The Tanning of America
Chapter 1 – Walk This Way
"Curiosity as Cultural, Economic Yeast"
Haters are reactionary, hate anything new or different, and see danger in venturing off into the unknown. They are certainly not friendly to creative expansion or marketing risk. In the 1980s, a decade of conglomerate takeovers and corporate megamergers, one group of haters who stood in the way of hip-hop’s mainstream success was populated by the marketing power players at leading brands.
That’s why it was so unprecedented when Adidas marketing executive Angelo Anastasio came to Madison Square Garden and was wowed enough by what he saw to strike the endorsement deal for the trio of rappers. As it was pointed out to me by Lyor Cohen (there that night as Run-DMC’s road manager), the mainstream market appeal wasn’t the main selling point for Anastasio. The crowd that night was still mostly African-American, with a smaller percentage of Hispanic and Asian concertgoers and a sprinkling of white urban kids. But what made Anastasio different from other corporate representatives, according to Lyor, was his curiosity. He was simply open-minded enough to contemplate the possibilities of introducing hip-hop to the marketing machinery behind Adidas sneakers.
When Lyor described that night and how everything fell into place, it occurred to me how important curiosity is in general for tanning to occur. And as a marketing 101 lesson, one that I had to learn and one I have to remind corporate clients not to forget, advertising dollars don’t mean a thing without genuine curiosity about what consumers want and need. In fact, as Lyor recalled, while the Adidas/Run-DMC alliance did well for all concerned—saving the company from extinction—it could have been much more successful. Unfortunately, instead of gaining consumer insights and bringing Run, DMC, or Jam Master Jay in on designing the footwear and in on how to promote their line of sneakers, the company took over for Angelo and ran a campaign with the old-school “father knows best” approach. They let the designers try to figure out the culture and design into it without a true understanding of the consumer. They marketed via the monologue that dictates cool rather than inviting consumers to partake in the cool. That said, the Adidas missteps were going to be lessons learned for certain entrepreneurs who were paying attention and whose business wheels were starting to turn. For them, it was fortunate that there were mainstream corporate haters who even by the late 1980s weren’t curious enough to even consider hip-hop’s musical future. Why do I say that it was fortunate for these entrepreneurs? Because it allowed them and local economies to benefit and prime the pump for everyone else to follow suit.
Surprisingly, the second group of haters who slowed rap music’s mainstream success—and who weren’t curious about its potential—actually came from within the African-American community. Typically older, wealthier, assimilated generations who had come out of the era of protest and civil rights, they reacted with discomfort to the bravado of youthful aspiration and the booming bass of rap blasting out of car stereos and trekking down the streets. Their position, it seemed, was that they had worked too hard for too long, following paths into higher education and into positions of influence in politics, business, and media, to support the hip-hop phenomenon that might outshine them or disrupt their means of having stature. Black media, usually the first to back African-American entertainment, was especially resistant to embracing hip-hop. Until rap music proved itself worthy of mainstream consideration, most of the top black radio stations and video programmers just weren’t interested. In fact, there were radio stations that specifically said on air, “We don’t play rap music,” in order to get more listeners. However, because of the mostly generational divide, it forced hip-hop to become bigger than just a genre of popular music with merchandise; it forced it to prove itself in mighty ways and to develop capacities for spreading into the worlds of fashion, beauty, art, dance, sports, gaming, language, lifestyle, and eventually politics.
And that’s how the culture left behind its house party roots and really took on a life of its own to become bigger than the sum of its parts. It was like any other teenager, determined to grow up and become whoever it chose to be. If you are a marketer hoping to attract new customers without losing your core consumers, this early phase of hip-hop still has relevance for how you appeal to aspiration and how you use code to do so. As we will see later on, consumers provide all the needed cues for how to do that—as long as attention is paid to them.