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The art of brand-name dropping

Marketing magic or a hip-hop hit? It's hard to tell, but manufacturers aren't complaining.

August 25, 2004|Stephen Kiehl | Baltimore Sun

You could be forgiven for confusing the No. 1 song in the United States last week with a commercial.

But a commercial for what? After all, "Lean Back" by Terror Squad includes references to Rolls-Royce's Phantom, the BMW 740, Gucci sweaters and a Gulfstream G4 jet.

The No. 2 song on the charts, "Sunshine" by Lil' Flip, has enough car references to fill out a motorcade: Maybach, Chevy Impala and Bentley.

That's a lot of name-dropping for any three-minute song. But it's not uncommon these days, as brand names from Cartier to Cool Whip find their way into hip-hop and pop songs.

Agenda Inc., a San Francisco-based marketing company, found that 59 brands had been mentioned 645 times in the songs that have made it onto the Billboard Top 20 chart so far this year.

"You see a lot of high-end and a lot of low-end brands," says Lucian James, the founder and president of Agenda Inc., which specializes in harnessing pop culture to hone brand images. James says the rise of brands in popular music is directly tied to the rise of hip-hop.

"The story of a lot of hip-hop is what I've got now as opposed to what I used to have," he said. "That's why Kmart and Payless shoe stores come up."

The most prolific brand-dropper so far this year is Kanye West, who has mentioned 19 brands in four songs, from Toys "R" Us to Avis to Lexus. His song "Through the Wire" contains even more unlikely brands: "I drink a Boost for breakfast and Ensure for dizzert," he says, referencing nutritional supplements often enjoyed by older Americans.

The top brand so far this year is a beverage more suited to a younger crowd: Hennessy, a brand of cognac that has been mentioned 47 times in the songs that have cracked the Billboard Top 20. Coming in a close second is Cadillac, at 44 mentions. The car company says it's hard to estimate the value of such publicity, but it's certainly a good thing.

"It's worth a lot in terms of exposing the Cadillac brand to that useful [hip-hop] audience," said Rob Minton, a spokesman for the luxury carmaker. "We've made no secret of the fact that we're trying to reach a younger audience with our brand and our products, and music, with the lyrics or videos, has helped us do that."

Cadillac pulled off the impressive feat of topping Mercedes-Benz in song mentions this year. For years, Mercedes was a favorite for its effortless blend of style and prestige. But the brand this year has slipped behind not only Cadillac but also Rolls-Royce and Jaguar.

James, from Agenda, says one reason could be that the price point for cars mentioned in hip-hop songs is rising at the same time Mercedes is diluting its brand with less expensive cars. But the $350,000 Maybach, a car by a Mercedes subsidiary, is gaining references this year specifically because it's so exclusive.

Perhaps Mercedes needs to take some clues from the artists. In "Why" this year, Jadakiss turned the hip-hop song into a form of customer feedback, saying, "Why they didn't make the CL6 wit a clutch?" -- a reference to CL-class luxury coupes, which start at $95,000 and do not, alas, come with manual transmissions.

The brand categories most likely to end up in songs are automotive, fashion and beverages. In the fashion world, Gucci has taken the top spot with 35 song mentions this year, dethroning Louis Vuitton -- which, let's face it, is a much tougher rhyme.

The top drinks mentioned this year are Hennessy, Seagram's Gin and Cristal, one of the most expensive champagnes in the world.

But Cristal illustrates what can happen when brand is too closely identified with hip-hop. James thinks its popularity is falling among people who are not hip-hop fans.

"It seems to be defined only by its hip-hop appeal," James said. "It probably does need to balance itself out a little bit."

Most brands welcome the association, though. It's been particularly helpful to Polaroid, which is trying to reinvent itself in the age of digital photography and was famously mentioned last year in OutKast's No. 1 song, "Hey Ya!": "Shake it like a Polaroid picture."

Polaroid spokesman Skip Colcord won't reveal if the song boosted sales of Polaroid cameras, but he said, "It helped raise the profile of our brand and was a positive influence on it."

That same OutKast song, of course, also had this Cadillac reference: "Don't want to meet your daddy / Just want you in my Caddy."

Brands that do particularly well, James said, seem to be those that have been around awhile and have recently reinvented themselves. That group includes Mercedes, Cadillac, Gucci and Burberry, "brands that have heritage but also know how to stay fresh," James said.

His company, in its semiannual reports on brands in songs, also gives out awards of a sort for its favorite branded lyrics. The award for "most shameless reference" goes to Petey Pablo for his song "Freek-a-Leek":

"Now I got to give a shout out to Seagram's gin / Cause I'm drinkin' it and they payin' me for it."

Although Seagram's did pay for that mention, few companies will do that because of fear that their brand may be mentioned in something controversial, like the next "Cop Killer." It's smarter to keep an arm's-length relationship, James said. Almost all brand references in songs are there because the artist likes the brand or thinks it will help communicate a point.

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