Ethnic Cool

Tommy Hil was my nigga/And others couldn't figure/How me and Hilfiger/
used to move through with vigor.'

‘Tommy Hil was my nigga

And others couldn’t figure

How me and Hilfiger

used to move through with vigor.’

The rhymes by rapper Mobb Deep in 1995 not only signaled an odd juxtaposition between a middle-aged white guy’s preppy clothing label and African American hip hop culture, it also indicated an emerging trend whereby youth brands turned to people of colour to help them connect with the urban in-crowd.

Why? To begin with, racial attitudes among young people, even the whitest all-American boys and girls, have shifted over the past 10 years. According to a nationwide U.S. study by the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research, last year 27% of Caucasian high schoolers reported that it would be desirable to have a job supervisor of another race, compared to only 23% in 1998, and 18% in 1988. The pencil paper surveys have been handed out to between 1,700 and 2,200 students annually since 1976.

Due to media saturation, one can assume that Canadian teens have also become gradually more progressive, particularly urbanites accustomed to seeing people of colour in their classrooms and on city streets. According to the 1996 Canadian census, our three largest cities have a significant proportion of visible minorities: more than 400,000 of approximately 3.2-million Montrealers, 1.3 million of 4.2-million Torontonians, and more than 564,000 of 1.8-million Vancouverites.

But the issue runs deeper than demographic numbers or increased tolerance among kids. ‘Today’s youth grew up in a globalized age, so for them it’s hip to be diverse,’ says Dr. Jean Lock Kunz, co-author of the five-month-old book Media and Minorities: Representing Diversity in a Multi-Cultural Canada.

Kunz, who has witnessed a surge in multicultural youth ads over the past five years, believes marketers now recognize that ethnic is considered cool among trendsetters, and this has led to more ads portraying non-white models.

In fact, New York’s published a report last November stating that about 75% of the 4.6 million teens in the American trendsetting ‘leader’ population are from multicultural demographic segments, and nearly 40% are non-Hispanic blacks. The study looked at demographic characteristics, spending power and the strategic significance of the U.S. urban youth market, based on information collected from marketing executives, a review of print and Web media, and a survey of published materials. It segregated the market in two key segments. The primary segment encompasses the purchasing power of the ‘leaders,’ while the secondary segment includes purchases made by ‘followers.’

Since Latin Americans and hip hoppers have been all the rage on the music scene over the last couple of years, it’s easy to see why kids look to their ethnic brethren for the latest fads. But while tolerance may be healthier for society at large, youth aren’t drawn to labels that reflect diversity because it’s PC.

Rather, they’re drawn to urban diversity for the same reason teens are drawn to most things: To rebel against their parents, who grew up with white-bread TV shows like The Brady Bunch and pop stars like Donny and Marie Osmond.

‘This generation is rebelling against the previous generation, with the increased tolerance that they have over their parents and grandparents,’ says David Clark, president of Toronto-based ethnic marketing agency Soulutions, who suggests that a brand’s commitment to various ethnicities also contributes to a sense of credibility among teens. ‘It implies the brand has a broader-minded approach to life. I think it’s important for them to take a position socially because it is a hook that a kid can grab onto and say, ‘this is me.”

This brings us back to Hilfiger, a quintessential example of a company built on ethnic cool. It all started with an image on Grand Puba’s popular CD, Grand Puba 2000, released in 1995. The rapper leaned against a sleek, black Lamborghini in a blue-and-green Tommy jacket worn over a white Tommy tee. His connection with Hilfiger, the whiter-than-white entrepreneur from Greenwich, Conn., led to endorsements by other rap stars, including Snoop Doggy Dog, who appeared on Saturday Night Live decked out in Tommy.

After being embraced by a hard-core ethnic crowd – the ‘leaders’ – Tommy was eventually adopted by white suburban princesses, who listened to tongue-wagging hip hoppers in their Pottery Barn-furnished living rooms.

‘The idea is that you get suburban white boys in Long Island to love your brand by representing something that’s inaccessible to them in reality,’ says Max Valiquette, president of Toronto-based youth marketing consultancy Youthography. ‘These kids aren’t exactly going to chill on a corner in Harlem. But by wearing Tommy, they can absorb that experience.’

The sweet success of Tommy has since spawned other African American-targeted brands, like Mecca, Ecko Unlimited, and Fubu (an acronym for For Us, By Us).

‘Fubu was the anti-Hilfiger and wanted to start in the community and stay in the community,’ points out Valiquette. ‘But even it went mainstream.’

Here in Canada, where blacks make up a much smaller percentage of the population, marketing to ethnic groups is less advanced, but the few marketers who have gone the ethnic cool route have reaped generous rewards.

Montreal-based jeans company Parasuco has featured Asian, East Indian and African American models in its recent print and billboard campaigns. In a print advertisement for its spring line, for instance, an African American beauty leans against an African American man, exposing a hint of her buttocks and a glittery thong. In another, the same male is photographed with a blonde woman, suggesting an interracial relationship that would cause the Archie Bunkers of this world to shudder.

