Five Times Rappers Were Perfect Marketers

Moreen Valentine is an advertising and marketing communications student at Humber College. She has a passion for media planning, and, of course, hip-hop.

Forget peanut butter and jelly, rappers and marketing go together

With hip-hop music not fully embraced by the mainstream until the late 1990s, rappers had to utilize marketing techniques to get their music heard. From a rapper selling mixtapes from the trunk of his car, to the revolutionary brand partnership of RUN-DMC and Adidas, hip-hop artists have proven themselves as successful marketers.

Here is a list of five rappers who did marketing right: – Lil Wayne, Karen Civil

Tha Carter III
Artwork for the Lil Wayne’s album, Tha Carter III

Lil Wayne burst onto the scene as teenager in 1999 with the hit single The Block is Hot. As the years progressed, Wayne’s subsequent singles failed to have the same impact and his popularity began to fade. In 2008 he experienced a career resurgence with successful singles Lollipop, A Milli, and Got Money all off his multi-platinum album Tha Carter III. However, his return to prominence was threatened to be derailed with his 2010 incarceration. Since Lil Wayne would be in prison for one year, he needed a way to stay fresh in the mind of the public. Enter Karen Civil. Together with Civil, Wayne created Utilizing elements of public relations and digital marketing, fans could write to Wayne while he was in prison, but they had to visit his new website to see if he wrote back. This allowed Wayne to frame the discussion in the media about his incarceration and stay connected to his fans. Upon his release from prison the rapper continued his platinum success with his album Tha Carter IV.

Who is Mike Jones? – Mike Jones

Mike Jones
Mikes Jones with his phone number on a t-shirt.

When Mike Jones started his rap career, musicians were often placed on a pedestal and rarely interacted directly with their fans. Now artists are able to connect with their fans through a plethora of social media networks, but in 2005 the only established social media network was Myspace. Rapper Mike Jones, only known regionally within the Southern United States, decided to break the mold by having a telephone number where fans could call 24-7 and speak with him. Mike Jones used every opportunity to share his telephone number and interact with his fans. He often wore the telephone number on a t-shirt and also included the number within his lyrics. Mike’s telephone number spread virally and soon Mike Jones and his unique marketing technique were getting national attention. Mike Jones parlayed this buzz to two hit singles and album, each certified platinum for selling an excess of 1,000,000 units.

Obey Your Thirst – Various Rappers, Sprite

Sprite Commercial, 1995

Rappers can use marketing tactics for their own releases, but they can also be ambassadors for a brand. A subsidiary of Coca-Cola, Sprite was launched in the 1960s and occupied the number one spot in the niche lemon-lime market. However, in the early 1990s, Sprite wanted to break through into the mainstream. Sprite positioned itself as edgy, fun and exciting. The same characteristics associated with rap artists. In the commercials rappers such as CL and Grand Puba laid down rhymes and ended with the slogan “Obey Your Thirst”. The commercials were gritty, mostly black and white, only showing the colour of the product. It borrowed the aesthetic of the era’s rap videos, co-opting the underground, urban edge. The art direction of the advertisements allowed the rappers to maintain their “street cred” as the video was authentic to the hip-hop culture. Mutually beneficial, sales of Sprite increased by 17.6% by 1998 and brought underground rappers to the masses.

My Adidas – RUN-DMC, Adidas

RUN-DMC X Adidas, Superstar

The original architects, RUN-DMC laid down the blueprint. In 1986 the rap group had a sizable following within the black community, but were not known to the mainstream. With the single My Adidas, that all changed. While performing their song My Adidas at a concert, the electrified crowd began holding up their shoes. In the crowd was an Adidas employee. As he saw fans professing their love for Adidas, he realized a unique marketing opportunity with the rap group. The group struck a $1.6 million endorsement deal in 1986 and released a limited edition collection, Superstar. The merging of arts and sport opened a new customer base for Adidas. No longer limited to athletics, a lifestyle segment was developed with fans expressing their cool sartorial style in Adidas gear. Subsequently, RUN-DMC’s single My Adidas reached top 5 on Hot Black Singles chart and they became the first rap group to have a platinum album.

Raptors Global Ambassador – Drake, Raptors

Drake at a Raptors game

Lacking big stars like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, and the loyalty that Leafs have, the Toronto Raptors needed a way to invigorate their fan base. What did they do? They signed Drake as their global ambassador. A Toronto native, rapper Drake was a hometown hero and joining with the Raptors was a perfect match. Hip-hop culture and basketball culture are intrinsically linked. Though the sport was invented by a Canadian James Naismith, the basketball epicenter is New York, the birth place of hip-hop. Drake’s alignment with the brand provided buzz and excitement for a team that failed to reach the playoffs for multiple seasons. The promise of Drake to attend games, half-time DJ sets of Drake songs, and co-branded OVO/Raptors swag, the Drake/Raptors alignment enticed fans to attend games. And as possibly a good luck charm, the Raptors have reached the playoffs in the seasons since Drake became an ambassador.

As you can see, rappers are excellent marketers. As rap music becomes more and more mainstream, expect to see more rappers participate in your favourite campaigns.

Listen to our Hip-Hop Marketer’s mixtape:

Which rapper do you think was the best marketer? Why? Sound off below.


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