Roca breakout dogged by rap's rap

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Urban apparel marketer Rocawear wants to be taken seriously by major marketers. But a hotly-disputed lawsuit charging CEO Damon Dash with rape and the potential departure of one of the founders are throwing off the company's plans to break into the mainstream.

The headlines underscore the risk for marketers who want to grab onto the popularity of hip-hop culture but are loath to be associated with its darker sides-which can include violent crimes and explicit lyrics featuring sexual slurs and drug references. Last month, rape allegations were levied by a former model against Mr. Dash in a civil lawsuit filed in New York. Mr. Dash founded Roc-A-Fella Records in 1997 with rapper Jay-Z and Kareem "Biggs" Burke and has headed up the subsequent expansion of the label to a variety of product categories. Jay-Z, whose image has lent credibility to Rocawear, is now planning to retire as a recording artist and focus on his own business ventures outside of the ROC family.

The lawsuit comes just four months after the over $300 million brand reorganized its marketing team to start an in-house ad agency and reach out to potential corporate partners.

The allegations "are complete rubbish," said David Gensler, the 29-year-old youth-culture agency wunderkind brought in nearly a year ago by Mr. Dash as chief brand officer of ROC brands and as CEO of in-house agency Native/DBG. "It is a shame that we live in a culture where complete lies make the front page. Of course, this will not affect any of the brands. ... Our consumers know what's up."

In fact, Matt Fontana, senior VP-global brands for Marc Ecko Enterprises, owner of Rocawear competitor Ecko Unlimited, said such media-hyped criminal allegations against wealthy black males are so common that they no longer surprise people, especially not many who wear Rocawear or Ecko brands. "Most of our product placements appear on `Cops,"' Mr. Fontana said.

Marketing consultants agree that corporate America is finally getting wise to the fact that "urban culture is defining pop culture today," but one executive said such desires contain caveats: "Marketers want the exuberance and dynamics of hip-hop and the urban market, but they want to find ways to contain the unruly side of it."

a family company

Ford Motor Co.'s Rich Stoddart, who oversees advertising as marketing communications manager of Ford Division, said the marketer works with WPP Group-linked Uniworld, New York, to reach the urban market. But at this point the brand hasn't developed any hip-hop partnerships. Ford is a family company, so "we may think a little bit harder" about partners, he said. He pointed to the Ford Division's partners, country star Toby Keith and golfer Phil Mickelson, as stars who are right for the brand.

Mr. Gensler, meanwhile, hopes to dispel the "scary reputation" of the hip-hop world and instead use Native to help cross-promote ROC brands and offer the company's immense and growing youth-culture reach of the family of brands to corporate partners. The portfolio, led by the most profitable Rocawear and State Property apparel labels, now encompasses record and film labels; Armadale Vodka; a magazine, America; and a sports apparel brand, Team Roc. Mr. Gensler said six other brands are in development and intimated that deals to own a TV station and tie in with a car marketer are also in the offing.

"The key ingredient to all of this is cross-promotion at every point of contact ... to have these brands feed off each other the way they would in a Procter & Gamble" Mr. Gensler said.

Kicking off the unified efforts is a corporate strategy dubbed La Familia, which will leverage the large stable of Roc-A-Fella Records artists and other celebrities and "tastemakers" affiliated with the brands across events, advertising and the Internet.

At least 15 "ROC weekends" have been scheduled this year, tied in some cases to existing events such as the Super Bowl and NBA All-Stars, to barrage cities such as Houston, Los Angeles and Miami Beach and gain exposure for all the brands. The weekends will feature a variety of events from Rocawear fashion shows to Roc Celebrity Basketball games to screenings of films from Roc-A-Fella or Dash Films. According to Mr. Gensler, Roc will play up its longstanding relationships with radio stations to "flood a marketplace" with information about the events.

Meanwhile, three print efforts are set to debut this month to push the company's biggest apparel brands. A campaign for Rocawear features some of the more than 1,000 images celebrity photographer Albert Watson shot of supermodel Omahyra and Roc-A-Fella artists such as Kanye West and Jim Jones. Many of them are shown with their children to "show the softer side of hip-hop artists," said Aki Spicer, VP-marketing for Rocawear and State Property and director of marketing for ROC brands.

a new currency

A State Property campaign plays off the idea of the brand and its rap endorser Beanie Siegel as a burgeoning republic and its leader. For Team Roc, a sports brand making its debut in Foot Locker next month, ads feature kids from the New York Mission Society after-school basketball program in Harlem, Mr. Dash's pet charity.

Finally, ROC brands and Native are working hard at building their brands through "partnering up." Mr. Spicer compares the strategy to that of Walt Disney Co., "a synergistic conglomerate tying everything together within their own properties and outside brands."

In that regard, Roc is not alone. Ecko, which this month launches a campaign touting Playboy's 50th anniversary by featuring Hugh Hefner, has recently inked a software deal with Atari and has started manufacturing toys.

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