Let Me Explain Black Again with Pepper Miller

A thought-provoking discussion with Pepper Miller, author of “Let Me Explain Black Again,” about Black Americans’ lived experiences. Pepper sheds light on some of the historical misunderstandings about Black consumers and common missteps in multicultural marketing. Pepper also explains the growing influence of Black Millennials and the shift in societal consciousness surrounding race, calling for more accurate, respectful representations of the Black community in advertising. 

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS: 

Pepper Miller: US-born Black people, in particular, have this lens in terms of how we see ourselves and how we perceive how others see us. So Black is a culture and not a color. 

Adrian Tennant: You are listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising produced weekly by Bigeye, a strategy-led, full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Sixty years ago, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before a quarter of a million people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to deliver his iconic I Have a Dream speech. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a pivotal moment in the US Civil Rights Movement, advocating for economic, racial, and social justice. Fast forward to today, and Americans have mixed opinions on the extent of progress made in achieving racial equality. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in April revealed that just over one-half of people believe that either a fair amount or a great deal of progress has been made in the past 60 years, but one-third felt that only some progress has been achieved, and 15 percent stated that little to no progress has been made. Notably, white respondents are twice as likely as Black respondents to believe substantial progress has occurred, highlighting a racial divide in perceptions of equality. As we’ve discussed on this podcast previously, evidence-based, research-driven perspectives are needed to assess US consumers’ ever-evolving attitudes and behaviors. And this is especially true for multicultural marketing. For those interested in really understanding the contemporary Black experience in America, a recently published book serves as a guide, Let Me Explain Black Again: Exploring Blind Spots And Black Insights For Marketing & Understanding Black Culture And Perspectives examines nuances that brands and individuals often overlook when interacting with the Black community. The book’s author is Pepper Miller, president and Senior Analyst of The Hunter-Miller Group, which specializes in multicultural market research and strategic planning. A recognized authority and thought leader, Pepper has dedicated her career to helping organizations better understand and engage with Black Americans. To discuss some of the themes and important ideas in her book, I’m delighted that Pepper is joining us today from Chicago, Illinois. Pepper, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS. 

Pepper Miller: Thank you, Adrian. It’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Adrian Tennant: What inspired you to write, Let Me Explain Black Again?

Pepper Miller: Well, you know, several reasons! I had written a couple of books before, but a lot, as you can imagine, has changed. So number one, there’s the growth of the Millennials. They have a lot of power, Adrian, they’ve finally surpassed Boomers in terms of growth. They’re on the front lines of political change and cultural change. And Black Millennials are driving the progressive growth. And when Black people talk about “progressive,” it’s not related to politics, it’s about our advancement. So Black Millennials are driving that advancement in the Black community, and they continue to be highly influential in American culture as well as Black culture. The second reason – there are five of them, you bear with me – is three American disruptors: Trump, COVID, and George Floyd. It really changed how people started thinking about race. Now, Black people tend to think about Blackness 90% of the time, versus whites who think about being white 10% of the time. But with those three disruptors, there was this increase in, “Maybe there’s something going on with the Black community that we didn’t know.” That’s to the positive. And then the other negative part is, we’re coming up with the great erasure, erasing our history, and that was the third point. So I wanted to be part of the discussion of people becoming aware of race. I wanted to have that. And then I felt like we needed something to counter the erasure of our history. And so the Black people needed a narrative to have – not to be defensive, but to be able to tell our story without being defensive. And because AI, artificial intelligence, is becoming so popular. So when we look at looking for artificial intelligence to write things for us, I understand that it’s out searching for this in cyberspace, on the internet, and there are so many negative messages about our history and how it’s hurting white kids and how that didn’t happen, and, you know, Black people were happy being slaves, that we needed to have something to counter that too, for artificial intelligence. And then the fourth thing is, I saw how strategists struggled to identify insights for Black people looking everywhere to find this and that and to substantiate. The book does that. And then, finally, four words that I’ve been continuing to hear since I began this journey in 1995: “Pepper, I didn’t know.” They would say that, many colleagues and non-Black colleagues, mostly white people, would say that after they heard my presentation or some research that I’ve done or a workshop that I’ve done, they pulled me over confidentially to say, “Pepper, I didn’t know.” Hence the title, Let Me Explain Black Again. Long answer!

