During homecoming festivities at Prairie View A&M University in Texas and North Carolina Central University in Durham last fall, Ford Motor Co. invited football fans to check out a tailgate — and the rest of its F-150, too.

Ford provided more than 500 F-150 test drives to fans at the two schools and at the annual Southern Heritage Classic, which attracted nearly 50,000 spectators in Memphis, Tenn., through its Historically Black Colleges and Universities Truck Tour.

“As we talk about reaching and growing, it makes sense to talk about growth audiences,” Damoni Hurt, Ford’s cross-brand strategy and growth audience manager, told Automotive News. “We do well with our core; we always strive to do better. But some of the bigger opportunities to grow our brand and grow our market share, grow our sales, are to some audiences that we should talk to in a different and more meaningful way.”

That sort of authentic outreach, through experiential marketing as well as traditional ads, has helped Ford’s F-Series pickups gain momentum among Black consumers in recent years. The F-Series is on pace to displace the Toyota Camry as the No. 1 nameplate among Black buyers this year, up from fourth place in 2019, according to IHS Markit registration data through June.

Marc Bland, IHS Markit’s chief diversity officer, has been pushing automakers to target Black audiences with tailored campaigns for their full-size pickups. Hispanics have traditionally been viewed as loyal pickup buyers, Bland said, but the Black community is a new frontier for the segment that could lead to further sales growth for brands that engage them.

Strong sales to Black buyers can help the F-Series fortify its position atop the industry against challenges from its traditional rivals and a number of startups planning electric pickups.

In total U.S. sales, the F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado and Ram pickups are the top three vehicles, in that order.

But among Black shoppers, the Silverado sits in fifth place this year, up from seventh in 2019, and Ram has fallen to eighth from fifth. The Silverado is the second-bestselling vehicle among Hispanics, behind the Honda Civic.

Bland remembers a time before the Great Recession when it wasn’t uncommon to see people owning multiple vehicles suited for varied tasks.

One might be a big family-hauling utility vehicle, while one was a luxury model and another was a compact car with good mileage that people could zip around town in.

But times are tougher, Bland said, and garages may not be as full as they once were. Owning fewer vehicles means consumers need their investments to do more. Pickups have met this call over the years with growing utility, offering plush interiors that can provide a luxury experience, handle work if necessary and carry families.

Hurt said Ford takes pride in the capability and durability of its pickups. But Black consumers, he said, want to hear more, with messaging about design, connected vehicle technology and safety features resonating well.

Hurt said the HBCU tour was a concerted effort to grow Ford’s consumer base and make sure the brand is as inclusive as possible with its approach.

In addition to the in-person events, Ford ran an F-150 spot last year called “Ode to the Builders” aimed at Black consumers.

The spot, narrated by actress Angela Bassett, was filmed in Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant in Michigan and featured several African-American workers.

That followed a digital campaign for the F-150 targeting Black audiences in 2018.

Bland, who has monitored auto advertising for years, believes Ford was the first automaker to craft a full-size pickup ad campaign specifically for Black consumers.

“If you follow the data and commit resources,” Bland said, “you can reap the results.”