Marketers Can Learn a Lot From Hip-Hop Lyrics

Classic lines for the modern practitioner, celebrating my best marketing professor's birthday

Recently, with the industry celebrating hip-hop's massive contribution to pop culture, I've found myself telling folks that "advertising has more to learn from hip-hop than vice versa."

By this, I usually mean that the milestones hip-hop has already achieved are still distant aspirations for advertising. Consider advertising's constant hand-wringing about diversity; contrast that with an aesthetic and political movement that regularly and unremarkably churns out titans as diverse as Jack Harlow, M.I.A., Cardi B and Bad Bunny.

But today, I want to use this thought to simply celebrate some memorable lyrics which guide my hand at the upper reaches of the advertising industry every day.

Mos Def, "Astronomy (8th Light)" - A rubric for evaluating advertising ideas. 
"Commonplace and different
Intimate and distant
Fresher than an infant."

Before he'd go on to take the name Yasiin Bey, one of my favorite rappers unwittingly gifted me the perfect rubric for identifying creative concepts that can move the masses and manufacture new normals. Whenever teams are presenting new work, I run this checklist in my head, and invariably find that the ideas that get me most excited tick every box.

Jay-Z, "Takeover" - A constant reminder of what really matters. 
"Well, we don't believe you,
you need more people."

Jay-Z's famous words were originally intended as a diss, but from a distance, they're recognizable as sage, universal advice. It's a constant refrain to all our brand partners: No matter how loudly you (can afford to) shout, your reputation isn't what you say it is—it's what people say it is. Brand stewardship is one thing. Incentivizing co-authorship on your behalf is quite another (but no less essential).

Lauryn Hill, "Zealot" - A mantra on why marketers must lead culture, not follow. 
"Two MCs can't occupy the same space at the same time
It's against the laws of physics."

Lauryn's lines shaped me in many ways, but none are more professionally applicable than this. As a follower of Liquid Expectations, I believe that true competitive differentiation goes well beyond those who currently sell what they sell. Category contenders who opt for blind one-upmanship often wind up indistinguishable from one another. This line remains a reminder for me that the more they follow their category tropes, the more invisible they become.

OutKast, "Rosa Parks" - A self-patdown to ensure you're not too comfortable. 
"[She] said, 'Baby boy, you only funky as your last cut
You focus on the past, your ass'll be a has-what
That's words to live by or either it's ones to die to."

Whether or not an anonymous gypsy–as the song claims–actually said these words to Andre 3000, they remain a touchstone for me as I consider how I run and market Translation. While one's historical performance offers crucial pretext to a prospective client, that thing you did last year for that famed apparel brand isn't as tantalizing to that consumer bank as you may think. Merchandising your record is one thing; resting on your laurels, quite another. It's important to know the difference.

Kendrick Lamar, "Alright" - A constant fountain of optimism. 
"Do you hear me, do you feel me?
We gon' be alright."

We've all heard it: "It's just advertising." While true, this is still the business we miss our kids' games and night-night songs for. Like any job worth doing with pride, there will be bumps and bruises along the way. There will be new technology that threatens your role; there will be indignities, abject failures and the torture of shots untaken. As an industry, we are no less deserving of grace than those who come home from work stained by blood, machine oil, or soot. At the end of a long day, a failed pitch, or even a round of layoffs, Kendrick's right: We gon' be alright.

Happy Birthday, hip-hop. Your presence is a present. 

Profile picture for user Chaucer Barnes
Chaucer Barnes
Chaucer Barnes is CMO at Translation + UnitedMasters.

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