Adrian Tennant: You’ve explained what led you to choose the title, but why the emphasis on Again

Pepper Miller: Because of the “I didn’t know.” Because particularly working with brands, a lot of brand managers stay there for a couple of years in a particular position or brand, and then they move on. And then you get new brand people, and you’re starting over again. They don’t understand or know the foundations of Black people. These books that I write, they’re very foundational to me. It’s like, “You’ve got to start here before you can get there so that you won’t make mistakes so that you can engage people in a relevant way. So you can have a better message, and so that you can have a positive bottom line.” My work life and personal life have been explaining Black over and over and over again. I love being Black, Adrian, I do. I’m proud of my culture. It is also exhausting. It’s exhausting. So it’s not meant to be punitive to people, it’s just that, “Okay guys, let, let me just try this again and let me go broader and let me go deeper.”

Adrian Tennant: You’re the author of two other books, What’s Black About It? And Black STILL Matters In Marketing. Pepper, how does this work differ from your two previous books? 

Pepper Miller: It is broader and deeper than the other two books. I do revisit some of the things from the other books, but I also connected to what was going on in current culture and pop culture. To go broader and deeper on that as well. So basically, it just goes a lot broader, a lot deeper, and it’s well-researched. The other books were researched too, but this is really well-researched. Whatever idea or insight I had, I made sure that I substantiated it with a source outside of my own work.

Adrian Tennant: In the cover notes, you describe your newest book as a resource tool to support the rationale for understanding “the why” about Black America. Could you talk a little about the kind of work you do at the Hunter-Miller Group and how it’s reflected in the pages of Let Me Explain Black Again?

Pepper Miller: Sure. So I am a market researcher, and I primarily focus on qualitative research. And my broad focus with that, obviously, is with the Black consumer market. So when we think about qualitative research, it does answer the question “Why?” and I call myself “The Why Girl.” Smaller groups of people, focus groups, and they could be small groups, or one-on-ones, or one person at a time, where you have a chance to explore and go deeper into how people feel their beliefs and their behavior. Quantitative research is more measurable. You’re talking to measurable groups. You’re collecting the “What” and sometimes the “How” from quantitative research. And the research industry has gone back and forth on that. There was a lot of emphasis on qualitative at one time, and then they switched to Big Data is important. So Big Data became the focus of the research industry for a number of years. But they realized they had this data. They had the “What,” but they didn’t have the “Why.” And so the pendulum is starting to swing back that way, from a research perspective. Well, it’s swung back, and now it’s going back the other way, I think, with artificial intelligence. So qualitative helps us understand the “Why”; quantitative is more measurable. Larger groups answer the “What” and the “How.”

Adrian Tennant: Throughout the introduction, I referred to the Black experience, not African American. Now, this is an adjustment I’ve made since reading your book, but could you explain why most Black people prefer the term Black over African American? 

Pepper Miller: So while all African-Americans are Black by race, not all Black people are African-Americans. So we have this tremendous, wonderful growth of Africans from the continent of Africa. And then we have a lot of Black Caribbeans. They prefer Black over African American because they like to be part of America, but they want to stay connected with their homeland. And then there are people like me, who like to see themselves connected with the larger global community of Black people as well. Now many of us, particularly US-born Black people, are not offended if you interchange Black with African American. Most of us don’t, even though there is a preference, and several studies tell us that there’s a preference for that. That is the number one question too, Adrian, that I am asked, is, “How do we reference Black people? Is it Black or African American?” And I’ve been posting on social media, on LinkedIn and Instagram, some information about that. I have a post called Cap Black: Why We Capitalize Black because Black is a culture and not a color. And so there’s more reverence and respect that comes with that – or needs to come with that. And that’s something that most Black people embrace, but we’re not offended, most of us, if you reference us as African American,

Adrian Tennant: In the book, you identify seven blind spots that prevent businesses and brands from getting it right with their Black customers. Pepper, could you give us an idea of some of them? 

