Learn more

An Unsung Black Marketing Icon

Marketing Icon

Do you know of any African Americans who were responsible for timeless marketing and pop culture campaigns? We do. Keep reading to learn more!

Tom Burrell’s story started on 18 March 1939 when he was born in Chicago in the United States. At the age of 18, he was admitted to Chicago’s Roosevelt University where he would later graduate with B.A. in English. This degree would put him in good stead for his then-upcoming career in marketing. 

His break came in 1961 when he landed a position as a junior copywriter for Wade Advertising.  He later moved on to work for other agencies such as Leo Burnett (Chicago), Foote, Cone & Belding (London), and Needham, Harper & Steers (Chicago) before launching his agency called Burrell Communications in 1971. 


Marketing Achievements

Tom perceptively realised that there was a gap in the market in that there were no niche marketing agencies that understood how to market to African Americans. Insight spurred him on to create  Burrell Communications.

Tom gained great success in his marketing campaigns for Phillip Morris in rebranding Marlboro cigarettes to the African-American community. His mantra was “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.” He skillfully used his insight into African-American culture to design ads showing cool, urban black people smoking whilst doing daily activities. This was in stark contrast to the prevailing image of the time of the rugged, white cowboy representing the wild west. As a result, sales of Marlboro cigarettes rose incredibly within his targeted demographic. 

In 1976 Burrell Communications aired the now iconic ‘Street Song’ commercial on American TV as part of a marketing campaign for Coca-Cola which focused on the emotional appeal of the soft drink. Once again he drew inspiration from his insight into black American culture to design a campaign that showed people of color in a positive and vibrant light. His campaigns were so successful that they ended up appealing to people of all races and were subsequently archived at the Library of Congress in America. 

His other notable campaigns were for Mcdonald’s, Ford, Pillsbury, and many more. In 1979 annual billings for his company topped the $10-million mark for the first time, and two years later billings had doubled to $20 million. From 1974 to 1986 his agency experienced a growth of 15-20%, according to Advertising Age.

Burrell’s agency worked for Procter & Gamble marketing its Crest toothpaste which became the first packaged goods campaign to specifically target African-Americans.

In more recent times his agency has gained ever more lucrative clients such as with Toyota Motor Corp, launching the Toyota Camry’s 2007 “If Looks Could Kill” campaign which was the first digital campaign of its kind to target African-American women.


Recent Times

Tom Burrell retired from his agency in 2004 with the title chairman emeritus having achieved a stack of awards and accolades that includes being the first African American to be inducted into the One Club Creative Hall of Fame.


Tips for Success

In closing, here are three tips that he gives to obtain success:

  • Success is Often About Timing
  • Look For Talent Not Status
  • Know Who You’re Talking To

Great words of wisdom from an icon in the world of marketing!