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spring 2021

Break Through Branding

For Multicultural Branding Expert Danielle Austen, Effective Marketing to Diverse Audiences Needs More Than Just Words
Written by: Andy Butcher

Like many small business owners, Danielle Austen took a hit when the coronavirus pandemic first brought cities and industries across the United States to a virtual standstill, a year ago.

With restaurants shuttered in many places, one large chain not surprisingly figured there was no point in continuing to pay her ad agency to woo customers that couldn’t eat out anymore.

They said they needed to put a hold on the communication side of their business, and it made total sense,” Austen says. “But we were worried about what was going to happen.”

And then came the racial unrest fueled by George Floyd’s ugly killing in Minneapolis. While she grieved his death and lamented the systemic racism revealed by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community, she also suddenly found business picking up.

Companies were turning to her woman- and minority-owned fluent360 agency for its expertise in multicultural marketing to long-overlooked communities, notably Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and LGBTQ+.

“The sad part is that a man literally had to be murdered on camera for people to say, ‘Oh shucks, this is a problem,’ she remembers. “Our phones were ringing off the hook.” Some inquiries came from businesses that only seemed to want to check the box of social concern. “It was clear that some brands simply wanted to say a few words of empathy.” Others seriously wanted to be different and make a difference.

As a result, fluent360’s business bloomed while so many others died on the vine. By the end of 2020, the agency had doubled its client list, increased its staff across offices in three cities by a third, and seen a healthy jump in revenues.

“We ended up having to turn away some business simply because we didn’t have the resources to do it well,” says Austen. “Our team is only so big, and there are only so many hours in the day. It’s more important that we do quality work.”

Serious business, light touch

The flood of new business was reflective of the reputation her agency has earned in the industry for its nuanced niche work over the last dozen years. Among its growing list of clients: the Association of American Retired People (AARP), AT&T, Nissan, and the United States Army.

Fluent360’s portfolio also includes work for Denny’s, helping the chain overcome its lingering disconnect with many Black consumers. The divide dates back to the nineties when the chain paid millions of dollars to settle a series of lawsuits citing discrimination against Black customers.

In one fluent360 television spot, a Denny’s server brings coffee to a young Black customer who is eating as she looks at school books, and asks what the young woman is studying. “Political science,” the customer replies. The scene ends with a voice-over: “For your life’s journey.”

Reaching long-disenfranchised consumers is a serious business, but it doesn’t always have to be handled in a serious manner. To connect with America’s sizable South Asian community, fluent360 created humorous “cricket crash” commercials for State Farm that tapped into that demographic’s wide love of the sport.

In one, a young driver gets into a fender bender after stopping to watch people playing. In another, he tells his insurance rep he can talk for only a few seconds because the televised game he is watching is due to resume any moment.

It’s all about the right tone, Austen says. “Part of it is reflecting those consumers in a positive way that makes them want to see themselves with those products,” she explains. “And that’s not doom and gloom. It can be lighthearted and fun or it can be serious and emotional.”

To be effective, advertisers need to do more than just play to emotions, though. When a prospective client contacts Austen seeking help, “I always say, ‘We can help you if you can help us.’ Meaning our community.”

Action, not just words

Working with brands who wanted to demonstrate support for the African American community in the wake of George Floyd’s death, “early on we knew that the best way to do that was to actually do something, to show action, not just say words,” Austen says. “So we ended up helping a lot of our client partners figure out the best way to do something that made sense for their brands.”

Case in point, Austen points to how fluent360 worked with distiller The Maker’s Mark to build a partnership with the Black Bourbon Society. “For a brand like that to just give to the NAACP is great. However, how about in support of Black restaurants and bars instead, because that makes sense for your business; this is a place where you can actually impact change,” she says. “There are ways to help empower the Black community beyond your kind words.”

Corporate response to social concerns needs to be tangible because consumers now will “pull your receipts,” Austen advises clients. “They’ll check to see if you really stand with the Black community. Are you really there, or are you just there in name only?”

Sometimes, working with fluent360 results in internal change for clients, not just more effective external communication. “It’s foundational, meaning that in order for it to really work, in order for you to be really committed to the African American consumer, it is not just about marketing communications,” says Austen.

“It’s deep within the organization. It’s about your employees. It’s about your suppliers. It’s about your communications. It’s about your consumers.

“Some brands think that’s overwhelming and, fair enough, you know. If racism were something we could fix in three months, we would have done that already. But it’s not; it’s a long-standing, 400-year-old problem. So with those that are overwhelmed, we help them with small, bite-sized pieces.”

Recognizing minority communities isn’t just socially responsible, it’s also plain good business: “The only growth that’s happening in many industries is with multicultural consumers.”

Austen isn’t only concerned about seeing minorities better represented and reached by advertisers, she wants to see more of them in the business itself, creating those images and impressions. The number of people of color “behind the camera, at the sketchpad, in the meetings,” is quite simply “sad.”

