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Marketing Lessons from the world of hip hop. That’s right, hip hop.

Posted by on Jan 17, 2010 in BLOG, hip hop, marketing strategy | No Comments

Thecommich is painfully aware that invoking hip hop is no longer hip. What with the no. 1 selling record in the category coming from an Atlanta inmate named Gucci Mane, and the main concern of most rappers on the radio being the rhyming of “hurrr” with “thurrr,” Nas’ proclamation that “hip hop is dead” seems very apropo.

Except that, like a roach or a weed (no pun intended), the hip hop culture refuses to die. Category magazines like The Source and Vibe enjoy huge circulation, and in most airports can be seen right up in the stands next to Sports Illustrated. Hip Hop lifestyle brands like Baby Phat, RocaWear, and Sean John make a combined yearly revenue of almost $2 billion. And although rap album sales have declined over 43% since 2000, it continues to be a substantial genre with a loyal following.

What marketing lessons can we learn from these swaggering, smooth-talking kings and queens of the urban landscape? Thecommich gets her Adidas on and walks you through it.

Diversify your portfolio

Did you think hip hop was just a bunch of street kids rapping? Think again, friend. From a simple block party concept in the Marcy Projects of 1970’s New York, hip hop has grown into a movement, a culture, a way of life.

Hip hop has 4 branches – MCing, DJing, B-Boying and Graffiti. We are mostly exposed to the first two, but all of these branches have moved on to form their own subcultures and have elevated each to a high art. Witness the unbelievable dancers in the documentary Planet B-Boy or the artistry of graffiti heads like Bansky and you’ll see what I mean. B Boys are now regularly featured in commercials for everything – energy drinks, Gap clothing, iPods. Graffiti, while often unsightly, has produced iconic artists and images. Barack Obama’s HOPE poster is one of them, created by graffiti artist Shepard Fairey aka “ObeyGiant.”

Take a look at your own small business and see if there are interesting ways for you to elevate, or feature, a key service to a new audience.

For example: a friend of mine’s father ran a car dealership, and decided one summer day to host a car-washing service – employing the exotic dancers from a club nearby as the washers. Did it sell cars? Maybe not that day. But every man with a beating heart within a 20 mile radius knew exactly where that dealership was for the rest of their lives.

Have a hook

Which of these lines makes sense to you?

“H to the Izzo, V to the Izzay,
Fo shizzle, my nizzle
Used to dribble down in V-A”

“Lodi Dodi, we likes to party
We don’t cause trouble, we don’t bother nobody”

Company X is pioneering retail, giving consumers a new, one-of-a-kind shopping experience while establishing an innovative, yet proven growth channel for businesses”

You would be absolutely correct in saying that grammatically, the third statement is the one that makes the most sense. If this were a GMAT exam, you’d have at least one answer down. Unfortunately, as a marketing tagline, you’d be dead in the water.

The authors of the first 2 statements (Jay-Z and Slick Rick respectively) understood that a hook doesn’t have to have big words, good grammar, or even necessarily make sense to do the job. That first hook helped Jay-Z’s Black Album sell over 3 million copies in the US alone.  “Fo shizzle my nizzle” has been used in countless movies, TV commercials and sitcoms (usually by the “hapless father trying to be cool”). And even if you don’t know or like hip hop, you’d’ve surely heard Lodi Dodi played at least once at someone’s keg party. 

The lesson here is exuberance, creativity and simplicity. Don’t overthink your tagline, or turn it into a paragraph’s worth of benefit propositions tortured into a sentence. OK, your service or product may whiten teeth, clear up acne, straighten your back AND make your hair beautifully glossy. Are you going to try to put that all into one statement? Or will you say, as Kanye West would, that this product would make you “come up in the spot lookin’ extra fly?”

Start beef

The hip hop world is obsessed with “beef,” or epic rivalries. Probably because rap started out as a competition between 2 MCs to see which one could outwit the other (the urban American version of a Filipino balagtasan)  beef and hip hop music have evolved together. 2Pac vs. Biggie, Li’l Kim vs. Foxy Brown, Eminem vs., uh, everyone – some of it is true hatred, but most of it is contrived. Hip hop artists understand that a rivalry sells records. As one party tries to insult, humiliate and cast aspersions upon the other, thousands of fans are lining up and waiting in gleeful anticipation for the next verbal beat down.

Small businesses targeting other small businesses for insults and verbal abuse seems a tawdry and slightly pathetic affair, and thecommich does not recommend this. What IS recommended though, is positioning your marketing in competition with a company much larger than yours. This not only gives the impression that you are just as big or well-known as the company you are targeting, it gives people a much clearer understanding of your benefit statement, since they already understand the “Big Guy’s” branding and can make an easy comparison to yours. 

Conversely, small businesses have a wealth of benefits that work against large ones: faster and more personalized customer service, agile responses to changing market conditions, the ability to interact with customers one on one. These can be great marketing points that you can use to start your own beef. Tired of Target taking away the market for your food products? Ask your consumers in flyer or email format if they want to feed their kids the pre-packaged Target grub that traveled 4,000 miles to get to their doorstep, or the fresh, home-made goodness from just a couple blocks away.

Represent the hood

Unless you’ve decided to go all Brock Lesnar and live in the woods alone watching hunting videos, you’ve definitely heard Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ love song for their home town,  New York City. Love for your hood is hardwired into hip hop. Listen to any rap album from the past decade and you will know exactly where that rapper is from, either because they tell you straight up or they give you their area code. Similarly, graffiti artists often get their start by tagging their area or ZIP codes on passing trains, giving them the satisfaction of knowing that their names and origins are traveling to other parts of the country they may have never been.

Where you are from can be evocative, and be an instant branding point. California = sunshine, surfers and organic food. Detroit = gritty, working class, and all things auto. The Philippines = tropical beaches, heat, and happy natives who speak really good English.

In the aforementioned “Empire State of Mind,” Alicia evokes light-filled streets where dreams are made. Obviously she didn’t mention the New York crime rate, or the noise and pollution, or the fact that Wall Street is dragging us all to hell with its financial practices.  Emulate Alicia and showcase your hometown as a beautiful spot that makes your product and service so unique. Vittel and Evian water does that beautifully, as does Popeye’s chicken (Louisiana), the Bobby Flay franchise (the great Southwest), and Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers line (Japan).

Good luck, and let thecommich know if any of these strategies helps you get to the point where you can say:

I’ve got my Rollie on my arm
And I’m pouring Chandon
And I hold the best S***
Coz I got it goin’ on