This article originally appeared in my column on Forbes.com on September 1, 2016.
Two years ago, I wrote about the opportunity marketers were missing out on by not engaging the audience that supports Afropunk and the 60,000 people that have attended its annual music festival in Brooklyn. This year’s festival, which took place August 27 and 28th and with a lineup that boasted rapper (and movie star) Ice Cube, alt-rockers TV On The Radio, indie darling (and Cover Girl spokesperson) Janelle Monae, British rock pioneers Skunk Anansie, among others, continues to evolve. And, as I reinforced last year, the Brooklyn edition of the festival was again ground zero for multifarious aspects of the black consumer marketplace:
So, what did we learn at Afropunk, an event that attracts the leading edge of the black consumer market? That unlike in decades past, the blackness on display was unapologetic — “Africa on acid,” as someone told my friend and fellow strategist Kevin Walker — one that speaks to the need for self-affirmation, as well as for celebrating the inspiring ways that global African diaspora is connected. In that way, it was about reasserting the humanity that many feel is so often ignored or dismissed in ways both institutionally and interpersonally.
2016’s version of Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud (credit: Rob Fields)
Many brands still operate with the belief music festivals such as Coachella or Bonaroo provide better ROI based on their greater reach. But Afropunk, through its festivals and online community (Afropunk partner Jocelyn Cooper reports that they reach 14 million people each week), offers a window into an influential audience segment that doesn’t often show up on most media plans. Smart brands are continuing to warm up to the property and it audience, as evidenced by the list of festival sponsors that include Coors Light, beauty brands Mac, Dark & Lovely and Sundial, TV network FX and auto giant Toyota and car-sharing service Zipcar, to name a few.
What follows herein is a compilation and condensation of conversations with the principals in Afropunk, Matthew Morgan and Jocelyn Cooper; Mia Phillips, Toyota’s national manager of brand, multicultural and crossline strategy who’s managing the automaker’s Festival sponsorship; Chuck Welch, CEO of Rupture Studio, and a consultant to brands such as Pepsi; and former senior partner & managing director at Ogilvy & Mather Jeffrey Bowman, now Chairman & CEO of Reframe: The Brand, a total market business accelerator.
Thundercat onstage at Afropunk (credit: Rob Fields)
How The Rise Of Afropunk Tracks With The Evolution Of Thinking On Culture
Jeffrey Bowman, Reframe: The Brand: Afropunk represents the idea of cross-culturalism. Years ago, it would’ve been about celebrating our culture and heritage within our cultural group. That’s the beauty of cross-culturalism: You’re not only able to celebrate your culture within your group, but across multiple cultures. Initially, it was hard for brands to get their arms around Afropunk because they were still thinking mono (white, the old “general” market) or multi (non-white cultures, but separate). These days, cross culturalism plays very well in the minds of millennials.
The Untapped, Cross-Cultural Opportunity For Brands
Chuck Welch, Rupture Studio: Afropunk is appealing to the new mainstream, which is a browner, more diverse America that is exchanging values and cultural across racial lines. To me, that’s the audience you’d most want to go after because that’s the modern audience.
Bowman: Afropunk plays in two intersections that are evolving. One is the intersection of brands connecting with millennials and people that have an authenticity associated with the experiences that they provide or engage in. The second piece is the industry that’s emerging as relates to influencer marketing. When you have a millennial, authentic experience that overlays with influencers, that’s the sweet spot for many brands and marketers today. And it’s not just based on ethnicity, but the lifestyle and mindset that influencers bring that others want to be associated with and want to live through.
On Understanding The Appeal Of Afropunk In Other Markets Outside The United States
Matthew Morgan, Afropunk: It’s the new adoration of all things African. The continent of Africa has a humongous part to play in global black consciousness. We’re also able to communicate online. So the gatekeepers of distribution are no longer standing in our way. Young black kids globally want to feel–need to feel—good [about themselves], and we are unapologetically black, not to the detriment of anyone else. We’re seeing images that are so destructive to our souls. We’re basically watching snuff films online on a daily basis. The images are so egregious at times. So putting positive images of self and creating an environment where people feel truly comfortable and uplifted sounds simple, but it’s what we’ve been able to achieve, and it means so much to people.
