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Marketing in the Digital Age With Howard University’s Yuvay Ferguson, Ph.D.

January 10, 2022

The rise of Big Data has revolutionized the field of marketing, introducing new analytical tools that allow companies to precisely identify and target more demographics than ever before. This trend has fed a demand for academicians adept in data analysis and marketing theory. Enter Yuvay Ferguson, Ph.D., a Howard University marketing professor whose work focuses on how Blacks and Millennials behave in the marketplace and how they are perceived as consumers.

In addition to her academic duties, Ferguson serves as Assistant Dean of Impact and Engagement at the Howard University School of Business, a role in which she engages in outreach to the greater community beyond campus. In her administrative role, Ferguson has been effective in forging partnerships and sourcing grants with companies such as General Motors, HubSpot, Warner Music Group, Yum! Brands and Vanguard to name a few.

Ferguson is just one of the many outstanding academics you will study with in the Online Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at Howard University School of Business. We recently sat down with Ferguson to discuss the latest trends in marketing, especially with regard to digital outreach to Blacks and Millennials.

Digitization has revolutionized all aspects of business. How has it impacted marketing?

It allows companies to gather big data and know who you are at a very micro level. That’s new and it’s transformative.

In marketing, we have always been able to group consumers into large buckets—a process called segmentation—and talk to them on a high level. But today, because there’s so much data floating around about how you consume, what you consume, what you’re interested in, what you searched for, and which brands pique your attention, companies know a lot more about you, and they share this information. You would think companies would be selfish with this information, but they’re not. And they don’t just collect it online, but also through things like shopper loyalty cards. Companies have a lot of information about you, and that is a critical driver in how they use marketing to target you as a consumer.

“You need people in leadership who can translate cultural nuances.”

Is data the primary focus of contemporary marketing?

Marketing means making money. It’s one way to understand the marriage between the psychology of consumers, which includes their actual purchase intent and action, and consumerism. Data is a big part of it because it allows companies to more efficiently use their resources to make money.

Is it fair to say that marketing is more scientific today than it was 50 or 70 years ago?

Yes, I’d say so. Data makes it less of an art and more of a science. Now we can look at what trends are unfolding, so it’s less of a guessing game. It enables us to tell what a particular consumer will and won’t buy into and to target messaging accordingly. It’s definitely adding in a layer of quantitative metrics that ensure accuracy.

Is it just the quantity of data now available or is it the quality as well?

It’s both. We’ve always been able to do either qualitative or quantitative research and find out the what or the why, but now we know the specifics. It’s not this general bucket of information along the lines of “43 percent of people think this.” Now, it’s like “Alice Mitchelson of Cedar Rapids, Iowa thinks this.” It means we can target messages much more precisely. We can personalize messaging, which I just love. Personalization makes marketing more palatable to consumers and makes it more adaptable as well. They want to hear marketing messages in their “language”.

You’ve studied a number of multicultural marketing campaigns. Can you provide examples of successful campaigns and why they worked? What about campaigns that didn’t work?

Representation is critical when you’re thinking about targeted marketing. Often, there’s no representation in the space, which can lead to tone-deafness in messaging. The message isn’t accepted in the way the marketing team hoped it would be.

For example, a few years ago, H&M ran an ad for a sweatshirt that read “coolest monkey in the jungle,” and it was modeled by a little Black boy. It did not come across well. A lot of people were offended by it, particularly in the Black community. You could read it as the store calling the child a monkey. I don’t think there was any malicious intent. It was just tone deaf. That’s where the bulk of the missteps happen in targeted marketing. It’s not typically malicious. Companies are not aiming to offend their customers, but when there isn’t representation in the room, you lack the necessary cultural insight and mistakes happen. It was a great next step for the H&M to hire a Howard University School of Business Alum, Ezinne Kwubiri Okoro, to lead their DE&I efforts following the press around that advertisement.

What about some successful campaigns? Can you think of a couple that really exemplify a good approach?

Last year, Lululemon ran a campaign that focused on different body sizes. Typically, when you think about workout gear, you think about people who are very fit, go to the gym, and eat low-carb everything. You expect the people featured in the clothing ads to look fit. This campaign opened messaging up to a wider range of body shapes. It felt very inclusive, and they got a lot of awards and praise for promoting the feeling of inclusivity, for acknowledging that there may be people who want to work out who aren’t a size zero.

You’ve spoken about the need to increase minority representation among advertising professionals. Why is that so important, and are we making progress?

If there aren’t people in the room to represent a wide range of populations, you run the risk of tone-deafness. Cultural sensitivity is important in marketing. It’s also important to make sure that when companies diversify, they don’t just diversify at the entry level. They need people all the way up to the top with a wide, diverse range of experience and backgrounds. You need people in leadership who can translate cultural nuances. Are we doing a good job? There is more work to be done.

It’s probably because I talk to 20-year-olds all day, but I’m really excited about TikTok. Research and commentary suggest it’s very effective. The buzzword is authenticity: users feel a level of authenticity from TikTok messaging that is absent or has waned on other platforms. Facebook has lots of ads, Instagram feels very curated, so TikTok is where users are going for authenticity.

Why TikTok and not, say, YouTube? Is TikTok’s algorithm the differentiator?

I think its format of presenting short, bite-size pieces and primarily hosting user-generated content is the main differentiator between TikTok and YouTube’s sense of authenticity. This response is antidotal based on informal discussions with my students, but YouTube feels like commercial television according to them, and YouTube stars are like television celebrities. TikTok offers smaller snippets of someone’s life and thoughts, which is why it doesn’t feel so curated. It’s less “Look at my glamorous life” and more “I’m just like you” through the presentation of hacks and commentaries and jokes. It feels like a real glimpse into the authentic life of people.

Why should students looking for an online MBA choose Howard University?

What makes Howard so special is that you’re getting a culturally specific experience with a great education. We just talked about how important it is for marketing to use methods targeted to certain groups. If you’re a student interested in looking at the world and looking at business with a very culturally attuned lens, Howard is a great option. Also, it has a family vibe, which you don’t always get with a great education from a top-tier faculty like this one. The faculty know your name. We are invested in your success. And you are joining a network of Bison that are cheering you on every step of the way!

Howard University School of Business ranks high among the nation’s business schools, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek and U.S. News & World Report. The first business school in Washington, D.C., to earn AACSB accreditation, Howard offers a high-touch experience to MBA students regardless of whether they attend on-campus or online. Small classes ensure a close-knit, supportive learning experience; faculty go out of their way to assist students achieve their academic and professional goals. As Yuvay Ferguson put it, the program has a family vibe.

Howard’s 100 percent Online MBA offers the same outstanding academics and career support services for which its on-campus program is justly famous, but with the convenience of remote learning to accommodate your busy schedule. Howard MBAs are highly sought out by recruiters from leading corporations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Financial assistance is available to students who need help meeting the program’s costs. Find out more about how a Howard MBA can boost your career or, if you’re ready, start your online application today.

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