Like all companies that create niche videos for the sell-through market, producers of African-American kidvids find that the dilemna of distribution is a black and white issue. There are those retailers-namely, the special-interest stores-that are predisposed to carrying your product, and then there are the mass retailers and large video chains, which, for the most part, remain off-limits.
Producers of African-American kidvids blame the situation on the large retailer’s fixation on stocking only front-line titles, while retailers cite the producer’s inability to mount a compelling dollars-and-cents argument for giving up shelf space to tapes that have the potential of appealing to only a minority of their customers.
The fact that many of these tapes aren’t guaranteed a home at mass merchandisers or at the large video chains has forced companies to find innovative methods of getting their product into the hands of their target consumers.
For Largo, Maryland-based Kidpositive, attending black cultural conferences, such as the National Urban League’s annual meeting and African American Women On Tour, has proved an effective way to distribute and promote its first African-American kid title, Tell Me Who I Am. According to Darryl Grayson, president of Positive Communications, Inc., parent company to Kidpositive, in addition to attracting the target consumer group (black women age 25 to 49), the events also draw a steady flow of black retailers, to whom Grayson has managed to sell. In addition, Kidpositive is offering the tape via mail-order catalogues, like Colorful World, which specialize in distributing multicultural titles, and over the Web at black-specific consumer sites, such as Netnoir.com.
Since releasing Tell Me Who I Am last November, Kidpositive has sold more than 20,000 units, with sales split equally between direct marketing and retail. But if Grayson hopes to see sales swell, he’ll have to sign on with a big distributor, which means he’ll likely have to relinquish marketing control of the video-something he’s reluctant to do.
‘We don’t want to put the tape into just any store and have it go head-to-head with all the other kids videos that are out there,’ says Grayson. ‘We’re not crazy enough to believe that we’ve got a product that’s going to compete with the latest Disney release. But within our target audience, we know we can sell the product.’
Going head-to-head with the studios’ releases is what Xenon Entertainment tried to do last month when it released C-Bear and Jamal, the first video featuring episodes of the series by Film Roman that aired on Fox Kids Network from 1996 to 1998. The video is now being carried by most major retailers, including Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. Tony Perez, VP of sales and marketing at Xenon Entertainment, credits the company’s reputation as an established distributor and producer of black-specific titles as one of the tape’s chief selling points. Even so, he acknowledges the general reticence of retailers to carry such titles.
‘The big problem is that most retailers see your title as being too black or too urban, not fitting in with the other merchandise they’re stocking at the time, instead of looking at it for its own merits-that it’s a quality tape that appeals to a good percentage of their customers.’
In addition to targeting black bookstores and music stores, Perez and Xenon are aggressively pursuing retailers located in suburbs and towns generally not considered to service a large black population, what’s known in marketing parlance as the ethnic nonurban market. ‘Black people work everywhere,’ says Perez. ‘All of the studies done on this subject show that retailers get a good percentage of African-American customers regardless of where they’re located.’ Perez contends that carrying a title like C-Bear and Jamal will help retailers to buttress their bottom line, as well as the loyalty of their African-American customers.
Other companies subscribe to a stealthier approach to distribution. ‘We go into those markets that have a large black population, like Detroit or Oakland, and speak directly to the manager of a [chain] store. Sometimes they have discretionary funds, which allows them to bring in product on their own. We rarely go to the central buying office first,’ says one producer who requested anonymity.
In terms of marketing, most producers tailor their campaigns to media outlets that their target consumers (in most cases, women age 25 to 49) use. Both Xenon and Kidpositive run ads for their tapes in black publications like Essence and Ebony. Beginning this month, Xenon is launching a national radio campaign that will include Tone Loc (who provides the voice for the character C-Bear) promoting the tape on leading urban radio stations across the U.S. As part of that campaign, Tone Loc will also be making a number of in-store appearances at black music retailers.
Schlessinger Media is sending out its catalogue to all retailers, with the aim of getting its titles into stores for Kwanza, the African-American religious holiday held in December, and for Black History Month, which takes place in February. The Wynnewood, Pennsylvania-based company, which has traditionally drawn most of its sales from the educational market, produces and distributes kid documentaries on African-American history and culture, such as American Cultures: African American Heritage and American History: African Americans. Currently, these titles and others are available through Schlessinger’s mail-order catalogue and on its Web site at www.libraryvideo.com.
Despite the hurdles in getting their products into mainstream distribution routes, producers of African-American kidvids remain confident their videos will sell, mainly because so few companies are trying to fulfill the demand for kidvids that depict African Americans in a positive fashion.
‘You can see [the demand] in the popularity of Spike Lee films, with Ebony magazine and with BET,’ says Grayson. ‘No matter what medium or genre of entertainment you’re talking about, there’s always a business opportunity to target African Americans. Children’s videos is just another example of this opportunity.’
It’s a sentiment shared by Ken Smikle, editor and publisher of Target Market News, an annual marketing report that tracks the purchasing habits of black consumers.
‘The video industry doesn’t categorize what is a `black or ethnic release.’ You have to go in and extrapolate that information yourself. What we do know is that what is available to African Americans is not consistent with the size of the market they represent.’
According to Target Market News’ most recent data, African-American households spent US$196 million on all prerecorded videos in 1996, roughly half of what white households paid out for the same period. Smikle says that difference is reflective of the lack of choices available to African Americans, and adds that black Americans are looking elsewhere for entertainment that speaks to them, such as cable television and the Internet, where, as a group, they currently outspend white households.