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culture a.d. reclaims african-american aesthetics, blending them with mainstream pop references to create branding that is a multicultural mash-up.

by terry lee stone

We all know of the design and advertising being created for niche markets. Unless you are in the community being targeted, it can be hard to tell if that work is good or bad … or even effective. But when you’re part of the targeted community, you get the message loud and clear. Making that connection is the driving idea behind Atlanta-based Culture A.D. “We work as a cultural conversion agency,” says Culture A.D. creative director Craig Brimm, “We take existing creative and evaluate the viability of the message for the African-American consumer. If the concept translates well, we then create more targeted language and/or visuals. Sometimes it is just a nuance that could be offensive or a latent strength that could be maximized in editing to make a piece play better in certain markets. There are occurrences where the creative just doesn’t hit the right notes at all. That’s when a rebuild is in order.” African Americans often have the sense of being “bilingual”— that is, understanding both mainstream and black dialects of English. “It’s not so much another language as it is different pronunciations, syllable emphasis, phraseology, context, word usage and enhanced definitions,” explains Brimm. “There are certain ways African Americans do and say things within social confines that are perceived as comfortable and nurturing, or as we might say, feel ‘down home.’ It’s not just African Americans that do this. We all have vestiges of these behaviors.”  

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Further explaining the phenomenon, he adds, “As black people in America, we all understand the dominant culture. I’m not at all an anomaly. Most black people in American know when, where and how to make the switch and can throw demonstrative nonverbal cues that speak volumes. Like when you are the only black person in the room and feel a little uncomfortable, there is the low key constant scanning of the room and then, yes there you are, another person of color, and the subtle upward head nod that telegraphs, ‘if some racist shit pops off, I got your back … because they be trippin’!’ It really speaks to the larger trust issues all Americans have with each other. As a country we be trippin’.”

designing a voice

Brimm established Culture A.D. after witnessing the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center while he was on assignment in New York. Prior to starting his agency, he spent 10 years as an art director in various advertising agencies, including Roy Advertising, J. Walter Thompson, Nomenudum and MLT Creative. His work

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included television, radio and print advertising for Ford, Levi’s, Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble, Tylenol and M&M Products. Since its founding, Culture A.D. has specialized in creating striking matches between brands and consumers by providing graphic design, brand development, copywriting and advertising for clients in a variety of industries, including financial services, higher education and tourism. But the agency has found a real niche in the African-American personal care market, working on hair, bath and body products for such major international brands as L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble and Colomer USA. “The work we are doing now is becoming more poignant and visceral,” notes Brimm. “I’m actually surprised that the more we express raw and emotive concepts, the more clients and consumers really feel it. I have been in focus groups and heard comments that were spot on with the core language from the design brief.” Brimm has pushed to develop his own voice. “I think I have always had a point of view, but it was suppressed. I think that was youthful naiveté,” says Brimm, “Now I’m beginning to understand that clients come to agencies for a point of view. A voice or a style is like an opinion: We all have one, but some choose to speak out with more vibrato. It has taken me all my career to gradually grow that voice and begin to unabashedly speak my mind. “I’ve become more self-expressive while solving design and marketing issues. For me it started with a series of low budget and pro-bono clients where I developed safe, palatable solutions that just didn’t say enough. This is when I realized that, to be noticed,

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these small brands had to bring some noise. I literally began to throw ink on the walls and not hold back during the execution phase. Brands have to be stripped down butt-ass-naked to their purest essence and then pumped up through every pore.”

designing culture

Working with the black personal care industry, Culture A.D. is involved in exploring complex racial identity issues. The agency is currently rebranding African Pride, a hair care product line introduced in the late ‘80s during a period of Afrocentric renaissance. It was more of an opportunistic gimmick than sincerely Africaninspired, but people instantly fell in love with the products. Later, when consumers learned the brand wasn’t owned by an AfricanAmerican company, there was a backlash. “Over the years the brand had kind of lost its way” says Brim. “Our mission: Ashy to Classy. We always want to make a brand bigger. By that I mean extremely relevant in its category. It should be the sexiest, the coolest, have the most utility or it’s own special niche of desirability. We really see this product as a fashion brand, and we advertise it as a fashion brand for the hair. This fashionconscious advertising is what excites the young lady that buys this product. We know where she lives and we knock loud.” In doing work specifically geared towards the African-American community, Culture A.D. employs a process essentially same as in any design or advertising project … but the message, with its associated visual and verbal cues, is different. “We still use the same fonts. There is no ‘Ebonics Regular, Light or Oblique.’ It’s simply niche marketing, and the African-American market


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is something we know thoroughly,” says Brimm. “You have to be mindful of the medium and the reception. We all have filters.” So what are those things, beyond putting dark-skinned people in the images, that make us aware the communication is for African Americans? “As a non-black person, you won’t always know if something is for the African-American audience. But they will,” he explains. “It’s a pyschographic approach. We advertise and design for a mindset. This also involves ethnography, which is knowing and understanding the community. We pull on common—and not so common—references from black culture.” There’s a fine line between tapping into shared metaphors and indulging in stereotypes. Shortcuts can be dangerous, so Culture A.D. challenges itself to deliver fresh ideas. Brimm and his team are comfortable referencing a variety of inspirational sources— graphic design history, ‘70s TV sitcoms, current hip hop lyrics and everything in between … all to convey the right cultural qualities to establish an emotional connection. “One key tenet for us is to always evolve the creative,” Brimm says. “We often start with the mundane just to get it out of our heads. Then we push through. ‘Evolution, not circumstance’ is our motto: Evolve the brand or fall victim to current competitive circumstance.”

culture shift

In 2005, Craig’s wife Brooke Brimm became agency manager and primary account executive at Culture A.D. She has a master’s  

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degree in Professional Counseling, and before joining the agency had spent eight years in the field of behavioral science, working mostly in research and evaluation. “We’re just beginning to explore how we can leverage this core competency to intensify our creative approach. I think when we get the formula right it will be explosive,” says Brimm. Brimm’s vision of his agency’s future is expansive. “Culture A.D. is intended to be ‘The New Black,’” he says, alluding to his intention to redefine African-American advertising. “I’d like for us to be a major part of the modernization of advertising for the African-American market and take it beyond all of current-day advertising. Most of our advertising is conservative. Not due to lack of black talent—there’s more black talent out there than you can imagine. But it’s due to a lack of budget—our clients often don’t have the budget for any experimentation. “We are such a creative people. African Americans are responsible for so many new things in this country. Black music was the first music to go around the world and sell in mass quantities. That music includes gospel, blues, jazz and rock. This music transforms and reinvents itself over and over again. I’d like to channel that kind of energy and metamorphosis into black creative. Maybe with enough new creative energy we can surpass the need to have black or white agencies.” www.culture-ad.com


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Culture A.D. in "Step Inside Design" Magazine  

Culture Advertising Design featured in "Step" Magazine.