of several venerable brands from Johnson Publishing Company, founded in 1942 in Chicago by John H. Johnson. His thirst for learning, his entrepreneurial spirit and the job he landed working for the president of a successful African-American-owned business helped him see the need for a publication that emphasized the achievements of successful African-Americans.
Ebony, patterned after Life and Look magazines, was one of the first to feature content by and for African-Americans. The magazine made a conscious effort to portray positive aspects of African-American life and included photo essays of current events, articles on race relations and, for the first time that I can remember, leveraged African-American models in advertisements for products, including those specific to the African-American consumer.
Ebony’s initial printing quickly sold out, and in its 40th year of publication, it reached a circulation of 2.3 million. Additional brands under Johnson Publishing included Jet magazine, a weekly news digest with a circulation of 700,000; Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show; and Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
Looking ahead in media
As a businessman, Johnson recognized the overlooked and untapped African-American consumer base. Not only did he provide a stream of positive and provocative information, but he created a well-respected channel for marketers and manufacturers to reach their target audiences.
Today many brands have an increased awareness of the value of diversifying their consumer base. More publications, not only those that are minority-owned or -led, now deliberately broaden their scope to reach diverse audiences.
One of the best lessons today’s marketers can take away from Johnson Publishing’s success is the importance of speaking to your audience in an authentic and respectful way. Many brands have recently made missteps, showing a lack of knowledge and understanding of certain demographics. Truly knowing your audience directly supports the business case for diversity in consumer marketing. Research has shown that when teams are more diverse and reflect the audience they are trying to reach, they are more innovative and successful.
Marketing teams that include different backgrounds, experiences and points of view have the opportunity to internally ask the right questions earlier in campaign building. This helps ensure that all consumers are marketed to in a way that is informed and appropriate, and it ultimately builds better business practices and success.
In today’s landscape, I take for granted the ability to instantly find products and services specifically targeted to me as an African-American consumer. I am grateful for trailblazers like Johnson who had the vision to celebrate the African-American community and keep it well-informed, which in turn helped open doors for African-Americans and allowed them to prosper.