Tuti Do, Parasuco’s director of marketing and communications, says it’s definitely a benefit to incorporate various ethnicities in ads. ‘The Parasuco clientele is youthful, open-minded and they have a sense of humour,’ she says, adding that the jeans worn by the thong-exposing model ‘flew off the shelves.’ When the ad debuted in February, the product doubled in sales volume, and was a bestseller for the entire season.

‘We feel we’re a global brand that caters to an international market of all races, and our marketing, our fashion, everything we do reflects that.’ This fall, Parasuco’s print program will feature multiple models of different descent, including African American, Caucasian and Brazilian.

Similarly, Diesel’s spring campaign, which scored a prestigious Grand Prix award in the Press & Poster category at Cannes, portrays African glitterati. A mockery of the West’s patronizing attitude toward the continent, ‘it was one of Diesel’s most successful campaigns to date,’ says Marisa Guerrera, ad manager for Diesel Canada in Montreal. While Canadian retail sales figures aren’t yet available, the spring line had record sell-outs of 75% or more with most accounts in the U.K.

But Guerrera says Diesel’s desire to remain on the cusp means it won’t be sponsoring Latino superstars or MTV-plugged rappers any time soon. ‘It’s mainstream now… You want the next best thing, you don’t want what’s already successful.’

That sums up the whole approach to marketing taken by And 1, a Paoli, Pennsylvania-based sportswear manufacturer that is about ‘hardcore African American culture,’ says Youthography’s Valiquette. ‘They’re the shoe company that will pick up a lot of athletic endorsers, like your more problematic basketball players, that others might not.’

Latrell Sprewell, the New York Knicks forward who was suspended for choking his coach several years ago, wouldn’t even be considered as a spokesperson by most apparel companies. But the guard with the big-time talent and bad-ass attitude was the star of And 1′s ‘American Dream’ TV spots.

Created by Fallon, New York, the ads feature Sprewell defiantly stating: ‘People say I’m America’s worst nightmare… I say I’m the American dream.’ And 1, which passed the $100-million US sales mark last year, also sponsors street-level ball players never mentioned in the mainstream press: guys with monikers like Hot Sauce, Headache, and Half Man Half Amazing, who have embarked on a four-city And 1-branded summer tour. In conjunction with the events, a quarter-million free copies of the ‘And 1 Mix Tape Volume 4,’ a VHS recording of the tricksters set to rap music, are being distributed through Footaction USA stores.

But even when you go for the unknown or unruly spokesperson, you can’t just throw a black model into your advertising campaign and watch sales ring up, says Jeff Spriet, founder of Wiretap, a guerrilla marketing agency in Toronto. ‘If it’s an obvious force fit, like a surf culture ad, then people will realize it’s not true to surf culture.’

Another danger is that if you position yourself as hot stuff, you may get picked up by mainstream kids in the burbs and eventually burn out. ‘The risk is you’ve become so ubiquitous that people can’t see themselves wearing you again,’ says Spriet, who points back to Tommy Hilfiger, now worn by everyone from two-year-old babes to grannies, as an example. ‘The cool kids want to be different than all other kids.’

Spriet says one way to beat this cycle is to limit your product supply, so that you can customize demand and keep your stuff exclusive.

Another weapon is to stay true to your roots. If you target the hip hop community, stick with it. Don’t do what Hilfiger did and suddenly switch to boomer rock. ‘They were on hip hop, but then they were sponsoring the Rolling Stones. It became about marketing, not hip hop culture. You’re on a young rapper, and now a 50-year-old musician? That’s just not authentic and kids will see through it.’

He points to Sprite as a brand that has treaded carefully, so as not to throw off its African American following. The Coca- Cola-owned soft drink brand first began its relationship with the hip hop community in 1986, when it hooked up with rap artist Curtis Blow.

‘Sprite can be real in the way it speaks to consumers because it has had a background in the hip hop movement,’ says spokesperson Sara Schmid, from the company’s head office in Atlanta, Georgia. She says the brand will continue to market to urban, inner-city teens, since they are purveyors of today’s fads. ‘Typically you’ll see something happen in New York, and then you’ll see it in mainstream, middle American cultures in the next few months.’

Last spring, the company launched ‘Voices of the street,’ six spots starring real kids in real-life urban settings, created by its AOR Lowe Lintas. The teens were asked to develop rhymes inspired by scenarios from their own lives, that were then capped with a Sprite attribute.

The fact that a huge company like Coca-Cola realizes the power of ethnic cool shows that the pendulum has passed the midway point. Marketers are changing their approach from one of including ethnic groups to be politically correct, to understanding that embracing the reality of urban life is essential to building a relationship with urban youth.

It’s reached the point where youth labels that fail to mirror society’s cultural mosaic are likely to suffer for it, says Cesar Virina, general manager of Toronto-based ethnic ad agency Admerasia. ‘This market drives trends, so if you’re not including ethnicity and showing how your brand fits their lifestyle, then you’re missing out.’