Last year, Zachary Stubblefield, a strategist at Austin agency Preacher, observed some Zoom focus groups for Black consumers. And he didn't like what he saw.
"I could tell the participants were uncomfortable or disinterested," he tells Muse. "They were either giving short answers—or their answers weren't telling the whole story. My BS meter was going off. It's not their fault. It's hard to open up about serious topics to a bunch of strangers."
This realization led Stubblefield and Preacher strategy director Doug Kleeman to devise a research project designed to unearth Black consumers' true feelings. He wanted to know what they found compelling in ad campaigns, while probing strategies and tactics brands should avoid.
Sterile rooms with white-board walls and circular tables wouldn't do. Instead, Stubblefield sought a venue where folks could relax and candidly speak their mind. Once he zeroed in on Black men as his subjects, he realized the ideal setting came with shears, hot towels, shaving cream—and a beloved proprietor who loves jawing about pretty much everything with the clientele.
"Instead of trying to find a way to force Black men to open up, we wanted to go to a place where they were already open," Stubblefield recalls. "That's what led us to a barber shop. A lot of Black men have known their barber for years, and barbers themselves are great orators. They have to talk to people all day long, and a lot of their revenue depends on building relationships."
Thus, "Clipper Confessions" was born.
Preacher strategy intern Tashanee Williams suggested Houston-based Smashing The City, which has "an extremely diverse clientele ranging from entrepreneurs and executives to educators and evangelists. This gave us a ton of options when deciding who to talk to," she says.
Plus, she believed Rich "Smash" Payne, the place's owner and a local institution in his own right, would kill it conducting the interviews.
"I am used to having deep conversations with my clients, but I did have to get adjusted to asking them specific questions [provided by the Preacher team]," Payne says. "Once I got adjusted, I was able to pick up on how to ask certain questions in a way that would resonate most with that particular person."
For "Clipper Confessions," he quizzed 15 men—from guys in the 20s to some approach 70—over two days in early December. Each haircut took about an hour. The participants included pastors, plumbers and the SVP of an energy company.
The question "What's the dopest thing about Black culture?" served as a jumping off point. Frank discussions followed, touching on the disconnect between corporate America and Black culture, and why, after years of diversity programs, stereotypical portrayals still rage across media and advertising.
Among the project's conclusions: "The start of the new decade saw brands tripping over themselves to finally acknowledge Black plight in mainstream arenas. For our colleagues that work with these brands, please remember that Blackness is a cultural anthology—a collection of works by countless authors each telling their version of the Black experience. It's more than just the most talented or vulnerable among us and must be handled with the utmost care."
Below, Stubblefield and Williams walk us through "Clipper Confessions," reveal what they learned, and advise brands on speaking to Black folks without dredging up tired clichés.
Muse: Smash worked from a list of subjects, correct? How free-flowing were the conversations?
Tashanee Williams: Smash was the moderator, using a discussion guide we created with key topics to cover. But we gave him full leeway to tailor the conversations as he saw fit. We wanted the conversations to be unimpeded, so we sat nearby in case he needed an assist, or if we overheard an opportunity to further expound on a topic. After each session, we would debrief with Smash to figure out what was going well and what we needed to improve.
Did you tell the men exactly what "Clipper Confessions" was all about?
Zachary Stubblefield: We kept our pitch pretty simple. We offered to pay for their haircut, and in exchange we'd have Smash ask them questions about Blackness and business. The beauty of a barbershop is how it makes people want to speak up. It didn't take much to get people going.
One patron response that struck me was: "There's no such thing as 'dealing' with us. We're regular people." What does that mean in marketing terms?
Zachary Stubblefield: You don't have to step on eggshells to talk to Black people. The problem is, there's a number of well-intentioned businesspeople who don't talk to Black people on a regular basis. And they're still trying to sell stuff to them. Just be willing to actually listen to what they have to say.
Also, "When you market to me, don't just give me the hip-hop shit."
Tashanee Williams: As tempting as the low-hanging fruit of rap culture and other Black-generated trends may be, there are more Black identities, both mainstream and niche, waiting to be represented.
And none of the customers knew what BIPOC meant. That seems telling.
Zachary Stubblefield: It shows the disconnect that can happen when you don't actually talk to the different communities you advertise to. If you just stay in the trend-report world, you'd never know that word isn't widely used.
Any personal takeaways?
Zachary Stubblefield: I'm going to try to remember that it isn't only a strategist's job to understand people. Sure, not every profession knows all the terminology we use. But client-facing professions like barbers, personal trainers and nail technicians, they need to understand what makes their customers tick. And they can be powerful partners if the segment you're advertising to falls within their clientele.
Tashanee Williams: It amazed me just how candid the participants were willing to be simply because they were in a space where openness is the norm and Smash was the one asking the questions. Being able to take a step back from actively participating in the research and observe its natural progression has me so excited to do more of that type of work.
You have a conclusions section on the site, but really quick: I'm a CEO, what lessons should I apply in my marketing?
Tashanee Williams: Black intersectionality is a creative well waiting to be tapped. One-dimensional portrayals of Blackness have left them longing for representation that feels completer and more complex. Black consumers are accustomed to being tokenized for profit. To build trust, there must be a real investment in understanding, representing and better serving them.
Zachary Stubblefield: Allyship is great, but you need to earn the community's trust first. A commercial with a mixed couple isn't going to do that. Take some time to understand the movers and shakers in whatever community you're talking to. Black people have opinions on more things than just Blackness. Consider using a space like a barbershop for general market research, too.
Strategist: Zachary Stubblefield
Strategy Intern: Tashanee Williams
Jr. Designer: Wendy Ampuero
Jr. Production Artist: Seth Jones
Senior Brand Manager: Taylor Jansen
Strategy Director: Doug Kleeman
Chief Strategy Officer: Seth Gaffney
Chief Creative Officer: Rob Baird
Chief Executive Officer: Krystle Loyland
Photographer: Troy Ezequiel Montes