Cool consumption good fit for hip-hop

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Eminem parties with Hennessy, Juvenile likes the fit of those Victoria's Secrets, R. Kelly pops Cristal in the stretch Lincoln Navigator and Kanye West sports his Air Jordans just like the drug dealers down the block, as his song goes. If one thing is certain in the melding of brand name with popular music, it's this: We've come a long way from a Cracker Jack reference in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Product placement, though decades old, has exploded in current hip-hop music. While rock and pop stars sometimes toss in an ode to their favorite videogame or sneaker, hip-hop is rife with brand name bling-bling and shout-outs to the Gucci-filled good life. Often, it's an organic mention because of personal preference or, as hip-hoppers have said, a better rhyme. But increasingly, it's a business decision made with the marketer's money on their minds.

"Hip-hop has always been very commercial-you define yourself by the things you have," says Lucian James, a brand strategist at San Francisco-based Agenda Inc. "And there's also an entrepreneurial element that's more prevalent now than ever."

Brand mentions have become so common that Mr. James started tracking them in the Billboard Top 20 and ranking them on his Agenda Inc. Web site on a list he calls "American Brandstand." He says brands as diverse as Burberry, Prada, Kmart and Ramada Inn serve as "great shorthand" in the of-the-moment poetry that is hip-hop. Others agree.

"These brands are part of the artists' lives, and what they're selling is a lifestyle," says Ryan Berger, strategic trend spotter for Havas' Euro RSCG Worldwide, the New York agency that handles Polaroid Corp. "Hip-hop artists have embraced products and will continue to rap about things they use."

back-end deals

Increasingly, those mentions turn into back-end deals. Busta Rhymes' single "Pass the Courvoisier Part II" caused a healthy bump in sales of the premium liquor and spawned a promotional alliance with Allied Domecq. Snoop Dogg rapped about Hennessy's VSOP cognac, and the brand arranged to stock the backstage areas during the hip-hopper's upcoming Projekt Revolution tour with Linkin Park and Korn. Hennessy will splash VSOP on Snoop's tour bus, effectively sponsoring him on this summer's outing.

Mr. Berger heard the now-famous Polaroid reference in OutKast's "Hey Ya" shortly before the song broke into the mainstream. The lyrics, "Shake it like a Polaroid picture," have since become part of the pop culture lexicon, what Mr. James calls "the `My Adidas' of the new millennium" referring to the Run DMC hip-hop anthem of the `80s that snagged the group a shoe endorsement deal. OutKast frontman Andre 3000 dusted off the retro product because he's a personal fan. No money exchanged hands.

Agency executives reacted quickly once they realized the potential value of the placement. They supplied OutKast with cameras for an appearance on "Saturday Night Live," the Grammys and Vibe Awards, and the NBA All-Star Game.

They threw Los Angeles and New York parties for the artists, inviting young celebrities by the score and doling out thousands of Polaroid pictures. They sent "Polarazzi" photographers to the Sundance Film Festival and other events populated by the hip and influential.

"Polaroid needed a shot in the arm, and this was one huge ad after another for the brand," Mr. Berger says. "It was amazing to see how powerful it became."

Sensing opportunity, marketers are approaching record labels about embedding their products into songs. They're finding a music community open to exploring ways to weave a brand into a song as an entree into a deeper relationship. It's hardly worth anyone's time for a marketer to pay some money, get a brand mention and walk away, says Marilyn Batchelor, VP-strategic marketing and music licensing for Universal Music's Geffen Records. "We want a brand to go into partnership with us," Ms. Batchelor says. "That's where the value is for both of us."

The relationship could include licensing an artist's music for an ad campaign, sponsoring a tour, and creating radio and retail promotions. Similarly, Ms. Batchelor tells potential marketing partners they can pay to have their products placed in a music video, but "if there's nothing more, then it just becomes a prop," she says. "I see that as a missed opportunity."

following movies' lead

Music executives are starting to look at product placement in much the same way that film studios do, Ms. Batchelor says. For instance, she's been working with an emerging artist who recently recorded a song with a brand name mentioned in it. If that marketer doesn't want to get involved with the hip-hopper, Ms. Batchelor will shop it to a competing brand. The lyric will switch to match.

It's a trend that's kicked up considerable dust among urban press, where writers have questioned whether rappers have sold out.

Because it's a brand-embedded world, Mr. James sees no reason why music can't follow the path forged by movies, reality TV, books and other entertainment. There's still a caveat: "There's a law of diminishing returns," he says. "And customers are smart enough to know if Missy Elliott starts rapping about household cleaning products, then there's something wrong."

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