Artist Laolu Senbanjo applies Yoruban body art to Afropunk attendees (credit: Rob Fields)
On The Coming Population Boom
Morgan: Along similar lines, here’s another exciting opportunity we see: No one speaks to the 100MM Afro-Brazilians in South America . In a country where skin color plays a huge role in many aspects of life, Brazil is our second largest audience online. When you look at the numbers, Africa will be 25% of the planet in the by 2050 (here, here and here). Our goal is to sell 2 billion tickets to Afropunk in Africa! We have a relationship with acts who will come with us. So we know Lenny [Kravitz], and Grace [Jones], and Tyler [The Creator] will come with us. They trust us enough to take them there.
Skin, the lead singer of British rock pioneers Skunk Anansie (credit: Rob Fields)
People Travel To Attend Afropunk
Jocelyn Cooper, Afropunk: 40% of the audience in Paris & NY comes from outside those particular cities. It’s truly a global and national audience. And based on research, we know that 68% of our community have passports and they travel. Young people of color will pick themselves up and pay for an experience in another country.
On Pivoting To A Media Company
Cooper: Most people see us as a festival, which is a celebration of the community. We’re not viewed as a media company, but that’s the crux of who we are. Having Multiply allows brands and brand partners, and other businesses, to be able to separate us as a business from the festival itself. We are approached constantly by brands who are looking to organically connect with our audience. Having Multiply allows us to do that without messing up Afropunk as a brand. We only want to work with brands that are authentic to the event. That want to speak to the community 365 days a year. Multiply really allows us to ideate and be strategic and help them understand who this community is and why they’re so influential.
Some Brands Get It
Mia Phillips, Toyota: At Toyota, we recognize that the one-size-fits-all mentality doesn’t work with any culture, least of all with African-American culture. Toyota’s passion is music, and we connect with consumers whose passion is music. Our tagline, Let’s Go Places, extends to our own values. We’re looking to connect with explorers, people who live adventurously, who never stop exploring, who are curious and restless and reject the status quo. We gravitate towards properties where we can fit authentically in a space, and Afropunk provides a great opportunity for that.
How Fellow Marketers Can Understand The Opportunity
Phillips: Of course, it depends on your goals as a marketing organization. So for brands who want to make deeper connections with the African-American community and touch a segment of that community that they may not touch at some of these larger engagements, Afropunk provides an excellent opportunity. This audience is one where we may not ordinarily have a chance to engage. They’re not consuming media through the channels where we would normally target African-Americans. And with this group being such an authentic, eclectic group of people, it’s just awesome that we are able to be with them and create meaningful interactions with the brand. Most importantly, we have a chance to learn from them what our brand needs to do to be more relevant in this space.
The view from inside the Toyota experience at Afropunk (credit: Rob Fields)
On Being A Brand That Can Thrive In Cultural Spaces
Welch: It takes a marketer who’s more open and can move past traditional demographic markers. [Festival sponsor] Red Bull, for example, lives and breathes this culture. Brand have to evolve from pimps to patrons, from co-opting to contributing to culture. Brands like Red Bull, Apple, Nike, have a marketshare advantage because they earn people’s love. It goes beyond “marketing” to identity.
Afropunk’s Business Prospects Continue To Improve
Cooper: Advertisers are starting to spend money on us. It’s getting better. Pantene, Mac, Dark & Lovely, Sundial Brands, an independent beauty brand in the UK. Having MAC is a validator. They plan to go into Africa, where we’ll be in 2017. We have Toyota. Black businesses usually get spirits, but they don’t usually get beauty and certainly don’t get auto. We haven’t cracked the financial services sector yet. That’s really important. We’ve cracked water, and we got Uber this year. FX will be here advertising some of their series.
What’s Next For Afropunk?
Morgan: I’m dying to get to the place where we can create more of the content, where we can be more influential in what our community sees in the news and what we hear. Once we’re able to get programming in front of as many people as, say, terrestrial radio, we’ll really be able to affect the culture. It’s the same way we’re able to impact fashion. Marie Claire, Vogue, W, Vogue Italia, all these Japanese magazines, all of them come and photograph the kids. We’re not revolutionizing the way it’s done, we’re just putting out something more positive.
Janelle Monae (credit: Rob Fields)
Did you miss Afropunk Brooklyn? There’s still time to experience Afropunk London on September 24.