Recently, Forbes fully brought hip-hop culture from the streets to Wall Street with the inaugural release of its "Hip-Hop Cash Kings" list, highlighting the 20 highest-earning artists.
While the music industry as a whole suffers, hip-hop artists and the culture continue to expand into a multibillion-dollar business as the artists have become brands unto themselves.
Whereas 10 years ago a brand buying into hip-hop was taboo, today Fortune 500 companies see the cultural power of the movement and are signing up in droves - Jay-Z and Sean "Diddy" Combs are viewed as corporate pitchmen, and corporations can no longer ignore them. Hip-hop has grown tremendously, but brands need to exercise caution when working with these artists.
Marketing to a youth-minded culture has never been easy (remember how controversial The Beatles and Elvis Presley once were?), and today, hip-hop artists are endorsing everything from CPGs to insurance and financial services providers.
We believe brands win when working with hip-hop artists by being authentic and not picking and choosing. For example, Boost Mobile works with artists on a regular basis, and its ability to not just say, "We support hip-hop," but to fully embrace the culture by using a variety of pitchmen has made its brand's hip-hop presence organic and relevant. It continues to grow with more than 4 million customers while others in the space ran (remember Verizon's short-term partnership with Akon?).
Other brands have not even needed to buy into hip-hop to reap the financial benefits. Breitling went from being a prestigious Swiss watchmaker known mainly only to watch aficionados to being a hip-hop staple, and Range Rover thrives from this market... while by and large not marketing to it.
Conversely, look at Cristal, which alienated the entire hip-hop community in a single interview, as a brand executive implied that rappers embracing the brand could affect its marquee value (couldn't he have just stayed silent as Breitling and Range Rover do?).
Those who are concerned about putting the face of their brand behind rappers need only to look at Nike and Michael Vick to see that buying into the culture, instead of the individual, minimizes risk.
Will Nike's sales suffer or face a PR crisis? No. Nike's diversity of pitchmen allows it to simply drop Vick, move on, and continue to be the mega-brand that it is. Picking a random rapper (or athlete) out of a hat and saying, "We get hip-hop," simply does not work. There is too much at stake in putting your entire brand behind an athlete or entertainer, and that's why the Atlanta Falcons brand will suffer (in terms of ticket sales) long after the NFL and Nike have moved on.
Following the mistakes of the past, today's brands understand that you can't just dip your toe into the waters of hip-hop to reap the benefit. Brands need to fully immerse themselves in the culture, or it is not organic and ultimately turns off consumers. It would be better for a brand to ignore it entirely than do it incorrectly.
Forbes recognized these rappers on its list as businesses and brand builders unto themselves, and I applaud them for it, as well as the corporations that have been harnessing and reaping the benefits of associating with this culture over the past decade.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5W Public Relations.