Hip-hop culture is awash in marketing campaigns, from the somewhat high-minded self-improvement (meditation, yoga, a sometime-vegan diet) strategy employed by Russell Simmons for his Phat Farm clothing line and other products, to the tactics used by street teams such as Crazy Hood Productions to publicize films, new CDs, and radio stations for their various corporate clients. Like the members of nearly every postmillennial grassroots movement, indie hip-hoppers have taken a laissez-faire attitude toward companies that appropriate their culture to hawk shoes (adidas, Nike) and soft drinks (Coca-Cola, Sprite). Obviously no one worries about selling out to the man anymore.
But Scion, which is a subdivision of Toyota, may be the first car company to specifically target the underground hip-hop scene. "We're focused on the 22-34 market. We're going after urban males," says Scion sales and promotions manager Jeri Yoshizu. She says Scion trained its sights on backpacker culture (which often mixes with the skate/import car/"tuner" scenes) because it was undermarketed to. "We feel that music crosses over more than any other tool, so we knew we had to have a music initiative," she says. Unlike mainstream hip-hop, she says, "[Underground hip-hop] wasn't really addressed at the time with a lot of other corporations, and we had to be different."
When it comes to marketing innovations, Scion has set a precedent. A mix CD series is out there; the most recent volume, Scion CD Sampler v. 10, is by Peanut Butter Wolf and DJ Jazzy Jeff. They co-sponsor concerts. They produce their own quarterly magazine, Scion, in conjunction with the Rebel Organization, a subdivision of URB magazine publisher Raymond Roker's NativeSon Media. Half of the summer/fall '04 issue of Scion, for example, covered topics such as graffiti and tagger life; the other half of Scion demonstrates how Scion owners can customize their cars with accessories, custom paint jobs, and rims.
Yoshizu notes that many of these ideas owe to Scion's relatively modest marketing budget (with an emphasis on relatively -- after all, this is a car company) and the small number of Scions manufactured in comparison with other Toyota products. "Since we're not Camry-size in numbers, obviously we're going to have a much smaller budget," she says, forcing them to be innovative in reaching the youth demographic. In 2004, for example, Toyota sold 426,990 Camrys compared to 10,686 Scions.
Scion's advertising approach seems heavily influenced by Cornerstone Promotion, a marketing firm that produces everything from highly collectible CD/DVDs (Cornerstone Mixtape) to a monthly magazine (The Fader), a syndicated radio show (Fader Radio), and even a record company, the Fader Label: their first signee, spoken-word artist/actor/musician Saul Williams, released a self-titled album this past October.
Closer to home, Scion recently held an exhibition at OBJEX Artspace featuring an installation by Books IIII, a painter and sculptor from Fort Lauderdale. This 23-year-old guy can philosophize for hours on aesthetics and how morally corrupt and money-obsessed the art industry can be. But even he has kind words for the car company, which hired him through OBJEX artist/owner Dustin Orlando. "Scion is making money out the ass, and they're taking a small amount of that shit to get a bunch of graff writers seen," Books says. "Hip-hop in general is influencing the world right now, so if you're a smart businessman, you would recognize that and embrace that instead of going against the grain."
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Whatever happened to selling out? Little under a decade ago, that's the question many hip-hoppers would have asked about the Scion campaign. (Remember the uproar that greeted KRS-One when he did the Nike commercial in 1996?)
If there's anyone who would protest, it's Tony Muhammad. The local publisher often uses his Urban America newspaper to speak out about socio-political issues affecting people of color and hip-hop culture. But even he has dealt with Scion: The car company sponsored his Organic Hip-Hop Festival at FIU last month.
Muhammad claims that Scion's promotion of underground artists such as Books IIII is their way of giving back to the community. But when corporate companies such as Scion begin interfacing with hip-hop culture, doesn't that change -- and possibly corrupt -- the culture itself?
"In the past, [people have claimed] that commercialization has done a lot of bad things to hip-hop culture. It has watered it down and commercialized it," he says. "But there are some that believe that a balance can be stricken between corporate and authentic expression of hip-hop culture." While he won't go so far as to say that Scion is emblematic of that balance, he says, "Scion is more balanced than most companies."