(Sub) Culture Marketing

Brands seek cultural capital by aligning themselves with underground talent

The use of celebrity endorsement has been a long established technique for brands looking to expand, create a buzz or gain some level of fame. However, an obvious disparity between the values or interests of the chosen endorser and those of the brand may lead to public cynicism. In addition a misjudged communication strategy can lead to infamy rather than fame, highlighted by Snickers’ promoted tweet campaign which received an unfavourable response.

Avoiding these concerns, many brands are focusing instead on investment in culture rather than on any one particular individual to endorse their brand or product. Colin Drummond of Ogilvy West argues this approach is ‘established by a brand looking to be a facilitator of culture, broadening the horizons past simply focusing on the benefits of the product alone’. Red Bull have been the pioneers in the way of culture led marketing, establishing a music academy in 1998, involving participants from across the globe and notable artists running seminars every year.

There have been other notable examples of brands looking to connect with consumers in a broad cultural landscape. These include the Smirnoff nightlife exchange project featuring Madonna and Garnier’s pop up salons at summer music festivals. However, recently some brands have been directing their activities outside of the mainstream, as an alternative strategy in pursuit of cultural relevancy. Here are some examples:

In promotion of a new Sportswear range, Nike’s ‘Always On’ campaign included a multitude of vignettes featuring up and coming unsigned artists, creating original tracks to accompany visuals that starred athletes of varying degrees of popularity from a number of sports. The video below focuses on the annual Dyckman basketball tournament in Harlem, New York which is organised by the community and features amateur stars within the sub culture of streetball. The soundtrack is provided by Harlem artist Vado. It features no overt product messaging and integrates the brand into the storyline. The focus is on cultural relevance among a sub-genre and, in a broader context, support of local community.


Moving further away from any kind of product placement (besides a not-so-subtly worn baseball cap), Reebok have recently partnered with unsigned New York artists Action Bronson & Party Supplies. Part of Reebok’s classic sessions campaign. They financed an entire project available for free download, establishing Reebok’s investment in music and the creative process. Again, there is an absence of any product messaging, besides casual references dropped into conversation in the below video. As you will note, the only overt branding is the Reebok logo at the beginning and end of the video. The focus is on entertaining the consumer’s cultural interests, creating a greater possibility of sharing the content.


Besides simply investing in the normal activities of an artist, some brands are looking to involve cultural figures as creative directors. Expanding on the role of simple endorser and providing a platform to put their talents to work on behalf of the brand. Again, there are examples of this on a grander scale, such as Lady Gaga designing a product for Polaroid or Jean Paul Gaultier for Diet Coke.

Contrastingly, Sony, in their bid for cultural relevance, has looked towards underground personalities enlisting Prodigy (New York rapper), Mike Posner (singer/songwriter) and Steve Aoki (electro house musician) to curate a cover for their new Sony S Tablet, in a social media tie in with fashion magazine Complex. The interviews featuring each artist involve both the product and personality in equal measure; the value created is in the selection of those individuals, helping to leverage cultural respect and authenticity. It will be interesting to see if other brands follow suit and value cultural marketing as a key component of brand promotion in the U.K.

Tanning of the UK?

1986, Madison Square Garden, New York City: The whole crowd take one shoe off and proudly hoist it in the air at the command of the nights MC’s, rap duo Run-DMC, creating a visual intro to their record ‘My Adidas’. This was an early indicator of the influence of hip-hop culture on consumerism and what Steve Stoute would coin ‘a tanning moment’.

Steve Stoute is a former music executive turned marketer, who made his success by ignoring barriers traditionally drawn around demographics and ethnicity, identifying today’s generation “as a generation that grew up listening to music that wasn’t necessarily the music their parents listened to …  a generation that doesn’t see through color, but rather through shared cultural experiences”. This is what he identifies as ‘The Tanning of America’, the title of his recently published book which documents the rise and influence of hip-hop/urban culture since the 80s.

Some examples of campaigns developed by Stoute’s marketing firm Translation

“Consumers want to connect, believe and immerse themselves in the experience. They want to see themselves fit into the story”

Although the book provides insight and examples of the US marketplace, the message delivered rings true across the Atlantic, with urban artists achieving huge chart success in the last 12-18 months in particular. Artists such as Tinie Tempah, Tinchy Stryder, Professor Green and Wretch 32 have been busy creating their own scene, sound and style but share a common thread with their US counterparts. As Tinchy’s manager Jack Foster commented in a recent Guardian interview, “rap is aspirational. It’s always been about bettering yourself.” Stoute suggests that brands which successfully convey similar messages of ambition and success will attract people who want to show ‘the world they’re moving forward, that they do have aspirations in life’, tapping into a universal language.

Despite the evidence, there is a noticeable lack of brands looking to take advantage of the influence wielded by rap artists and the appeal of the urban scene in the UK. The only notable success to date is the Lucozade sports campaign featuring  Tinie Tempah. This original TV ad quickly received over 350,000 YouTube views and was eventually released as a downloadable single. Tinie Tempah became the first non-athlete endorser of Lucozade, a milestone which can be compared to Jay-Z’s deal with Reebok in 2003. At the time, Jay-Z became the first non-athlete to have a signature athletic footwear collection, which would produce some of the company’s best-selling shoes.

With everything from bottled water ads featuring breakdancing babies to contestants rapping on the X-Factor, it could be the time for the multicultural dimension of thought to be embraced just as it was by the Adidas marketing execs who were in the crowd on that night in 1985.

Will marketers in the UK begin to understand the modern generations shared likes and interests, and will they be brave enough to break from the status quo and embrace this cultural shift?