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  Hip-Hop Culture Crosses into Brand Strategy
by Joseph Anthony
September 12, 2005

Whereas it was once seen as an urban phenomenon, hip-hop culture among the 12 to 34 year-old demographic now crosses political and ideological lines from the cornfields of Iowa to the streets of New York City. It is the one uniform force in the American marketplace. Formerly perceived as a niche strategy, some of today's most successful brands realize that the term "urban marketing" now expands across this entire youth demographic.

Hip-hop culture's prominence is a pop phenomenon that largely rose through the proliferation of cable television and the Internet. Americans now are exposed to regional tastes and styles in weeks and months in what used to take a groundswell movement years to reach.


Hip Hop's Crossover: A Geographic Shift
At its core, hip hop sprang from the inner cities. From Run-DMC in Hollis, Queens, to NWA from South Central Los Angeles, the music grew from economic inequality and socio-cultural frustrations. However, what started as a New York/Los Angeles/Philadelphia art spread to artists from all corners of America. Being exposed to the music not only allows local artists to take this sound and regionalize it (the "Chopped n Screwed" trend coming out of the South typifies this), but more importantly, expand the culture, making it a palatable strategy for corporations across the country.

Seeing that the kid looking for a new pair of khakis is the same kid listening to Jay-Z was a tremendous wake up for large consumer brands. Whereas ten years ago, Tommy Hilfiger was seen as an innovative brand, big label brands such as a Procter & Gamble, General Motors and the Gap now subscribe to the theory that you reach the heartland in the same way that you reach the kids in the inner city.

Eminem: The Ultimate X Factor
While hip-hop culture became embraced by mass American culture, suburban whites became members of the culture despite not having anyone with whom they could truly relate. Outside of MC Serch of 3rd Bass and Vanilla Ice, white America had little to offer in terms of hip-hop talent. Corporations could see that white America was a fan but the fact that they had no symbol of white hip hop was a limitation.

Enter Eminem, the ultimate catalyst for the proliferation of the culture. His entrance was the pinnacle of white immersion into hip hop. The mid- to late-90s saw white "alternative music" take on a harder edge with influence from hip hop. Groups like Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, 311 and Sublime had already moved white music in the direction of hip hop.

For corporations on the fence about whether a white kid in the heartland of Indiana responds to hip hop, the success of Eminem and his subsequent success in "8 Mile" helped clear the final obstacle. While he didn't revolutionize the culture, he was the symbol of white hip-hop culture that corporate America needed to see before they fully came on board.

Hip Hop: Beyond the Music
Perhaps the most crucial reason for the mass acculturation of hip hop goes beyond the music. Societal shifts made it easy to be a part of hip-hop culture without owning a Jay-Z or Fat Joe record.

When the University of Michigan's famed "Fab 5" stepped on the basketball court in 1992, the line between hip-hop music and culture was forever blurred. Athletes Jalen Rose, Chris Webber and others brought the elements of hip-hop culture onto the hardwood. With baggy shorts, black socks and a "look at me" swagger, they took what rappers like Tupac Shakur and Biggie had been putting on wax and brought it to the masses.

The fact that companies like Mountain Dew and the US Army both stand behind this "street promotion" is indicative of the overall mainstream acceptance of the culture.

Pitching the Masses
In the end, cultural consumption leads back to corporate acceptance and ways to use the culture for market capitalization. Companies staying culturally relevant now see hip hop as the answer to all of their problems. While in some cases this has been a stopgap solution, the effect of invigorating hip hop into the brand is self evident.

If Reebok has painted itself into a corner choosing now to be a lifestyle brand rather than a sports brand, you cannot argue with its current success. From slumping sales with pitchmen like Shaquille O'Neal and Steve Francis, the brand has made a dramatic positioning shift in recent years. With Jay-Z and 50 Cent replacing athletic stars as lead pitchmen, the brand has never been hotter.

Reebok's new strategy has seen immediate dividends. Getting "culturally relevant" helped boost second quarter earnings this past year more than 71 percent. Up and coming brands like Glaceau's Vitamin Water are also getting into the act as well. The high-end water recently began using 50 Cent as a primary pitchman, even giving him his signature line of water, called "Formula 50."

Sales from companies using hip-hop culture as a marketing tool aren't driven by New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; they are driven by Middle America becoming fully integrated to the culture. While politically we are a nation split among "red states" and "blue states," for youth, hip hop is the unifying force that corporations are calling on to drive sales.

   Joseph Anthony is CEO of the Vital Marketing Group, which offers clientele the marketing knowledge and intimate understanding of the youth and multicultural marketplace. Contact Anthony at 212-995-9525 or visit the Vital Group.

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