American Renaissance

Automakers Find Hip-Hop Brings Bling to Bottom Line

Marketers court young, edgy crowd

Jason Stein, Automotive News, Mar. 3

Word up, automotive decision-makers. There’s more bling bling on your bottom line.

Hip-hop has become music to the auto industry’s ears. Mercedes-Benz partners with rapper Jay-Z. General Motors offers the title “King of Bling” to the rapper, athlete or actor who can best customize a Hummer or Cadillac. Ford Motor Co. talks about more “urban” styling.

“And urban is directly related to hip-hop,” said J Mays, Ford’s design chief. “I’m talking about P. Diddy, Lil’ Kim, Eminem, droopy jeans, bling bling. It’s cool.”

In their constant pursuit of younger customers, auto executives are devoting large and growing parts of their advertising budgets to hip-hop and urban audiences. As the definition of “bling bling” has grown from a synonym for diamonds and flashy jewelry to an expression of showy style, hip-hop artists have defined certain vehicles as metaphors for their social standing. Their influence on consumers has raised the must-have value of the brands.

“It has been a totally great surprise,” said Mark LaNeve, Cadillac’s general manager. The Cadillac Escalade SUV is a dominant symbol of hip-hop culture. “In terms of generating anything that is targeted to that group, no, we can’t take credit for it. We’re too busy to know what’s cool. We let the kids tell us.”

Pontiac said it has increased its urban advertising budget by more than 40 percent over the past two years.

Last year, Pontiac sponsored the Source Hip-Hop Music Awards, brokered deals to place its products in videos and created a hip-hop song to launch its Vibe sport wagon.

“Hip-hop has been great for us,” said Mary Kubitskey, Pontiac’s advertising manager. “And we’re going to get more aggressive.

“The hip-hop audience is who is watching TV, surfing the Internet, and who is creating awareness, opinion and consideration,” she said. “It’s the car buyer we want looking at new Pontiacs.”

Hip-hop help

Other automakers are pursuing similar agendas. Normally staid Mercedes-Benz USA LLC tapped International Creative Management, a talent agency in Los Angeles, to help it fashion an image in the hip-hop world. That strategy includes exclusive music, TV and other entertainment properties.

Last year Mercedes used Jay-’Zs “The Black Album” in a contest to give away three C230s. Mercedes also included the rapper’s lyrics in some of its advertising.

Volvo is creating commercials for its new S40 with hip-hop band Dilated Peoples. GMC has partnered with Carol H. Williams Advertising in Oakland, Calif., to develop edgier advertising for its Yukon. GMC is focusing on magazines aimed primarily at young black men, such as Source, Rides and Complex.

Hip-hop is playing well with mainstream America, affecting tastes not only in music but also in food and clothing — and cars. Hip-hop’s audience is getting older, more affluent and better educated, said Josh Taekman, president of Buzztone, a marketing agency in New York and Los Angeles.

“Corporate America has realized this audience has so much influence and so much of an impact-creating buzz,” Taekman said. “Hip-hop is providing a lot of media exposure right now. And it’s definitely here to stay.”

’For better or worse’

Ford’s Mays says hip-hop “is overt, and it’s in your face, and it’s a little scary, and it’s a little dangerous. It can be at times even a little vulgar. But I think it’s sort of the world we live in, for better or worse, right now.”

According to a study by San Francisco marketing consultant Lucian James, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Cadillac were mentioned more than 200 times in top-20 songs last year, the most of any automotive brands. Mercedes had 112 such mentions.

James is president of Agenda, a company that produces the American Brandstand list, which tabulates brand mentions in songs on Billboard magazine’s top-20 charts. He said the list is a key barometer of brand relevance to youth culture.

“I know from the brands contacting us, a lot of car companies are watching their place in the Billboard chart,” James said. “I think automotive companies are interested in pop culture. You create the meaning, but in pop culture the audience creates the message you hadn’t thought about.”

Controversy

There are risks. Hip-hop lyrics that mention brands also can focus on sex, drugs and violence. 50 Cent raps about rolling up to a club in a Mercedes-Benz with “20 knives.” Ja Rule describes explicit sex acts “in the back seat of my Yukon.”

“We would be vehemently opposed to any lyrics about violence and drugs,” Cadillac’s LaNeve said. “But we can’t control that. Our attitude would be to stay out of it. If something came up that is portrayed as harmful to society or the product image, we would try to look into that.”

At the same time, automakers might not want their products associated with controversial rappers.

“We don’t want to identify with a specific artist,” Pontiac’s Kubitskey said. “There’s a risk there. We’re going to be careful, but we’re not afraid of it. Corporate sponsors everywhere are getting in trouble. But you can’t close the door or it will put you at a disadvantage.”

GM said it does not pay for hip-hop endorsements so that it can keep an arm’s-length relationship with artists.

James said it’s unclear what would happen “when a brand gets really dissed in a music lyric.”

“Right now (automotive) lawyers are not creating any problems for brands,” he said. “But there will at some point be a criticism where the lawyers start to swirl. But then that draws more attention to the brand.”

’Bling-bling crowd’

When the Escalade went on sale in late 1998, Cadillac targeted an older demographic. Its basic media strategy did not include black buyers.

But the Escalade achieved mentions in hip-hop hits and incidental product placements on the TV show “MTV Cribs,” in which music celebrities show off their household luxury goods. Cadillac adjusted its marketing of the Escalade to focus on urban settings.

“We knew we were fighting the imagery of Cadillac as the country club set,” LaNeve said. “But what this means is that the bling-bling crowd has some interesting Cadillacs.”

Still, when Outkast sings, “Don’t want to meet your daddy/Just want you in my Caddy,” LaNeve has an honest response: “I’m glad I don’t have daughters.”