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Profile: Cynthia Perkins-Roberts

Dec 11, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Wayne Karrfalt

Special to TelevisionWeek

Cynthia Perkins-Roberts is not only the best full-time employee in the cable industry devoted to multicultural marketing efforts-she’s the only one. She has helped the CAB forge ties between prominent multicultural groups and is often asked to speak at national marketing conferences on multicultural marketing. When Nielsen Media Research formed a new African American advisory council last month to improve sampling and measurement of this segment in the U.S., she was the only member of a trade association asked to join.

Ms Perkins-Roberts has been working on multicultural initiatives for the CAB since 1999, at the director level under CAB chief Sean Cunningham for the past two years. In recognition of her accomplishments, and the importance of the cable industry’s deepening its understanding of these audiences, Mr. Cunningham promoted her to VP in January, cementing her role in the organization.

The move was an unprecedented commitment to multicultural marketing. Ms. Perkins-Roberts now sits in on every important strategy meeting the CAB engages in and is more likely to pitch top media executives rather than just multicultural planning departments. She is a highly visible and respected figure in the multicultural marketing community, which has also seen its level of prominence rise along the way.

Slowly but surely the advertising community has woken up to the fact that addressing Hispanic, black and Asian audiences is crucial not only to harnessing the spending power of the nation’s fastest-growing demographic groups but also to reaching the young, affluent influence-makers who drive consumption of so many products.

“Everyone has to realize the general market is not the same. We have to modify our approaches to be more inclusionary; that’s what we’ve been pushing,” said Ms. Perkins-Roberts.

Advertisers traditionally have relegated multicultural marketing to specialized agencies or to tiny corners of larger planning groups. Pioneering brands such as McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble have devoted a small percentage of their overall media budgets to the space for years, but until recently the emphasis has been on in-language advertising, such as Spanish-language print and broadcast outlets. Of course, the brands that established themselves in the segment first are in the best position to prosper now.

In the past two to three years a massive shift has taken place to try to relate to multicultural audiences with culturally specific messaging, Ms. Perkins-Roberts said. That means understanding the issues that exist within each cultural group. It’s all about psychographics, or psychological characteristics that define who these audiences are and what’s important to them.

“It’s amazing how everything has shifted to psychographics. This is absolutely where African American and Hispanic marketing is,” said Ms. Perkins-Roberts. “Marketers have to educate themselves to really understand what makes these groups tick-what makes them buy, what they like, what they dislike.”

Vast differences exist within each ethnic group. Pre- and post-Civil Rights Movement African Americans have different values, for instance. The former are more focused on racial identity and being respected by society, Ms. Perkins-Roberts said. This is not as important for the latter segment, but younger blacks still want to be recognized and accepted as individuals.

Hispanic youth also march to their own drummers. They want to be marketed to as a unique group in a way that accounts for their heritage but also recognizes their advanced acculturalization. The pendulum is swinging back in a retro fashion among this group, where it’s now cool to be Hispanic and not cool to try too hard to blend in.

Speaking to these nuances is exactly what cable can do best, Ms. Perkins-Roberts said, because it offers an authentic environment in which these audiences can see themselves. Whereas broadcast channels may feature a couple of black-themed shows or characters, BET or TV One is all black, all the time. And it’s not only programming. Their promos, community outreach initiatives and hiring practices are also on target.

There are multiple channels that target all age groups, interests and levels of acculturalization among Hispanics. Sports, news, music, kids and documentary programming options are all available now in-language.

“We talk about the difference between reaching a viewer and relating to a viewer. The best way to relate to a viewer is in an appropriate programming environment,” Ms. Perkins-Roberts said.

The advertising community is finally getting the message the CAB has been sending since it published its first Hispanic Marketers Guide to cable five years ago. Clients are now demanding a more comprehensive multicultural plan from their agencies. Agencies large and small, in turn, are trying to get up to speed on these market segments. Ms. Perkins-Roberts said larger agencies are trying to win back some of the business that has defected to specialized multicultural boutique agencies, which have grown like gangbusters in recent years.

“The larger agencies want us to come and make presentations because they want to deepen their understanding of this marketplace. The big guys are saying we can do the same thing,” she said.

The CAB still has its work cut out for itself educating marketers on how to diversify their multicultural marketing efforts. This year Ms. Perkins-Roberts produced a pocket-sized fact book about the Hispanic demographic that is so popular it’s now in its third printing. She has also just put the finishing touches on the CAB’s first marketing guide geared toward the black community. The 144-page book goes to press at the end of this month.

Next year she plans to redouble efforts to help marketers target Asians. Traditionally this segment has been the hardest to reach because of the many languages involved, but some of the same generational lessons learned in marketing to younger Hispanics can be applied to younger Asians, the most affluent demographic group in the U.S.

The CAB also plans to dive into understanding the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender community, a group brands are more interested than ever in getting to know. Ms. Perkins-Roberts’ title was recently amended from VP of multicultural marketing to VP of diversity sales and business development to include this segment.

She looks forward to the challenge, she said, and will begin, as she did seven years ago with her Hispanic initiatives, by meeting with commercial and civic leaders in the space to familiarize herself on the issues the community holds dear. She expects it to be as rewarding as any of her previous efforts.

“I have the greatest job. I wake up every day and seek to make a difference and help others try to do the same,” she said.