Pepper Miller: So I often talk about the top three: the avoidance of America’s history;  misunderstanding the language of Black culture; and Black identity. So the number one insight and blind spot about Black people, and I’ve been talking about this, Adrian, for years and years, is not understanding our history. Black people, US-born Black people in particular, have this lens in terms of how we see ourselves and how we perceive how others see us, this historical lens. And as a result of that historical lens in slavery that causes is the reason behind the lens, it’s the “Why” behind the lens. We have different beliefs and behaviors. And the different beliefs and behaviors we don’t leave in our households; when we go out of our dwellings, we take our Blackness in everything in this lens with us and how we see things in how we perceive how others see us. And it is the most important insight for understanding Black people because all these beliefs and behaviors, they ladder back up to it: colorblindness; the need to respect, which is king; being unapologetically Black; smoldering coals, which is the pain and shame around history that comes out in many ways, it’s like a little spark that something could happen and it could ignite. Why? The reason why we sometimes have these riots and marches and things like that. So understanding this history and the beliefs and characteristics associated with it, it is so important to connection, and messaging, and understanding this segment. So that’s an example of the first insight. And then there’s identity in terms of how we see ourselves. Black, African American, as you brought up, there’s mixed race. There’s the Black LGBT+. There’s the Black Africans and Caribbeans, and identity is just so important. So those are a couple that I talk about a lot in my, presentations. And language is the other thing that’s important. So for marketers, because we speak English, English becomes then the cultural identifier, and I’ve heard it’s been said in my presence, “They speak English, don’t they?” as a reason for not investing in Black research, Black marketing, Black advertising. My response is, “Yes, we speak English,” or “Yes, I speak English, and are you talking to me?” So helping them understand the importance of language and how we talk to each other. And not necessarily Ebonics, but how our culture is intertwined with our language. The language of Blackness and what we see and what we do. And that’s really important, as well. So those are the top three insights that I talk about often in my presentations, and I share with clients.

Adrian Tennant: What are some actionable steps that you recommend to rid marketers of their blind spots?

Pepper Miller: I think one of the biggest stereotypes about Black people that’s related to our history is stereotyping. And it’s been this cloud that continues to hover over Black people. You know, some whites say, “Suck it up. What’s wrong with you all? We had Barack Obama, and you got these leaders, and what’s wrong with the rest of you people?” And they have these stereotypical messages about us. If one Black person does something wrong or smaller groups, then that’s all of us. So an opportunity, in terms of an actionable step, is to make it the mission to overcome stereotyping. One of the examples that I talk about is Black men and how they are stereotyped. You know, when you think about crime, that’s one of the platforms for getting elected today with politicians. And when you think about crime, it’s usually Black or brown people and mostly Black people. And then that becomes Black men. And then we hear on the news about the carjacking and the shootings, and it’s all Black men are like this, and that is so not true. So there’s a commercial, and I show a lot of commercials how they’re starting to show Black men as caring caretakers. And usually, that comes from Black agencies. And there’s recently, there’s been a commercial, Adrian – and maybe you can share in your podcast – it’s a commercial done by Amazon, or it’s a commercial for Amazon, about this Black guy who’s a security guard that wants to be a chef and he buys these knives and cooking utensils from Amazon, and he’s practicing his cooking, and he is sharing it with one of his coworkers. It is so wonderful. But it is a stereotype breaker because it shows this guy, a Black man, typically a security guard, who has a desire to do something else, but it’s what we see versus what white America sees. We see more, and we see differently. We tend to scrutinize commercials and images about our culture differently. And that’s an example of overcoming a stereotype, showing a Black man who wants to progress. And what I learned is when you get it right with Black people, you get it right with the mainstream. If that had been a white guy, that was going through that, I just don’t think it would have the same impact on Black people. We’re like, “Yeah, we get it.” But because of that, it’s positive realism. It’s what we know in our community. So this mission to overcome stereotyping is important. And there’s, there’s a lot more speaking, you know, to us in terms of what matters. And there’s a lot more, but that’s an example because I know we have limited time here.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.  

