Hip-Hop Fridays: E-Letter To Nelly from Erin Patton Re: "Who's Pimping Who?"
As a marketer, I must admit I was rather pleased when I first heard about last week's announcement that you were launching a new energy drink product.
When I first heard the news through the grapevine, I smiled because it was further evidence of a paradigm shift that I and many other advertising and marketing executives representing the Hip-Hop generation and urban mindset have been forewarning corporate America about.
The paradigm shift I'm speaking of is not a revolution, but an evolution that is being televised to a LIVE, global audience which stars the urban market as a global economic force driven by street-bred Hip-Hopreneurs who no longer have to simply lend their names and images to build existing brands and products, they can create their own!
It all started with what Hip-Hop and urban consumers know best...fashion. Since Tommy didn't want to actively court urban consumers, Russell, Puff and Jay-Z all turned rags into riches with their own brands while the established mainstream apparel brands were caught with their pants down (pun intended).
We all knew it was only a matter of time before Hip-Hop expanded its consumer product portfolio. Now, Hip-Hop impresarios have their own alcoholic beverages, cell phones, whips, debit cards and a host of other consumer products. Granted they, like you, are still in partnership with a mainstream concern for distribution, financing, etc. but the notion itself is still one of great progress.
It's also indicative of the lofty ambitions that are now within reach for those who, as Wu-Tang said, can now get a clutch of what they previously could not touch. "Word of mouf" says Ludacris even toyed with the idea of introducing his own soft drink in the aftermath of his Pepsi deal which fizzled with the O'Reilly controversy.
I was more encouraged when I logged onto my computer and pulled up the article to see your own words: "there may be several drinks out there claiming to boost liveliness, but the energy drink market still provides many untapped marketing opportunities." Yes! Spoken like a true, savvy urban marketer.
Somewhere along the line, though, Nelly you must have received some really bad counsel. You see, when I read further and learned that the actual name of your product was "Pimp Juice," I immediately thought that it was an internet hoax or, at best, some skit you were working on with your St. Louis homeboy Cedric The Entertainer. You wouldn't possibly launch a product that glorifies and breathes life into one of the most demeaning images so many have worked tirelessly to erase from the annals of Black America's history.
But when I turned on the TV in my office and saw the MTV News anchor giggling though the report, I knew it was true. How could this happen I asked myself?
I immediately thought about a segment I saw on BET's NYLA a few months back when one of your representatives was interviewed for a story on urban marketing and addressed their marketing strategy for you and it began to make sense.
I say that because, although he seemed to be a fairly smart guy, he clearly wasn't a product of the core urban culture or the negative byproducts of the 'blaxsploitation" era years ago. I realize that you were also probably too young at the time to remember but Hollywood had a good time portraying black folks as "Pimps and Ho's." And there were many blacks who were bamboozled into projecting that stereotype for the dough (by the way, if you haven't seen the Spike Lee joint Bamboozled, now might be a good time).
What's the big deal you ask? After all, urban culture is pretty pimped out right now with 50 Cent, David Banner, Lil' Flip and Snoop all hollering P.I.M.P. while Bishop Don Juan has somehow emerged as an icon for our youth to aspire to. Well, dirty, while starting an energy drink with the name of "Pimp Juice" may sound like a good idea given your hit single by that name and the current pimping of the urban culture by the mainstream, this is a case where a good idea is meeting terrible execution.
The problem is, while you and your partners may make some ends off of this deal for the Nelly "brand," your "Pimp Juice" product is producing a damaging effect on the overall urban and African-American brands that will ultimately pay the price on its image. You see, I don't know if your marketing strategists explained this to you or not, but all brands have what is known as core values and perceptions.
In fact, the impact of the 'blaxsploitation" era was so severe, that we're still trying to untangle the knots of negative perception that mainstream society places upon us as a result. You may have even experienced some of this yourself when people make certain negative assumptions about you for no apparent reason. It could be in the course of conducting business, applying for a loan, getting on an elevator, driving down the highway or shopping at the mall for a pair of Air Force Ones at Champs. Or, in the case of a young woman, being degraded and called a "Ho" by cats on the block that think it's cool to be a pimp.
Reinforcing this negative stereotype in the minds of impressionable youth is like releasing the "SoBig" virus that infiltrated computers nationwide last week. Once damaging information is opened on the hard drive (mind), it wreaks irrevocable damage.
There is also a small factor called timing when launching a new product and the timing on this one is also pretty bad, Nelly. You see, this week marks the 40-year anniversary of Dr. King's March On Washington. This is not what Dr. King had in mind when he delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. In fact, this would be more like his worst nightmare as well as for those who labored in the civil rights movement.
Speaking of which, I'm also wondering where Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are on this issue. Have you heard from them? In fact, where is the drop squad when you need them? Clearly, if Eminem introduced an energy drink called "Pimp Juice," it would get really hot in herrre as the black community would be up in arms, Tom Joyner and Tavis Smiley would be buzzing and the nationwide boycott would be in full effect. So far, the voices of dissent have been silent. In fact, I've mostly heard laughter in response to your announcement. I guess that is an equally sad sign of the times.
That being said, I sincerely wish you would reconsider this one, Nelly. You've built a good career for yourself and have some pretty reputable corporate partners you don't want to jeopardize. Most of all, like many hard-working Black Americans trying to make forward progress, I was hoping my young son and daughter would never have to revisit that dark chapter in our history under the new header of "urbansploitation."
In the future, you should also have your management and marketing team do a little more homework before launching products that are culturally insensitive. Otherwise, the next time you are in one of your marketing meetings to discuss strategies for the launch of "Pimp Juice," take a look around and ask yourself who's pimping who?
As a wise man once said, those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it.
President & CEO
The Mastermind Group
Erin Patton is President & CEO of The Mastermind Group, a New York-based integrated marketing and communications think tank and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, August 29, 2003