Conan, It’s More Like “Intro to Benjamins”

Jan. 18, 2013

Six years ago, the hip-hop industry’s worth was at an astounding $10 billion, according to a CBS News report. With an uptick in artists starting their own brands – and many mainstream companies speaking directly to these consumers – it’s fair to assume that such a monetary figure, and the subsequent economic impact the culture has affected, has multiplied quite dramatically.

So, when people were naysaying the UA’s newly announced hip-hop minor and suggesting that it wasn't a serious matter of study, I was slightly surprised, but not entirely shocked.

Being a marketer and having worked Nike, a brand that is deeply entrenched within this subculture, I can easily see the worth and real-world application of this concentration being offered at the UA.

I may enjoy hip-hop music, but I’ve never analyzed the nuances of the genre, much less the culture. Had I done so in college, I would have brought a greater understanding of the culture hip-hop music has created to communicating with this very specific audience. If I had better understood what influences this audience, I could have brought a greater benefit to both the Nike brand and its customers (saving some the countless eye rolls when a message went out that used “old” slang terms).

But, for those who aren’t entrenched in a world that requires you to analyze and have empathy for all people at all times, I can see why this minor would cause confusion or even a few misguided jokes, such as those from Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien.

Stephen Colbert and the UA tweet about the University's hip-hop minor.

Knowing this is the nation’s first hip-hop concentration, I can’t help but think that it’s been needed for quite sometime. As highlighted in Rob Walker's "Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are," Timberland boots have become so iconic, largely due to hip-hop culture – and long before the days of famous rappers wearing them.

Just like hip-hop, the brand was first introduced to this audience in the streets of urban cities, with trendsetting youth discovering the boots and wearing them because they not only kept their feet dry and warm, but because they looked tough and were considered a luxury item due to the high price point. As many youth use brands to say something about themselves, Timberland boots said something about the culture, making it the boots a stylistic manifestation of the group's plight, as this genre was born out of the struggle people of color were experiencing. 

But, years ago, Timberland boots were a working man’s shoe of choice. When the hip-hop industry took a liking to the leather footwear provided by the brand in the 1980s, the company alienated the audience completely, even despite seeing this buying behavior and recognizing its potential.

It took years for the company to come to terms with targeting this audience so publicly and directly – largely for a fear of losing their original brand advocates and allowing the brand to change its image so dramatically. Had this schooling been available, communication professionals could have had a better understanding of not only how to market to these individuals, but also how to leverage their influence much sooner.

Furthermore, having that background knowledge and looking at both segments in an analytical manner may have provided commonalities that could have been taken advantage of in order to speak to both urban youth and blue collar workers simultaneously, never having the alienate or ignore the other.

When Timberland finally started addressing this audience, their sales more than tripled

However, fashion is just one of the many avenues where hip-hop culture and companies intertwine.

In the past few decades, we've seen the media and entertainment industries take note of this audience, with BET and Vibe being prime examples, as well as social networks like Black Planet rise up. The culture is also influencing social and political change, such as with Russel Simmons and Benjamin Chavis' Hip-Hop Action Summit Networks' Rock the Vote program, which helped procure the largest youth voter turn-out in American history. With slam poetry and street art becoming recognized as serious forms of art, hip-hop culture has even furthered its influence on the mainstream.

Whether it’s to comprehend how to embed a brand within this subculture, have a greater understanding of the influence of modern day music on social and political landscapes or to gain a greater appreciation for the genre, I see this as a truly worthwhile major for those who seek to work in music, business and many other fields.

The UA is planning to explore how hip-hop culture and business can benefit from each other.

As UA Africana studies director Alain-Philippe Durand stated in the Newsday BBC World Radio morning show, “the next one I want to create, in collaboration with the College of Management, is a Marketing of Hip-Hop class …because people like Sean Combs and Jay-Z, they are entrepreneurs.”

I’m looking forward to a new generation of marketers and entrepreneurs that truly understand and can authentically speak to this audience, as well as to fewer eye rolls directed at brands.

Jessica Carlson is the social media manager for the University of Arizona, as well as an alumna. Carlson has worked in advertsing agencies and brand strategy firms in the Phoenix area, assisting clients such as Nike, the Arizona Office of Tourism, PetSmart, Suzuki and HERSHEY'S.