Just how poor that representation is became clear to her when she was named chair of the American Advertising Federation’s Mosaic Council, established to champion greater diversity, a few years ago. “The numbers of African Americans and Hispanics in advertising were the same as in 1970,” she says. “To me, that is absurd and ridiculous. We’re so underrepresented.”

So long to silos

If the continuing scale of the advertising industry’s racial imbalance was a surprise to her, its existence wasn’t. Austen had frequently found herself to be the only woman of color in the room as she rose in the industry to her position as fluent360’s CEO and managing partner.

An English graduate from Emory University, her first job was selling jewelry at Nordstrom. After a spell in the buying department (“it was like watching paint dry”) she earned a masters in marketing communication at Northwestern University, where she “fell in love with marketing and advertising, and the idea of studying and understanding human behavior.”

Brand manager positions with Jaguar and Sony were followed by time at a multicultural agency where she first got the idea to go out on her own. “I felt like the general market wasn’t including people of color and multicultural agencies were more operating in silos, meaning only speaking to African Americans as if they did not exist as part of this larger U.S. population.”

Having stood out at school and in early work situations because of her color and her gender—”the car business is about your gender more than anything else; it’s a bunch of guys sitting around and talking about cars”—Austen felt “like I had been prepping for this my whole life.”

Her two children with writer-husband Ben were still small when she set up shop with just two staff, originally as Team Ignition Pancultural Marketing. In the years since, the company—partnered with a division of Omnicom Group Inc.—has rebranded and earned a growing go-to reputation for its work.

Expansion brought Austen back home to Chicago—she had grown up on the South Side—from Nashville, where she was honored in the 2018 Women of Color Achievement Awards. Fluent360 also has an office in New York.

Though leading female role models were in short supply when she started out, she remembers mentors along the way—her first boss, who was “kind of crazy, but taught me about detail,” and a minority partner who was “a bulldog,” an example of “aggressiveness and assertiveness.”

Those experiences of having largely to carve out her own path inform her commitment to helping others, not only in the industry: last year she joined the board of the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

Every time you’re at the table you speak up because that’s why you’re there. Your story needs to be told.


Stepping up, speaking out

Given her success, Austen has what might at first seem to be some unusual advice for young entrepreneurs, especially women. “I don’t believe in necessarily setting goals for myself,” she says. Then comes the explanation: “Because I don’t want to limit myself. I’ve always said, ‘Things are going to be big. I don’t know what that looks like, what that means, but I know it’s going to be big.’

“I never thought I would have my own agency, but of course when the opportunity came I took it because things are going to be big. I think that a lot of people focus on the end goal instead of focusing on the potential. Like, what could happen?”

She offers an example: “They may say, ‘I want to have this house and it looks this way,’ when they could say, ‘I just want to live grand.’ That’s always helped me kind of not narrow myself into any particular place.”

Along with being open to possibilities, Austen emphasizes being tough when necessary. “You really have to have inner strength. You know, bullies are going to happen. Terrible people are going to cross your path. Someone’s going to treat you unfairly.

“You have to see around, above, and beyond that because you cannot let that stop you from achieving what you want to achieve, and that can be really tough.

“Honestly, those two things together are what hold a lot of people back from doing what they want to do. I don’t mean fenced in. I don’t mean the opposite is weak. I mean the idea that when an obstacle pops up, don’t focus on the obstacle, focus on getting around it, above it, below it, if you need to, but don’t let anything stop you from getting what you want and what you deserve.”

Despite her success, she still carries with her “the little Black girl who didn’t come from a lot” into all her meetings. “I’m in the room with people whose backgrounds are nothing like that, and I could be intimidated. I think a lot of young people might struggle with that, in particular kids of color.

“It takes a lot of trickery in your own mind to kind of say, ‘I do belong here. I’m at this table for a reason, and I need to speak up.’ And so when I’m advising young people, I tell them, ‘Every time you’re at the table, you speak up because that’s why you’re there. Your story needs to be told, and you need to bring your full self to the table.’


Quick-fire questions about media, mentors, and moments

All-time best ads?

The McDonald’s commercials always stuck with me growing up, because of the jingles. Especially the Michael Jordan one; I’m from Chicago so he’s as close to God as you can get.

Best business book?

Winning by Jack Welch, the former General Electric chairman and CEO. Great tips on leadership.

Bucket-list trip?

Italy. I had a global position for two years where I was going between Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia, and somehow I never got to Italy. We were planning to go last year and then COVID-19 happened.

What’s on repeat play?

I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan, so Off the Wall. That album is on every musical device. “Rock With You” is the favorite song.

Favorite actress?

Viola Davis. Her personal story is so amazing, and I feel like I relate to her in some ways. She had to overcome a lot to get into the industry that she is in.

Greatest role model?

My mother, of course, but then Oprah for the way she overcame obstacles and challenges to become the most powerful woman in television. She started off in Chicago, and I remember watching her from a small child.

Perfect Sunday morning?

Get up, make coffee, and sit with the New York Times in a chair in my living room window. If I can read one section without being disturbed, I’m a happy girl. Then eventually everyone comes into the living room, and we’re sitting there and we talk.