Real Recognize Real: Harnessing Marketing Lessons from Hip-Hop

Hip-hop culture has always been about marketing. As the music category in general has become intertwined with social media and brand partnerships, hip-hop and R&B artists continue to be a go-to source for boosting brand awareness and, in many cases, making a difference at the same time.

Arjun Chawla

Associate Director at C Space

Arjun Chawla is an Associate Director at C Space Boston and self-proclaimed “hip-hop head.” Arjun began his career at Goldman Sachs and now advises brands across a range of industries, including technology, retail, fashion and automotive – on youth marketing strategy, consumer insights, emerging trends and innovation. He’s led projects for Fortune 100 clients and is the co-author of the C Space CQ™ report on the US Automotive Industry.

Hip-hop culture has always been about marketing. In the 1970s and 80s, early New York graffiti artists and breakdancing crews essentially branded themselves by creating styles recognizable in the five boroughs and beyond.

In the 90s, as hip-hop music became more popular and more aspirational, brands began to more formally leverage the influence of rappers and R&B artists to market products.

And from the late 90s to the early aughts, rappers increasingly used technology in innovative ways to build their brands. Look no further than something you probably made plenty of when you were a kid: the mixtape. 50 Cent was a pioneer of the modern mixtape movement; by making his demo CDs look as professional as major releases, he was able to realize and harness the power of packaging and make a lasting impression. And even as physical mixtapes started to become accompanied or replaced by digital versions, artists like Lil Wayne – a modern mixtape master – used similar savvy packaging techniques to build buzz online that helped propel them to platinum.

Even today, as the music category in general has become intertwined with social media and brand partnerships – to the tune of roughly $2 billion, according to Billboard – hip-hop and R&B artists continue to be a go-to source for boosting brand awareness and, in many cases, making a difference at the same time.

Young Jeezy just launched a music mentoring program in partnership with Tequila Avión, a brand he’s worked with since 2013. This partnership is a fantastic example of a leader actually listening: Avión CEO Ken Austin realized that Jeezy was proactively giving his brand props in his music, prompting him to reach out and build a relationship that led to Jeezy being brought on as the brand’s “Multicultural Advisor.” Young Jeezy, in a Forbes interview with him and Ken Austin, said:

“Consumers love brands they can put a face to, relate to and that genuinely care about them. If you stay true to your roots, which Ken has, it’s easier for consumers to see that authenticity behind a brand.”

If that quote doesn’t convey the feel that rappers have for marketing and branding, I’m not sure what does. And speaking of authenticity, this new documentary-style video featuring rapper Rick Ross is actually – and stealthily – an ad for Checkers restaurants. The nostalgic narrative from Ross flows so naturally because it’s true; it’s a reflection on his journey and the role the restaurant has played in his life.

Brands that combine realness and storytelling can achieve marketing nirvana. But they can’t be fake about it. And so, even companies that don’t see themselves as connected to hip-hop can still harness lessons from these examples on a broader scale in terms of how they listen or engage. For example, tuning into who’s proactively talking about the brand in unexpected ways. Or making storytelling not just more focused on people, but on people for whom the brand has real meaning. After all, especially to young consumers who have a voracious appetite for authenticity, real recognizes real.

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