American Brandstand

Lucian James, founder of brand consultancy Agenda, explains how his tracking of product mentions in hip hop lyrics can pay off for marketers

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Kanye West's debut album, The College Dropout, earned the 28-year-old rapper 10 Grammy nominations, went multiplatinum, and sold 2.7 million copies in the U.S. Which explains the crescendo of anticipation leading up to the Aug. 30 release of his follow-up, Late Registration. The album is almost guaranteed to rocket up The Billboard 20 (The College Dropout peaked at No. 2), which means it will also make its mark on a different index: American Brandstand.

Launched two years ago by the boutique San Francisco-based brand consultancy Agenda Inc., American Brandstand is an ongoing effort to track the number of mentions of a brand in the lyrics of the Billboard Top 20 singles chart, and last year West emerged as the most name-dropping artist on the list.

While Agenda's principals have never presented their findings as rigorous science, they do see the numbers as a strong barometer of a brand's perceived value among trend-setting youth. "For a brand to be successful today, it can't be created back at headquarters," says Agenda founder Lucian James. "Brands have a life of their own in pop culture. Companies have to understand that and learn to incorporate it."

On the eve of West's new album, James talked to BusinessWeek Online about hip hop, Burberry, and the uncontrollable nature of the public imagination. Following are edited excerpts:

Why did you start American Brandstand?

We help brands understand pop culture. We've worked with Hennessy, Lexus, Pepsi, HP. A few years ago, we were working with a big American fashion brand and realized that they were reading Women's Wear Daily but weren't watching MTV. Brands need to be where their customers are, and to show them that, we created American Brandstand.

What can American Brandstand tell us that, say, the Interbrand 100 or other product-placement data can't?

One of the things it does is it demonstrates which brands have captured the public imagination. Successful brands can't be perfectly created back at headquarters. So American Brandstand reflects how brands are being interpreted by pop culture, and especially by hip hop culture, which will become incredibly important to watch as it becomes more global.

Why is hip hop more commercial than other forms of music?

It represents the American dream. It's very aspirational. Rock songs are more about love and sadness. But also, the people in hip hop are very entrepreneurial. Russell Simmons took the executives from Adidas to a Run-DMC show so they could see the fans waving Adidas in the air. He signed a deal based on that.

So are these references basically product placements?

For a long time it was a grey area. Russell Simmons got Adidas and Run DMV connected, but that was after the "My Adidas song" came out. Though I think the relationships are getting closer. Last year, Petey Pablo gave Seagram's gin a shout-out in one song, saying "I'm drinking it and they're paying me for it."

A lot of people in branding have tried to reach out to hip hop stars, but those efforts haven't been very successful, and there's no real science to it. No company wants to pay for a product mention in a specific song because they don't know how the song will do. The one company that seems to be trying to make a science out of it is Maven Strategies, which launched a campaign to get artists to mention the Big Mac. They devised a model in which the artist gets paid based on how well the song does.

Over the last few years a lot of people have said hip hop has sold out, that it's full of advertorials. But I take a different point of view. If 50 cent mentions Gucci, you know it's a global metaphor for success. When he talks about taking women back to the Holiday Inn, you know that's a different kind of night than if he took a woman to the Four Seasons. He uses brands as metaphors to convey an idea very quickly.

So which brands seem to have caught the hip hop imagination?

There are iconic brands like Hennessy and Mercedes that always do well. Some brands are in and out.

Do companies worry about being dissed? Kanye West seems to have quite a problem with Gap.

Yeah, but dissing seems to be pretty rare. It's less about "I wear Nike and Adidas sucks." It's more in the metaphorical use, a way of telling story. Kanye sings more than one song about crashing a Lexus, but he's not blaming the company for a poor steering column.

And how have difference companies responded?

There's a range of reactions. Hennessy has always been aware that it has had a passionate following among African Americans, and it enjoys that but without capitalizing on it. Cadillac has actively engaged African Americans in the creation of their cars, doing pre-focus groups with leading-edge African Americas. They seem to understand that brands live in the imagination of their customers.

Burberry, in contrast, was really caught off guard when hip hop stars started wearing its clothes. The company even went so far as to send out a press release stating that the company doesn't make efforts to reach out to any specific community including the hip hop. The company had tried to recreate its brand in 2002 and had certain ideas about what they wanted it to be.

And it didn't involve an association with hip hop. What could or should Burberry have done. Does the American Brandstand research offer any insights for brand management?

What companies should be aware of is that a brand has a life in pop culture that might be outside the life they expected for their brand. It's more about understanding that your brand can take on a life of its own and finding a way to track that. Hennessy is very good at that. It has a completely different life in the U.S. than in Europe.

Are the days of global brand management over?

No, but it should often be two-speed. The key fundamentals of the brand will be the same in every market, but you need a fast-responding layer of attributes that might be peeled off or put on depending on the local market. You have to understand what customers are getting from their brand and incorporate that.

Sounds like an open-source approach.

There's certainly an element of that. If you think of the iPod marketing and how successfully Apple has been able to absorb the public's response.

So what are the trends for 2005?

Building on 2004, there's an increasing sophistication of references, including more lifestyle brands. It was less about Gucci, Gucci, Gucci. But so far this year, references seem to be down.

Why is that?

Hip hop reinvents itself every three years, and I think we're moving out of the bling phase into something more sophisticated. You see the same thing in fashion. Every 10 years, Chanel covers itself in logos going down the runway. So hip hop goes in cycles between it being hip to mention brands and seeing itself as too sophisticated.

Is there a business explanation? Are artists who've started their own fashion lines less likely to mention Gucci and Nike?

Hip hop stars are very business-savvy, but we haven't noticed that. I can see the day when they are signed up by, say, Nike and aren't allowed to mention Adidas. Hip hop is a very commercial medium. Product placement in videos is regulated by MTV, but that doesn't mean it won't evolve in lyrics.

Leave us with a great example of brand rap?

Last year Jadakiss gave us the first example of hip hop lyrics as consumer feedback: "Why didn't they make the CL6 with a clutch." It shows how flexible hip hop is.

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