Like many musicians, the erstwhile giants of hip-hop have discovered that selling brands often means a more reliable revenue stream than selling music. It's why the aughts have found Sean "Diddy" Combs spritzing on his Sean John cologne and sipping his Ciroc vodka; Salt-N-Pepa pushin' it for Geico; and Snoop Lion (formerly Dogg) shilling for—to name a few—Nike, Burger King, Orbit, Hot Pockets, Adidas and, in the most recent Super Bowl, Eat24.
So it was hardly a surprise when, in 2011, big-shouldered rapper 50 Cent put his name and face behind his own energy drink called Street King.
But here's where the story gets unusual. Emerging from an image makeover, the new and improved Street King—which has gone by SK Energy Shots since 2012—doesn't prominently feature 50 Cent anymore. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to know Curtis Jackson has anything to do with the brand now (though he's still a part owner). Gone is his signature gold bling from the bottle; gone is his face from the homepage and the marketing. It's a celebrity brand minus the celebrity. What gives?
"Curtis was supportive of this pivot," said SK president Sabrina Peterson. "He never advocated that he needed to be on the packaging. It's about making the product the hero, and going back to basics."
The experience of SK suggests that while hip-hop's famous names and faces can easily sell a range of products—clothing, liquor, snack food—they can't sell everything, especially not in a category that's become as controversial as energy drinks.
Street King had spent only about a year on store shelves when the entire category ran into trouble. In the fall of 2012, Americans began to worry about energy drinks and shots—which contain high levels of caffeine and frequently other stimulants as well—after the FDA confirmed five reports of Americans having died after consuming them. A January 2013 study released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration showed that energy drinks resulted in 20,783 emergency room visits in 2011. By the summer of 2013, the American Medical Association called for a ban on the marketing of such drinks to consumers under 18, and energy drink brands took a beating in a U.S. Senate hearing criticizing youth-targeted marketing practices that Democratic Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) characterized as, "Hook 'em early, keep 'em for life."
Suddenly, Street King—which launched with a jet-black bottle, glittery-gold lettering and a brooding 50 Cent pictured in the marketing—didn't look so kingly. As Peterson delicately put it, "There was apprehension about the category, and we weren't helping that." SK's original bad-boy image was also doing little to attract female consumers.
It also conflicted with the brand's halo policy of openly disclosing its caffeine content (250mg, about as much as a tall-size Starbucks coffee) and of refusing to use stimulants like taurine and guarana. In putting forth a new public face for the brand, Peterson said, "The goal was to be lighter, more positive and universally appealing."
What's that mean? SK's latest incarnation bears little resemblance to what the brand looked like a few years ago. The black bottles are now brushed aluminum. The SK logo—originally rendered in block letters like clunky gangsta jewelry—is now in a softer font, in a variety of colors and hovering above images of fruit. Head to SK's Web page and you'll have to look hard to find 50 Cent. (He's way down on the "Testimonials" page, below San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Univision fitness host Claudia Molina.)
"Curtis is [still] an owner," Peterson said. "He's a wise businessman. He has no ego. It's rare to partner with a celebrity who puts business first." And indeed, Jackson—who spoke to Adweek through a publicist—seems content to step into the background.
"Our goal with SK Energy was to create a viable product and a lasting brand," he said. "[The] redesign appeals to a broader audience and makes us more competitive."
Tom Pirko, president of beverage consulting firm Bevmark, said SK's de-emphasizing of Jackson's rap swagger is probably just as well. "In the beverage business, you want to be a little careful from a personality becoming the core value of who you are," he said. "Smaller companies can't really put themselves at risk because as they try to crack into the business, they don't know the lifespan of the person they choose."
Of course, Jackson's personal brand has proven longevity. His long-awaited album, Street King Immortal, is set for a 2015 release, and his varied business investments give him a reported net worth of $140 million. That figure includes the reported $60 million (a low estimate) he made when Cola-Cola bought Vitaminwater—including Jackson's 10 percent stake. Nobody's saying the man doesn't know his beverages.
"He's a rap star," Peterson said, "but in business he's a rock star."