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In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review magazine, former recording industry executive Steve Stoute pointed to the way hip hop music cut through traditional demographic segmentation and to the surprise of music marketers at the time, appealed to white kids.
In a trend he calls the “Tanning of America”, marketers gradually begin to recognise that expressed consumer preferences trump demographic segmenting as a way of identifying existing and potential customers.
Ahem. Gen X, the generation defined by being indefinable, were the first to really benefit from this change and the new forms of cultural expression to which it gave us access. But given we’re in our 40s and late 30s, if you haven’t caught on yet, here’s the potted history.
Once upon a time, the media was a one to many model and consumption choice was limited to what could be made in, seen by and shipped to your local community.
Then everything changed.
Containerisation hit the shipping industry in the 1970s and by the 1980s, companies such as the Taiwanese firm Evergreen were forcing the traditional carriers to play catch-up by offering cheap shipping as a commodity service. Throughout the 1980s, satellite communication also made it possible for sounds and images from one continent to be broadcast to another. So at the same time as it became possible for products to be shipped throughout the world affordably, it also became possible to broadcast cultural and commercial images that promoted the uptake of these product.
If cheap shipping and satellite broadcasts were the Guttenberg printing press, then hip hop was Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. The latter became a global phenomena only because the former was available.
Hip hop, a musical genre characterised by rhythmic rhyming speech, set to synthetic rhythms and using sampling or scratching from other recordings, kicked off in the 1970s in block parties in the New York City. By the late 1970s it had jumped the demographic fence and by the 1980s, surprises everyone by becoming popular among white teenagers in the US.
And this is where it would have stayed if it hadn’t been for the underlying changes in broadcasting and shipping.
As it turns out, adolescents all over the world were attracted to the disenfranchised, sexually explicit and rebellious sentiments expressed in hip hop songs and within weeks of a new album release you were as likely to hear Run DMC on the streets of Cooma in rural NSWs as you were in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Not only could the Gen X youngsters (*sigh*) listen to the music, we could also emulate our rap idols by wearing the same caps, sneakers and silly jewellery.
Fast forward three decades and these same trends have only accelerated and now 37 per cent of 15 to 25 year olds in China love hip hop music. That’s 269 million kids who are listening to Chris Brown, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa, dressing in caps and silly jewellery, or 86 per cent of the US population. It’s little wonder China’s rapidly developing middle class is making first world marketers salivate.
Hip hop “popped” in spite of and not because of demographic segmenting and marketing and remains popular. Many of the key hip hop artists are still touring and they’re smarter than ever about following rather than creating demand.
The eventful website, which lists tour dates for groups including Run DMC and Beastie Boys, has a pop-up screen that ask if you’d like to see them come to the city in which you’re based and are thus able to follow demand to the country and city where they’re most wanted.
The “tanning” of the world isn’t just about the impact of hip hop culture, it’s about how in a globalised world where communications are immediate and shipping is cheap, the power has shifted from the producer to the consumer. Where the traditional marketing approach of defining and targeting a demographic has been replaced by listening and watching and following rather than defining the trends.