SUBMITTED BY: Erin Patton, The Mastermind Group
Back home, Hip-Hop music and the urban lifestyle continued to influence a growing multicultural experience and form a “psychographic” mindset that was transcending race. At the same time, it had become painfully obvious that our clients at Edelman were “brain cramping” on multicultural marketing and trying to digest how to reach these vastly different cultural affinity groups, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and how to prioritize budgets against them. They got stuck on tactical issues such as reaching Hispanics in English or translating to Spanish language and made the natural leap and false assumption that African Americans could be reached via mainstream media since no translation was required.
Companies often try to find a common nexus to reach all of their customers and perceive multicultural marketing outreach in large part as more of an altruistic imperative than a business imperative. As the urban audience grew and became less monolithic and more transcultural, I recognized that it was necessary to decode the urban market through an advanced, strategic approach that elevated the opportunity. It needed to reflect the urban market’s influence on the mainstream in a way that evolved beyond the prevailing theme of hitching brands to popular trends or simply “what, or who, is hot.” Urban became the buzzword.
The evolution of an urban philosophy
What is “Urban?” In America’s consumer-driven matrix, this is a $300 billion question. I submit that urban is no longer a demographic, but has become a psychographic, a mindset shaped by the cultural phenomenon born in the 1970s called Hip-Hop. The false perception in corporate America is that the urban market equals African Americans. African Americans are a racial, demographic group. Urban is a mindset.
Hip-Hop philosopher KRS-One said that Hip-Hop is an attitude, an awareness, and a way to view the world. From Beijing to the Bronx. From street ball courts in the inner city to skate parks in the suburbs. On at least three or four radio stations in every major city, urban has become the chosen format for the current generation, who are not just Black listeners. However, given that the music and art form was born out of the urban environment, “urban” has pretty much come to be inextricably linked to Hip-Hop and the inner-city Black experience. The term has come to represent a fairly narrow perception and conjures up certain stereotypes in the minds of the mainstream.
The mainstream powers, notwithstanding the entertainment industry and a few select brands, weren’t receptive to tuning into a frequency they could not understand and thought would be confined to a fad in the late 90s and after the 2000 Census. Urban was undesirable to most of the mainstream palate whose taste buds found its flavor a bit spicy. However, a few successful insider brands continued to develop recipes with urban as the main ingredient.
Fast forward to today. Urban culture is extremely desirable to the degree that 50 Cent has moved from underground artist at the start of the century to managing a brand empire that now encompasses his core businesses of music and fashion in addition to revenue streams from movies, video games, ringtones, a signature deodorant, and flavored water.
According to Fortune magazine, he pulled in $150 million in pretax in 2007. Much of that 2007 windfall came when 50 Cent made $100 million from his stake in Vitamin Water parent Glaceau when it was sold to Coca-Cola.
Jay-Z has lyrically hailed his intuitive ability to predict the future “like Cleo the psychic,” but not even he could have predicted he would be able to go from self-professed street hustler to President & CEO of Def Jam records. He oversees a portfolio of brands that landed him at Number 7 on the 2008 Fortune Magazine Celebrity 100 list.
In addition to music, clothing, and his posh sports lounge 40/40, Jay-Z negotiated a landmark deal with LiveNation for $300 million, which also underscored the value of an urban mass-market audience. So why is “urban” all of a sudden so desirable to corporate America? In addition to the obvious economic benefits, the answer can be traced to what is taking place in America on a macro level. In short, urban is desirable because urban is no longer just Black. Urban has been revitalized for mainstream consumption. In places like Chicago, housing projects such as the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green have been torn down and replaced by lavish town houses, condominiums, and shops. The same thing is happening in Harlem and cities throughout the country.
Furthermore, as poor inner-city Blacks are being displaced to the southern outskirts of Chicago, the wealthy of all races are migrating back to the city center from the saturated suburban areas. The migration is being supported with commercial and residential investment, not to mention the cultural and entertainment benefits that come with being located at the city’s center where all of the activity is taking place. Cities such as Los Angeles and Dallas are revitalizing once-depressed areas with retail developments, shopping villages, high-end boutiques and luxury residences now being marketed as “urban lifestyle.”
Likewise, given the popularity of urban culture, mainstream marketers are now eager to build their brand home in the urban zip code where the marketing action is. In essence, the perception of what “urban” is has changed. And that is both a good thing and an evolution that was inevitable given the growing impact of urban culture on this current generation.
Urban is a psychographic, not a demographic
Urban is young. Urban is mature. Urban is multicultural. Urban is multiracial. Urban is classic. Urban is contemporary. Urban is grimy. Urban is luxury. Urban is suburban. Urban is “so hood” as DJ Khaled from Miami boasted in his 2007 anthem. Urban is 50 Cent. Urban is Eminem. Urban is a “psychographic” not a demographic. Urban is a mindset, based on shared lifestyle interests, not race alone, especially among this generation of youth. Urban is . . . not just Black anymore. On the one hand, this paradigm shift is a good thing, as African Americans have been fighting stereotypical images and monolithic perceptions associated with urban culture in mass media and advertising for a long time. Just as urban culture has evolved, African Americans have also evolved into a broad tapestry of experiences and perspectives, albeit woven with common threads.
