From Lil Wayne to Frank Ocean, these are the hip hop superstars whose signature moves can be translated into more effective marketing strategies.

Hip hop has always been about authenticity, about expressing oneself and one’s story with earnestness. And while it might seem that the mission of hip hop is diametrically opposed to the mission of marketing — which is, roughly, to communicate in a way that influences consumers’ behaviors (which some might argue is inherently inauthentic) — the two may have more in common than first meets the eye.

In fact, strong and effective marketing is driven by a commitment to authenticity. The companies with the most loyal followings — your Apples and Netflixes — tend to be those that put their values at the center of their brand and cultivate a consistent, believable sense of authenticity. Just like many hip hop greats.

Consider organizational consultant Simon Sinek’s hit 2009 TED Talk on the effectiveness of strategies like Apple’s. Instead of beginning with the what and then progressing to the how and why behind a given product or service, Sinek argues that brands like Apple invert this model. They lead with their why — their driving purpose, their values, their heart — and thereby garner trust in the authenticity of their brand, leading to greater customer loyalty.

Authenticity is just one of the central philosophies shared by the most successful brands and the best rappers in the game. Here are some key lessons that marketers can learn from hip hop royalty:

1. Eminem: Words Matter

Since his debut studio album, Infinite, dropped in 1996, Slim Shady has become, in many ways, more legend than man. The 15-time Grammy winner has achieved near-mythical status in large part due to his reputation as perhaps the strongest technical lyricist to ever grace the genre.

In a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone, the rapper explained, “Even as a kid, I always wanted the most words to rhyme. Say I saw [words] like ‘transcendalistic tendencies.’ I would write it out on a piece of paper — trans-cend-a-lis-tic ten-den-cies — and underneath, I’d line a word up with each syllable: and bend all mystic sentence trees. Even if it didn’t make sense, that’s the kind of drill I would do to practice. To this day, I still want as many words as possible in a sentence to rhyme.”

While this level of attention to wordsmithing may be borderline-obsessive, Shady is onto something. To consumers, words matter. Even amidst the rise of short-form content and video marketing, strong editorial work still carries a lot of weight. In fact, small businesses with blogs enjoy 126 percent higher lead growth than small businesses without blogs. In short, making editorial content a cornerstone of one’s digital marketing program is likely to pay off in spades.

2. Lil Wayne: Live Your Values

Lil Wayne doesn’t just talk the talk — he walks the walk.

On the 2005 track, “Feel Me,” Weezy raps, “They got the shivers, man, I got the fever // I gotta bring the hood back after Katrina // Weezy F Baby, now the F is for FEMA.” After Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown of New Orleans, Wayne donated $200,000 to rebuild a park that he had played in during his childhood.

He went on to launch One Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that equips low-income youth with the tools to become financially self-sufficient while empowering them to pursue their dreams. Lil Wayne also participates in the annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway hosted by his record label, Cash Money Records.

Along similar lines, marketers should note that, according to the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand report, 61 percent of consumers are belief-driven buyers. An Accenture study underscores this finding, indicating that 62 percent of consumers want companies to take a stand on social, cultural, environmental, and political issues close to their hearts.

The success of marketing initiatives like Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” Black Friday campaign and Nike’s Emmy-winning “Dream Crazy” ad featuring the divisive Colin Kaepernick prove that brand loyalty soars when companies stand up for what they believe — and back that commitment with meaningful action. Indeed, 86 percent of people claim that authenticity is an important factor they consider when deciding which brands to support — a call to action for brands to focus on creating down-to-earth messages that resonate with their target audiences’ values.

That said, marketers should beware of the pitfalls of inauthenticity — the phenomenon of “woke washing” that has spread across the consumer landscape as companies have attempted to capitalize on the sociopolitical tensions of the day has landed a number of brands in hot water. But ultimately, for emcees and multinational corporations alike, walking the walk is just as important as talking the talk.

3. Frank Ocean: Mix Up Your Media

Few artists are as enigmatic as channel ORANGE mastermind Frank Ocean, whose sensuous vocals guide his mid-tempo electronic keyboard-driven tracks through arresting, often unconventional song structures. Despite his limited discography, Ocean has gained something of a cult-like following, and his fans are wont to commiserate with one another on Twitter about the long stretches between his critically acclaimed releases — Ocean’s second studio album, Blonde, was delayed three times.

While the musician has been slow to release new music, he has kept fans engaged by launching a variety of other projects — many of which are advertised obliquely or not promoted beforehand at all — including Endless, a visual album that was live-streamed on Apple Music the day before Ocean released Blonde.

Following the stunt, Ocean produced an art magazine, Boys Don’t Cry, featuring photography, poetry, and contributions from Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator, and other kings of hip hop. The magazine was promoted and sold at a series of pop-up shops in London, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Then, in February 2017, Ocean launched blonded RADIO, a Beats 1 radio show co-hosted by London-based producer Vegyn and DJ Roof Access that features new Ocean tracks and various collaborative works.

Though in many ways far removed from the music that first garnered Ocean commercial and critical success, these projects have only furthered Ocean’s idiosyncratic appeal, creating a personal brand with a loyal following — so loyal, in fact, that fans are willing to boo the likes of Drake and A$AP Rocky in an expression of their loyalty to Ocean.

This is all to say that, as long as they are well-executed and aligned with a brand’s identity and key objectives, it pays to create messages across diverse channels. Just as a single-issue magazine added clout to Ocean’s brand, an engaging video campaign or one-off brand activation can boost a company’s brand awareness and loyalty in a powerful way. In fact, 95 percent of marketers say that multichannel marketing is important for effective targeting. If your marketing strategy is built around a cornerstone like editorial content, consider allocating resources to other channels (whether or not they are ORANGE) in order to give your brand a more comprehensive presence.

Leveraging the Wisdom of Hip Hop to Tell Better Brand Stories

By incorporating the principles exemplified by some of hip hop’s GOATs, marketers can tap into the tremendous power of authenticity. Beyond this fundamental lesson, hip hop illustrates the effectiveness of strong editorial content, the payoff of backing causes that speak to audiences in meaningful ways, and the importance of developing a strong cross-channel, multimedia strategy.

When brands take these insights seriously and nail down a central, believable message, they build loyalty and gain a leg up on their competitors, ultimately proving that they’re the realest in the game.

Author Kendra Clark

A current graduate student in creative writing at the University of Cambridge, Kendra writes for a broad array of L&T's clients in industries ranging from healthcare to manufacturing. She has consulted for tech startups in California and Washington, D.C. on editorial and brand strategy development. With a degree in philosophy and literature from Santa Clara University, she is a lover of poetry, vegan Thai food, documentary films, and arguing about Nietzsche.

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