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Lesson #2: Reflect Your Market
Johnson believed that the number one principle of American business was to identify with his target consumers. “This means, among other things, that you must put yourself in the consumer’s shoes, to see what he sees, to feel what she feels, and to want what he or she wants,” he said.
“We believed in 1945 that Black Americans needed positive images to fulfill their potential,” Johnson said. “We believed then – and we believe now – that you have to change images before you can change acts and institutions.” Realizing that blacks were underrepresented in the American media, and instinctively recognizing the potential and the market, Johnson set out to fill that void.
Ebony and Jet were published under Johnson’s mission to educate black Americans about other successful black people, people who – like them – had struggled against the odds but had in the end achieved success. For the first time ever, blacks across the country were not only being represented in the mainstream media, but they were also being portrayed in a positive manner. Finally, regular black Americans could see others like them who had gone on to become doctors, civil rights lawyers, teachers, politicians, engineers, and successful business people. It was Johnson who brought African American leaders to prominence by putting their faces and causes on the pages of his magazines.
Johnson had basically invented the black consumer market and changed the face of American media forever. He changed his fate from those black publishers who had failed before him by convincing advertisers that they should be using black models and black media to appeal to black customers, a market which few had even considered before Johnson. In fact, Johnson pointed out that black consumers had a gross national income larger than that of many developed countries. At the time, black Americans represented a consumer market of roughly $15 billion. Today, it is a $600 billion market. By reflecting the market they were trying to reach, Johnson successfully persuaded advertisers that blacks could and should be reached.
In his efforts to identify with his target audience, Johnson also set about hiring blacks to work at his company. For the first time, a black media class was beginning to emerge from the offices of the Johnson Publishing Co. Many of Johnson’s staff would later go on to become media pioneers in their own right, including the likes of advertising specialist LeRoy Jeffries and Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Moneta Sleet Jr.
“It is still true, and has always been true, that there is no defense against an excellence that meets a pressing public need,” said Johnson. By recognizing this public need and being able to convert it into a profitable business model for advertisers, Johnson was able to take his magazines to the top. With a circulation of over 1.6 million, Ebony remains a leader in the industry nearly 60 years after its first publication.
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