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Pepper Miller, president of the Hunter-Miller Group and the author of, Let Me Explain Black Again: Exploring Blind Spots And Black Insights For Marketing & Understanding Black Culture And Perspectives. In Let Me Explain Black Again, you examine how many well-meaning folks misunderstand Black identity, especially in the context of product development. could you talk about the example you give in the book, about sunscreen?

Pepper Miller: Sunscreen, yes! So it’s interesting how in the medical world as well as day-to-day life, there’s a perception that melanin protects our skin. and it was really something that Black people believed as well. From a medical standpoint, doctors believed that we didn’t need pain medication and all of that, that was related to that, but that fosters that belief about not needing sunscreen. So Black people were dying from skin cancer at a very high rate. They were getting diagnosed at a lower rate, but dying from it at a higher rate. And so there was this need for Black people to use sunscreen. And women, in particular, were not using it. “I don’t need it. My melanin was protecting me” until social media voices came on board. So it was Black dermatologists and just everyday social media gurus, or people, not necessarily experts. So the Black female dermatologist talked about the importance of sunscreen. And then these gurus were talking to us in very raw, realistic language. And these women got hundreds of thousands of followers, and people started paying attention to them and then looking for sunscreen. So the sunscreen products that were out there, they would leave an ashy residue, so the gurus would encourage the people to do sunscreen tests to make sure that it would blend in with your skin, and then that wasn’t working. And then a young woman created a Black girl sunscreen, so that is an example of language and how you talk to people and letting the Black community know that you need this, and to do the sunscreen test and your melanin won’t protect you. That’s a message that we were not getting from mainstream companies. And I’ve done a ton of skincare research for these companies and tried to get them to include sunscreen As part of their messaging, and they wouldn’t do it. But it was the Black community that was galvanized on social media that figured it out, and I was very delighted to hear that.

Adrian Tennant: In addition to blind spots, you also write about five segments of what you call “cultural shapeshifters.” Pepper, what characterizes a shapeshifter? And could you give us a couple of examples? 

Pepper Miller: A shapeshifter is one that not only has influence over people to do something, but they are impacting from a revenue standpoint, the bottom line of America’s revenue. Or they are changing the cultural standards in our community. So an example I often use is Rhianna, the popular singer who launched a skincare line at retail. And she had 40+ shades of skincare that she insisted to be launched at retail. Nobody had ever done that before. Now, L’Oreal, and Lancôme, and Maybelline also had 40 shades of makeup, but they never launched it in the way that she did, so they followed her example. That opened up the possibilities of makeup to more women of color, and then it had a positive impact on the bottom line for those companies. Cultural shape-shifting. 

Adrian Tennant: You write about the perception of a post-racial America during President Obama’s time in office. How did this impact marketing and advertising targeting the Black community?

Pepper Miller: When President Obama was elected, there was a perception that we have a Black president and we are now post-racial. Again, we don’t need to invest in Black media, Black research, Black advertising. It was a really tough eight years for me and for many Black-owned agencies that were Black-focused. I mean, it was tough, you know, it was rolling, and then revenues went down. Even the second book, I purposely wanted it to launch during the Obama presidency. I thought there would be more interest in Black people, and it was less interest in that. And it wasn’t until Donald Trump was running for office, and that was when people had an “Aha!” Moment. But those were really, really tough years. And we are still not post-racial. We still aren’t.

Adrian Tennant: Do you think the Black community had unrealistic expectations of what Obama’s presidency would mean? 

Pepper Miller: I think we did. I think. I know I did. I felt really happy because he was not elected by just Black people, that white America stood up and voted for him, and I thought we would be embraced more. I thought people would come to us more. I thought we would bond more. I thought we would work together more. I thought we’d have more conversations. I thought we’d be included. That was all of these things that I thought, and I think many in the Black community thought as well. That was the feel-good moment. Yes, we felt pride and America electing a Black president, but it was also “Woo! Finally, now we can come together a little bit more!” And we knew it was not going to be easy, but we became more divisive instead of coming together. That’s what I didn’t see coming, and I don’t think the Black community saw that as well. 

Adrian Tennant: Let Me Explain Black Again has been available for a few months now, and I know you’ve spoken at a number of high-profile marketing and research-focused events about it. What kinds of conversations has it sparked? 

