When Ahmad Islam and Sherman Wright founded Chicago-based commonground in 2004, they envisioned a niche-marketing agency that would merge the traditional consumer base with the rapidly evolving multicultural population. But instead of bringing this diverse marketplace to the mainstream, commonground has built an impressive roster of clients—which includes MillerCoors, Coca-Cola, Nike and the Illinois Lottery—by moving Middle America to where the growth is.

The “browning” of some of the nation’s top companies stands in stark contrast to the conventional marketing plans of years past, when companies would take a more “civil-rights” approach to reaching minority consumers, tossing out a few goodwill dollars to urban and other nontraditional marketing venues because it’s the right thing to do. Commonground is part of a growing number of niche-marketing firms making inroads in Corporate America by showing how thinking diversity first can impact the bottom line. Now, instead of pouring money into long-established marketing plans that target the White middle-class, many companies are developing strategies aimed at creating an initial buzz in the ’hood that reverberates all the way to the suburbs.

“It’s impossible for any brand that wants to be successful to ignore the influence, impact and importance of multicultural people, and the need to tap into that culture as a part of their marketing efforts,” says Islam, who now employs 75 people and has expanded to Atlanta and Houston. “That’s where the growth is, so that’s where the opportunity is—and that’s not even considering the influence that multicultural consumers have on the mainstream and the masses, especially in talking about youth and young adults. Youth culture is driven by urban culture, and urban culture is driven by Black and brown people.”

As president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Clarke & Associates, LLC, Priscilla Clarke specializes in entertainment, corporate, political and nonprofit niche marketing and communications. During the past 15 years, Clarke has worked on projects ranging from Nick and George Clooney’s documentary A Journey to Darfur to the African-American marketing campaign for The Help.

“Most marketing plans have no marketing strategy for the African-American audience,” says Clarke, who has been hired by such celebrities as Beyoncé, Chris Tucker and Oprah Winfrey, as well as organizations including the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and National Urban League and corporations such as Universal, Paramount and NBC. “Then, when they have trouble reaching Blacks, it’s like a light bulb goes off. Many times they feel that if they are targeting the mainstream, they are automatically targeting the African-American audience, which is not the case.”

Marcia Pendelton, founder of Walk Tall Girl Productions, specializes in marketing the arts, particularly Broadway productions, to African-American audiences. She uses marketing, audience development, communications, group sales and special events to create and implement strategies that fill seats for many of the most popular mainstream plays and musicals.

“Increasingly theater audiences are very old, very White and dying out,” says Pendelton, who has been hired by such productions as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, Fela!, Fences starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, The Lion King and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “Theater companies are looking to tap into a more diverse audience.”

Part of tapping into a more diverse audience is presentation. “My goal is to [help African-Americans] understand that going to the theater is as natural as breathing,” says Pendelton, who started her company in 2000. “We need to eat. We need to sleep. And we need to be fed by arts and culture.”

Often, developing a multicultural marketing strategy can mean the difference in whether a product makes money, a theater production has a long run, a mainstream television show gets picked up for another season or a film reaches blockbuster status. But there has to be a well-thought out strategic campaign in place to reach Blacks. For example, Clarke says that there are particular radio and magazine outlets that must be effectively targeted to reach the African-American market. “We listen to a lot of radio,” she says. “And there are other outlets, such as African-American Web sites, magazines, blogs, newspapers.”

Pendelton says that, unlike traditional marketing firms, she doesn’t hesitate to go into African-American neighborhoods, even churches, to spread the word about a new Broadway production. She routinely brings actors to Sunday service to perform a song, give a testimony, or simply talk about the production and their lives from a faith-based perspective. “So much of what I do is based on relationships, research and knowing the Black community as well as I do because I live it,” says Pendelton, who often gets churches to book large groups for Broadway productions. “I can do it with respect and love. I know how to connect the dots.”  

Read more in the May 2012 issue of EBONY Magazine.