Urban Pioneers

NEW YORK In his hit song, “People Like Myself,” hip-hop artist Timbaland writes that people like him “only hang with self cause that’s the way to go.” But Timbaland found another way to go: He struck a precedent-setting deal with Verizon Wireless to distribute a collection of songs directly to the carrier’s V Cast subscribers, and to create content such as behind-the-scenes video footage of his recordings. Timbaland’s marketing effort helps Verizon as well, as the carrier aims to be a destination for young urbanites attuned to cutting-edge music and culture.

Timbaland is just one of several hip-hop artists and producers who are pioneering the mobile media space. And in transforming it into a major marketing platform, they can serve as models for brands ranging from packaged goods to autos trying to reach consumers on the move while leveraging new technologies.

Hip-Hop History

Hip-hop, born three decades ago at a Bronx block party when a DJ scratched a record to create the break-beat sound, has exploded into a culture that thrives on, and influences, music, fashion and art. It is the epicenter of cool for the young people driven to wear the newest styles and own the latest gadgets. It makes sense, then, that hip-hop artists more than those in any other genre have embraced the mobile medium as a tool for maximum audience reach.

“Hip-hop artists have done a tremendous job of tapping into the mind-set of who their consumer is,” said Kerry Perse, director of digital relationship marketing at Horizon Media’s interactive division.

Another recording artist using the mobile space is Rapper Murs (Making Underground Raw Shit), who is creating mobisodes (to be distributed across all carriers) to promote his new album, Murs for President. And fellow rapper Snoop Dogg — both he and Murs work with The Cashmere Agency — will launch a mobile video campaign this summer, for his new album, The Blue Carpet Treatment.

Additionally, late last year QD3 Entertainment, an independent production company led by Quincy Jones III that produces urban-focused content (e.g., documentary films), launched a QD3-branded channel on Helio.

“Hip-hop has been a viral phenomenon from day one,” noted QD3’s Jones, chairman, CEO and CCO. “I think that mobile and the Internet platforms provide an arena where they can do their own thing. I think it’s the empowerment of it that’s big as well. Like doing your own thing and being in charge of your destiny.”

According to eMarketer, mobile ad spending will reach $1.6 billion in 2008 and jump to $4.8 billion in 2011. Yet some marketers have hesitated to jump in due to a lack of ROI metrics and success stories, high costs and other obstacles.

“I think a lot of clients feel as though getting into mobile has a high cost of entry, depending on the level of sophistication of the program they may want to run,” said Horizon Media’s Perse. “There can be a really large investment in the infrastructure up front.”

Added Linda Barrabee, program manager, consumer research, The Yankee Group, “there’s a lot of confusion due to the complexities of the medium.”

But while technology issues, such as bandwidth headaches and handset applications, have been challenging the potential of mobile marketing, an increasing number of phones are faster and have the ability to show video.

Susan Walton, manager of digital and CRM marketing for the Saturn brand at General Motors, said for her the problems are less technologically based than legal. “This is a new platform for us,” she said, “so it’s new territory for our legal counsel and it’s taken some time to get all of the approvals — especially in dealing with such a small space.”