Pepper Miller: I have been blessed to be interviewed on other podcasts by people from the Black community, like Black Enterprise, and then, for your audience, Mallory Waxman, and Mario Caruso. I’ve been very blessed to be able to keep these types of conversations going in podcasts, so I’m delighted to have that. Professors have reached out to me more. I did a lot of presentations for college students. I always tell professors if you want me to speak to your students on this topic, I am absolutely happy to do so. So professors have been asking their students to buy my books, read them, they’ve been writing papers on it, and I come in and do a Black Insights presentation. And I love that. And these students are not necessarily the Black students, they’re more non-Black students or Asian, white, Hispanic students, more so than Black students, but I’ve been grateful for that. So to be able to keep the conversations going and with those young minds has been really good. So I’m grateful for the brands that reach out for presentations, the podcast community, and the professors and the higher-level education community who see the value in my message. So it’s been great.

Adrian Tennant: What advice would you give to young professionals looking to enter the research or consumer insights industry?

Pepper Miller: For young people who want to get into this industry, I do think this mindset of curiosity is so important. To have an intellectual curiosity and wonderment: “I wonder what that means? I wonder why they do that? I wonder why people feel like that?” Curiosity is very important. Having a sense of written and oral communication skills is also important. Being comfortable with tedious work. When you do research, for example, like focus groups, sometimes you, you know, you get transcripts, and maybe you’ve taken copious notes, but sometimes you miss something. You have to go back and look for it. Or if you’re doing secondary research, you have to search around to find out what might substantiate a thesis or another idea that you may have about something. So you have to understand that. I think it’s important to bring your whole selves to the table. Don’t be afraid to bring your culture and history to the table. It helps people understand and learn it and expands the learning and insights process. And then to work for positive change. The research industry is notoriously not diverse. Seventy percent of the research industry is white, 13% is Asian, and I think 10% is Hispanic, and only 4% is Black, and the Native American is point something. So we need to work for positive change that is more inclusive, that we change the standards of research, the questions, how they’re asked, the orders of how we ask. It’s not necessarily relatable to this multicultural segment. So that’s important, as well, being curious, bringing your whole self to the table, working for positive change, and having excellent, or working toward excellent written and oral communication skills. And understand that you might have to be tedious, with this work.

Adrian Tennant: What are your future goals or aspirations for the Hunter-Miller Group? 

Pepper Miller: Well, the Hunter-Miller Group is Pepper Miller. Here we are. I do have some partners that I work with on particular projects, but I like to do more workshops and public speaking on this topic of, Let Me Explain Black Again and Black Insights. I’m working with some young people who have started a Black research organization, OverIndex, and there’s another Black CRX organization, and we are thinking about combining and making some of these positive changes. So those are the things that I want to keep doing: writing and speaking. More articles: I’d love to write an article about that commercial, for example, that I saw. I’ve written an article about why being woke is not anti-white and anti-American and anti-flag, things like that that I want to continue to do, to keep pushing out these messages of our truth. 

Adrian Tennant: Pepper, what do you hope readers will take away from Let Me Explain Black Again? 

Pepper Miller: I hope probably overall that they learn that Black people we have value, we have value as a people, and we have value as a market segment, and that we’re different but not deficient, and that Let Me Explain Black Again answers the question: “Pepper, I didn’t know”; that statement becomes, “Pepper, now I know.” 

Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners are interested in learning more about you, the Hunter-Miller Group’s services, or your books, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?

Pepper Miller: They can find me at peppermiller.net. They can find me on LinkedIn at Pepper Miller. I’m on Instagram at @PepperMiller40. And I’m on Twitter @PepperMiller. So if you Google me, you’ll find me.

Adrian Tennant: Pepper, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS. 

Pepper Miller: Adrian, it was truly my Pleasure. Thank you.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week. Pepper Miller, President of the Hunter-Miller Group and the author of Let Me Explain Black Again. As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at Bigeyeagency.com. Just select podcast from the menu. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

Additional Resources Recommended by Pepper:

Widen the Screen

The Look

The Talk

And More