There are a multitude of inspirations and expressions within the culture that appeal to its broader sensibilities. As such, it takes more than a Hip-Hop jingle to get African Americans to purchase a brand. At the same time, African Americans want long overdue credit for the creativity and innovation they have contributed to pop culture. On the other hand, it requires that African-American marketers, media, advertising agencies and the broader community assume a leadership position in defining this new mainstream for their constituents and clients. Given the influence of urban culture as the driver of popular culture, many outside of the culture will be actively engaged in marketing and distributing it, which means that the competition will be even greater.
It also means the culture will be subject to “urbansploitation” stereotypes and other pitfalls by mainstream marketers which I’ll address in a later chapter. While urban does transcend race, make no mistake, the African-American and Latino urban experience will continue to set the pace for this current generation of change, popular culture, and the global economy.
Arguably, African Americans are among the most creative and innovative population on the planet and are the engine driving mainstream urban culture. This is a combined force of their DNA and their experience of having to “make a way out of no way” and predict their own future by creating it. What African Americans have contributed to the urban market and broader pop culture is the notion of reinvention as a necessary mode of survival. As a result, urban consumers are constantly reinventing themselves and the world around them.
With a flurry of such innovation and reinvention in the 1990s combined with a refinement of tastes and realized aspirations, Hip- Hop’s Generation X transformed popular culture in a profound way. Around this same time, I began to detect different segments coalescing around this urban mindset and current generation that transcended race, age, and gender. For the first time in our nation’s history, a new generation was emerging without racial boundaries. They were identified less by racial differences and more by their common interests that would eventually propel Barack Obama, who embodies this very notion, to become the first African American to be elected President of the United States.
President Obama also took a page from Hip-Hop’s Generation X audience by making a way from no way and creating a new future with an insurgency campaign built on a platform of change and transcendence. Obama gave a not-so-subtle nod to the origins of this notion within Hip-Hop’s Generation X as he mimicked a wiping gesture taken from Jay-Z’s song Dirt Off Your Shoulders during a press conference after staging an impressive primary victory and facing an onslaught of negative attacks from Hillary Clinton.
Beyond the Benetton utopia of years past, this new paradigm was based on a very real set of experiences and cultural exchanges enhanced by digital technology and delivered through music, podcasts, blogs, and other interactive, multimedia platforms connecting Hip-Hop and urban culture throughout the global village in ways never imagined.
This new paradigm has fundamentally changed the way brands are being forced to market to the current generation. The traditional race-based approach is no longer effective. This new paradigm requires “psychographic” approach and segmentation that addresses the nuances within various urban segments to create a customized brand experience for specific audiences.
The 7 Ciphers
What has been lacking is a framework for this new paradigm. After spending years studying the urban consumer behavior and market dynamics, I emerged from the lab convinced I had found the solution. Adopting a relevant term in Hip-Hop vernacular I called the segments the 7 Ciphers:
- Core Urban
- Tertiary Urban
- Contemporary Urban
- Alternative Urban
- Vintage Urban
- Organic Urban
Webster’s Dictionary defines a cipher as: “n. A cryptographic system in which units are arbitrarily transposed or substituted according to a predetermined key; the key to such a system: to put into secret writing; a message in cipher; a design combining or interweaving letters or initials.”
In this case, the system is the global marketplace and the units are the teens and various consumer actors who have adopted an urban mindset. The designs combining or interweaving letters or initials are the various sub-segments, which have formed as a result of the proliferation of Hip-Hop culture and lifestyle. The goal for marketers is to decode the ciphers to determine the right message to communicate with them.
This phenomenon reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, A Beautiful Mind with Russell Crowe, where the genius mathematician John Nash is called to the Pentagon to decode a secret cipher to thwart the plans of a group planning to attack the United States. I suggest that the same thing is happening with the urban market. Instead of the Pentagon, the suits are corporate America’s brand managers. Brand managers in an ever-widening array of companies are asking themselves the same questions:
- What is the size of this market?
- How do we quantify it?
- How do we reach the urban market in a strategic fashion without compromising our core audience?
- How do we identify what and where the next trends are going to be?
- How do we communicate our brand language in a way the urban consumer understands without being too patronizing?
- What is the best way to approach the urban market?
- Who is doing the best job of it?
- Is this a strategy or a tactic?
- Why is this happening to our brand?
From: Under The Influence: Tracing the Hip-Hop Generation’s Impact on Brands, Sports and Pop Culture