Pass the Vodka Too: Musicians as Mass Marketers

With Smirnoff the Latest Spirit to Join Crowded Urban Scene, Will Hip-Hop's Effectiveness Be Diluted?

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NEW YORK (Madison & Vine) -- For the hip-hop community, clothing used to be the must-have accessory to maintain street cred and build a franchise, with everyone from Russell Simmons (Phat Farm) to Diddy (Sean John) to Nelly (Apple Bottom jeans) getting their names and brands on their fans' hats, jeans and oversized shirts.

Smirnoff is the latest spirits brand to hook up with hip-hop artists for entertainment initiatives.

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Now brand-name rappers have turned their attention from the boutique to the bar for their latest land grab: alcohol endorsements. Jay-Z unofficially kicked off the new movement two years ago by taking on an urban-marketing role for Anheuser-Busch, only to jointly launch his own advertising agency, Translation Advertising, within Interpublic Group of Cos. earlier this month.

Diddy continued the trend last fall by taking on marketing duties for Diageo's Ciroc brand, aiming to make the nascent vodka the "official vodka for New Year's Eve."

A crowded category
But a pair of deals this week from Diageo's Smirnoff Vodka and Drinks America, bringing rappers like Common and Dr. Dre into the increasingly crowded market of hip-hop booze tie-ins, begs the question: Will too many rappers vying for fans to share their affinity for their favorite liquors enhance or ultimately dilute the effect?

Name-checking spirits has always been a natural part of hip-hop lyrics and culture, with even Diddy going so far as to name his 2001 single with Busta Rhymes and Pharrell "Pass the Courvoisier." But for the marketers reaching the increasingly brand-loyal hip-hop fan, it's just as much about reaching a community as it is about maintaining credibility for the rapper and the industry at large.

Drinks America, a company founded in 2004 by J. Patrick Kenny, a beverage-industry vet of Joseph E. Seagram Company and Coca-Cola, links personalities like Donald Trump and Willie Nelson with custom-created liquor beverages to put a celebrity-bent spin on booze market. Another new partnership inked this week will give rapper/producer and Death Row Records impresario Dr. Dre his own tequila, created specificially for him. The Dr. Dre deal represents the first music deal to come out of Drinks America's partnership with Interscope Records, which was inked last summer.

"Music being the soundtrack of a lifestyle is something that's very attractive to corporate America," said Rob Stone, co-founder and president of Cornerstone, a lifestyle branding agency that recently helped Nike become likely the first marketer to score a Grammy nomination for a branded song. "You're going to start seeing more brands and artists get together because it's so much a part of the scene they're trying to get into."
Rob Stone, co-founder and president of Cornerstone
Rob Stone, co-founder and president of Cornerstone

In the case of Smirnoff, that means marrying the brand with the music itself, without turning the product into a glorified rap jingle. The vodka brand commissioned KRS-One, Common and Q-Tip to update one of their classic songs to connect musician with a flavored vodka for its Smirnoff Signature Mix Series (see sidebar). Jody Samuels Ike, senior brand manager for Smirnoff, said the campaign speaks to Diageo's broader goal of reaching consumers based on their lifestyle habits.

Hip-hop's universal appeal
"We're looking to say who's the consumer we want to target, where are they, what are they enjoying and how can we insert our brand into their activity and how we approach from Smirnoff's point of view," she said. "We really think hip-hop is almost universal and appeals to so many different people. Our hope is consumers will look at Smirnoff and say, 'Wow, they brought me something original that was a unique partner who brought me something in original ways."

Considering that hip-hop is arguably one of the last musical genres to aggressively target all sectors of the marketing and media community, the barometer for perceived credibility in the music industry has shifted drastically. Long gone are the days when an artist like Michael Jackson cut a high-profile deal with Pepsi to promote their products in their ads and on tour. Omnipresent performers Beyonce and Fergie can now have multiple endorsement deals with different brands as their album sales dip millions below the number they would have sold even five years ago.

Beyonce and Fergie are the perfect examples of the next wave of music branding, said James McQuivey, a Forrester analyst who recently penned a report entitled "The Death of the Music Indsutry As We Know It." "They make music essentially as a promotional tool to make sure you want to dress like them and smell like them." In the case of pop songstress Fergie, who shills for everyone from Verizon to Candie's as a solo artist to a whole separate group of brand relationships with her group the Black Eyed Peas, "She didn't come from a genre where selling out was ever a taboo," Mr. McQuivey said.

Crucial branded tie-ins
For new artists, it's become nearly impossible to develop a major following without a branded tie-in. Many of the major breakout music stars of the past year, from Paramore to Sara Bareilles to Feist, have all benefitted from a corporate tie-in or licensing of their song via an ad. "All brands have become music promotion houses," Mr. McQuivey said.

But with so many moving parts attached in today's modern music endorsement deal, creating these strategic brand partnerships with musicians is something Cornerstone's Mr. Stone doesn't take lightly.

"Do it the wrong way and it can backfire and set your brand back immensely," he said. "What we saw with the Nike project was we created something that didn't exist. Watching the YouTube views go from 3,000 to 12,000 to close to 3 million views changed that. Watching the radio story, if you're hearing a Jay-Z or a Kanye West track, then hearing the Nike record, or hearing the KRS-One record in mix shows, it's an exciting feeling to see this as part of the hip-hop culture. There's an understanding that as long as it's credible and done for the right reasons it can live in that world."
At the Smirnoff Signature Mix Series Launch

Credit: Dorothy Hong
Pairing MCs Common, Q-tip and KRS One with Just Blaze, Cool and Dre, and DJ Premier to remix iconic tunes such as "Midnight" and "Criminal Mind" is a surefire way to make hip-hop history. Branding the partnership, event and resulting song with a corresponding drink is a surefire way to drive brand consideration from the culture.

New York's Element nightclub was the kickoff site for Smirnoff's Signature Mix Series campaign Feb. 26, featuring exclusive performances by the artists on a Smirnoff-emblazoned mike, free samples of "Blueberry Abstract" and "Cypher" drinks inspired by the songs (and served by waitresses tagged with the brand), and a press conference headed by TV hip-hop personality Sway, all brought together by ambitious thinking between Smirnoff and marketing firm Cornerstone.

With an all-star cast dropping plenty of shout-outs to Smirnoff and fans wrapped around the surrounding blocks, the event seemed a like a success for the No. 1 U.S. vodka brand.

In true marketing fashion, the rappers and DJs held a panel discussion and took questions from the press. One of the main participating motivations shared by all performers was their respect and desire to work with each other.

"There are few opportunities to be a part of something classic in hip-hop these days," said Dre, "and a lot of artists aren't on the level as the people on this panel." The rappers, who depend on the club scene, agreed alcohol was a fitting product to pair with. But the motivation to shun underground glory for the branded limelight came from the executives who approached them.

"After 20 years of working, our fans are now the execs and product managers," said KRS One. "They're coming with our first albums in hand saying they want to work with us."

A healthy skepticism still remains: "When doing business with corporate America, use your culture as a condom," KRS One said. "This shows growth for hip-hop culture, and its good business for all of us. People should be asking more what impact hip-hop culture will have on corporate America." -- Jonathan Lemonnier
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