Bigger Than Bourbon.
In the last few years, there have been numerous instances where willful ignorance and racial insensitivity have led to outrage and calls for boycotts of major brands. In 2017, it was Dove and Shea Moisture. In 2018, it was H&M. In recent months, it’s been Gucci and Burberry. The list goes on and on. What these marketing mishaps all have in common is that each time, Black consumers are left feeling angered and invisible and wondering if there are any people of color “at the table”? Perhaps, if there had been, these insensitive ads and products likely would not have seen the light of day.
Lately, it feels like every week, another big brand puts out an ad or releases a product and, in an attempt to get consumers’ attention, they get it wrong...really wrong. In most of these instances, input from consumers of color is either overlooked or nonexistent and we end up being the butt of the joke.
Often our initial response is to #cancel ‘em, boycotting the brand completely and indefinitely. But Samara Rivers, the founder and CEO of Black Bourbon Society, says cancel culture is not the answer. Instead, she’s looking to make major social change by establishing partnerships and getting brands to take notice of us, starting with the spirits industry.
Black Bourbon Society, a tiered membership organization, was created to bridge the gap between the spirits industry and African-American Bourbon enthusiasts. Samara felt there was a lack of awareness and a scarcity of direct consumer marketing to a key demographic of affluent people of color. BBS was created to fill the void and show the industry that African American consumers should be thoughtfully and intentionally marketed to since their liquor, tobacco, and spirits purchases total to more than $3.3 billion per year. In her research, Samara found that many liquor brands focused their efforts on partnering with popular Black entertainers to appeal to Black consumers between the ages of 21 and 25. However, by doing so, they completely missed the mark and failed to acknowledge a huge demographic in their marketing efforts- a demographic composed of older, well-educated African-Americans with higher disposable incomes who were craving genuine opportunities to be connected with premium liquor brands.
In just 3 years, Samara has catapulted BBS into a national organization and amassed a membership of over 4,500 whiskey connoisseurs from all over the United States. She has partnered with brands like Four Roses and Wild Turkey to throw whiskey-centered events all over the country, like last year’s Bourbon Boule, a Labor Day Weekend fete in New Orleans, featuring curated whiskey events sponsored by Maker’s Mark.
If you’re wondering how Samara has secured such amazing partnerships and gotten the chance to represent us in front of these brands, she says it’s all about the approach and ensuring that it’s genuine and honest. Her genuine and honest style has helped brands see the value in partnering with her and forced them to be more intentional and conscious about their marketing to the Black community.
Although brands have openly welcomed Samara, she says that, being the only African-American woman in the room is sometimes isolating and intimidating at first. Fortunately, she’s been able to align herself with great mentors-turned-allies who really believe in the mission of BBS and advocate on her behalf. Her advocacy work in the spirits industry led her to realize that many of these brands were not intentionally neglecting Black consumers in their efforts. Instead, she chalks it up to a genuine lack of awareness, saying “they didn’t know we existed and they didn’t know how to market to us.”
In thinking about the legacy that she wants to leave behind with BBS, she says, “It’s bigger than bourbon...this is a lifestyle issue.” Samara advises that the cancel culture we’ve come to know and love doesn’t work in 2019. She’s a firm believer in advocacy and says, “If you really want to make change, you’ve got to get in internally. This is my effort at trying to make major social change.”
Samara is what I like to call an industry disruptor-someone who challenges antiquated standards and is doing the work to usher us into a new era. When she’s not throwing fabulous events in a city near you, she is advocating for diversity and inclusion through speaking engagements all around the country. Without question, Samara Rivers is causing a stir in the spirits industry and beyond and I’m convinced that we should all be following suit.