by David Mitchel, Vice President of Marketing at Norton Mitchel Marketing

Branding is an intricate and complicated process. Every aspect of the marketing mix must be handled with care. Brand managers watch their brands in the same manner that most parents care for a newborn child. However, there is an element of marketing communications that brand management teams are unable to directly control: pop culture references about the brands in what appear to be non product placement contexts. These pop culture references can come from both old and new media. They are often found in music, and frequently occur in the hip hop genre. In recent years, brands have been prominent parts of popular YouTube videos. As social media evolves, it has the potential to present new threats for brands. With regard to pop culture references, it is a challenging minefield that brands must negotiate carefully in order to prevent them from detracting from marketing strategy.

In 2003, hip hop artist 50 Cent became a huge sensation with the album “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”. One of the many hit songs from that album was “In Da Club”. Near the beginning of the song, the lyric “we gon’ sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday” appears. This is not the only time that the Bacardi brand has been mentioned in song lyrics, but it is certainly one of the more prominent references. In its advertising over the years, Bacardi has crafted an image of being a fun brand, as their ads often feature a party scene. This may have inspired 50 Cent to write the lyric in the way that he did. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Bacardi featured a “Bacardi By Night” print advertising campaign. These ads clearly targeted individuals with serious jobs and emphasized that Bacardi was a part of their work-life balance.   Additionally, Bacardi has also used their long standing and rich history as a selling proposition in advertising. Bacardi’s association with fun and partying may have attracted the hip hop element, as extravagant partying is a common theme of hip hop imagery. However, this association is tenuous at best and does not appear to be widely perceived. Bacardi has strongly withstood unsolicited pop culture references and its well refined marketing communication messages have helped to ensure that they remain the world’s largest spirits brand.

Heineken is another alcohol brand that has received an unsolicited pop culture reference. In 2007, a YouTube video entitled “My New Haircut” (Warning: Contains Adult Language) was a tremendous sensation. One could surmise that the success of the video may have been an inspiration for MTV’s “Jersey Shore”. In this video, a stereotypical New York/New Jersey young male in his 20s is shown in a variety of situations. He brags about his lifestyle, how awesome he is and professes his love for alcohol, particularly Heinekens and Jagerbombs. The Heineken brand is mentioned overtly twice in this video and is shown in the background for a significant portion of the video. The product placement in this video is the antithesis of the image that Heineken attempts to convey in its advertising. It would not desire to be associated with out-of-control, crass youths such as the one portrayed in “My New Haircut”. Through its marketing communications, Heineken wishes to be perceived as a brand for those with a greater degree of class and sophistication (as seen here, here, here & here).

Although many of the ads are aimed at different global markets, they are tied together by the theme of Heineken being an upscale brand for the discerning palette. It is clear that Heineken has disassociated itself from the type of consumer portrayed in “My New Haircut”, a strong strategic move given its history and positioning in the beer market.

Alcohol isn’t the only product category that is referred to in pop culture. In 2004, hip hop artist Juvenile scored a huge hit with the song “Slow Motion”. Juvenile makes a reference to Victoria’s Secret with the lyric, “I like how that Victoria Secret sit in that (rear end)”. In this situation, Victoria’s Secret could not take the same approach as Heineken and completely disassociate the brand from the reference. Victoria’s Secret has long been known as a lingerie brand that accentuates the sensual aspects of a woman’s figure. As a result, the brand positioning was aligned with the meaning of the lyric. This pop culture reference was utterly inconsequential for the brand and Victoria’s Secret never clearly addressed it. It continues to have the same positioning in the market and charges a price premium for this positioning as compared to underwear brands like Hanes and Playtex.

Brands in the upper end of the pricing spectrum are regularly mentioned in hip hop. Luxury brand references are as ubiquitous as inexpensive beer brands at frat parties. Gucci and Prada are common targets. In general, luxury brands try to distance themselves from hip hop culture for fear of damaging brand equity. Luxury brands will never use marketing communications messages to appeal to hip hop artists and their ardent community of followers. In fact, Burberry once refused to let rapper Ja Rule wear any of their clothing products for an Esquire magazine photo shoot.

All of these brands all have to deal with these references in one way or another, as pop culture references can influence how these brands are perceived by their target markets. Brand managers at each of these brands were able to successfully steer their brands away from any potential negative repercussions. An approach of distancing the brand’s communication messages from the pop culture reference and focusing on advertising to strengthen the brand’s positioning has repeatedly proven to be the correct strategic approach.