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Unpacking myths surrounding black middle class

January 11, 2017
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blogs.scientificamerica.com

BY MAKOSHA MAJA, HEAD OF INSIGHT, M&C SAATCHI ABEL

Business Report The (Star) – 24 Nov 2016

M&C Saatchi Abel recently hosted Roger Southall, Professor Emeritus in Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand. The Professor unpacked some of the prevailing marketing myths relating to the Black middle class, and provided insight into how marketers can better engage with this audience.

Below I’ve shared some of the key highlights that came out of this talk. (You’ll find more data and detail in The New Black Middle Class in South Africa.)

So, who is this target consumer?

The UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing defines South Africa’s Black middle class as those living in households with a monthly income of R16,000-R50,000 (averaged at R22,000). Alternatively, they may have a tertiary education, have their own transport, work in a ‘white-collar’ position, and/or own their own home (or spend R4,000+ on monthly rental).

Because this is a broad definition we look at three sub-groups in this class:

  1. The emergent middle class (first generation; LSM 5-7) is usually composed of technicians, teachers, nurses, clerks, shop assistants and associate professionals. They aspire to better jobs, want good education for their children, strive to escape the debt trap, remain brand-conscious yet price-sensitive, and want to live in good neighbourhoods. They are challenged by fitting their responsibilities into tight monthly budgets.
  1. The ‘true’ or ‘realised’ middle class and the more affluent upper-middle class are typically legislators, senior officials, politicians, professional managers, and managers of parastatals. Both sub-groups aspire to more seniority at work, better education for their children, a better quality of life, and to live in safe neighbourhoods. Their challenges are personal and professional security, and economic stability.

What are marketers getting wrong?

 Prof. Southall points out that the image presented by the media has been of ‘black diamonds’; that is, as consumers of the products of advanced industrial society, and of corrupt ‘tenderpreneurs’ who use their political connections to obtain contracts they would otherwise be denied. But these are two of several unhelpful stereotypes, and are symptomatic of the tendency to over-simplify.

First, it’s unwise to view the Black middle class as a homogenous group, because this leads to generalisations about lifestyle. In fact, like any other consumer group, the Black middle class contains plenty of subcultures whose lifestyles are very different .

Second, there is a propensity to exoticise the Black middle class, observing them in a way that ‘others’ them. Prof. Southall warns that the Black middle class has similar aspirations to any other consumer group in South Africa: getting by each month, creating a better future for their children, and ensuring the safety of their families. In this, they are not particularly exotic or unusual.

Third, there is a sense that the Black middle class is peopled by conspicuous consumers who are completely obsessed with brands – but this is probably true of South Africa’s middle and affluent classes regardless of race.

What should marketers remember?

Marketers should go beyond using Living Standards Measures and income brackets/home appliances to understand their target audiences, because this provides a superficial view. Instead, it is wise to target mindsets: the feelings, attitudes and perspectives that actually turn consumers on.

In addition, marketers should try to be sensitive in depicting the aspirations of the Black middle class, so as not to turn its individuals into caricatures.

The solution? Well, if you’re a marketer catering to the Black middle class:

  1. Get out of the office and step onto the streets to properly immerse yourself in your audience’s world.
  2. Consume the same media (radio, TV, print, digital) your audience does, to understand their vibe, prevailing trends and what excites them.
  3. Ask the usual questions, but have a bit of courage to go beyond these as well, in order to gauge nuance.
  4. Remember that sometimes you’ll need to talk to who your audience wants to be, instead of who they
  5. Strive to be braver and more authentic when depicting your audience. Move away from ‘Black’ accents (yes, we have them, but so what?) and depicting township culture negatively. For instance, there’s more to the ‘hood than car washes, shebeens and shisa nyama. Do what you can to dig deeper than surface-level stereotypes.

In closing, my instinct is that, like Prof. Southall suggests, we would do well to find a new way of looking at the Black middle class; one that seeks not to simplify it, but instead to complicate the picture, for better meaning.

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