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Hip-Hop Fridays: What is Urban? by Erin Patton

As I was preparing my remarks to address the MOBE conference a couple of weeks ago in Miami on the subject of targeting the urban demo to build lifetime customers, invariably, I was forced to introspectively raise the question of "What is Urban?"

I came to the conclusion that, in America's consumer-driven matrix of 2003, that has become the billion dollar question.

Up until now, particularly over the past decade, "urban" has pretty much come to be inextricably linked to Hip-Hop, especially since the art form was born out of the inner-city black experience. Hence, the term had come to represent a fairly narrow perception and conjured up certain stereotypes in the minds of the mainstream. As such, if you were to look up the term "urban" in Corporate America's marketing dictionary, a 50 Cent-type of image would have been all the image is worth.

While the value of 50 Cent and the urban image has grown to represent billions to the legions of entertainment and corporate brands who recognize its tremendous influence on today's landscape, that wasn't always the case. As recently as five years ago, such an image presented a real problem for corporate marketers who found it difficult to convince the mainstream to the viability of the urban market. The mainstream powers were less than receptive to tuning into a frequency they could not understand and thought would be confined to a trend (notwithstanding the entertainment industry and a few, select brands like the And 1's of the world who built their brands with urban consumers).

During that time, on a whole, urban was undesirable to the mainstream palate whose taste buds rejected its flavor while the underground brands continued to develop recipes with urban as the main ingredient. Fast forward to today and the urban culture is extremely desirable to the degree that 50 Cent recently set the record for the most played single in the history of music and has enjoyed instant mainstream popularity. So why has "urban" all of a sudden become so desirable to corporate America?

In addition to the aforementioned financial opportunity, the answer can be traced to what is taking place in America on a macro level. In short, urban is desirable because urban is no longer just black. Take Chicago for instance. In Chicago, "urban" is Hillary's Urban Eatery (HUE), a mainstream restaurant with an eclectic, diverse vibe in an area inside the heart of the city that was once neglected but is now an appealing and soon-to-be vibrant community of urban renewal. Throughout Chicago, projects and dilapidated buildings are coming down and being replaced by lavish townhomes, condominiums and shops.

The very land that was not quite desirable when it housed the Robert Taylor Homes or Cabrini Green projects is now the most desirable urban real estate in the city. Furthermore, while inner-city blacks are being displaced to the southern outskirts of the city, the wealthy are migrating back to the city from the saturated suburban areas and being supported with commercial and residential investment all around them. Not to mention access to the cultural and entertainment benefits that comes with being located at a city's pulse where all of the activity is taking place.

Sound familiar.

In the previous urban marketing neighborhood of Corporate America, the area of the company responsible for outreach to blacks and Hispanics was the beneficiary of the lowest investment as it represented one segment, and a monolithic one at that. Now, with the mainstreaming of the urban culture and the Eminem factor, the flood gates have opened and those in the mainstream are eager to build their brand home in that same urban zip code where all the marketing action is.

In essence, the perception of what "urban" is has changed. And that is both a good thing and natural evolution. Urban is young. Urban is multicultural. Urban is multiracial. Urban is contemporary. Urban is a "psychographic" not a demographic. Urban is Eminem. Urban is 50 Cent. Urban is a mindset based on shared lifestyle interests, not race alone, especially among the current generation of youth.

Urban is...not just black anymore.

So, how do black Americans and marketers targeting the African-American market reconcile this new reality and adjust to this paradigm shift comfortably while maintaining some degree of equity in the property we’ve helped build as the original, architects of "urban" in its current form?

Again, the answer can be found by looking at America on a macro level. As was the case in America, the richness of the inner-city was by elite blacks on a mainstream quest, leaving the core urban experience to crumble under the lack of true strategic direction and investment from within. The same applies to the marketing community. The majority of seasoned marketing experts matriculated into mainstream corporate America's companies and agencies and left a huge void for those attempting to define and corner the urban market.

As the saying goes, you can't have your cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, this paradigm shift is a good thing as blacks have been fighting the stereotypical images and monolithic perceptions associated with urban, Hip-Hop culture for a long time.

On the other hand, it requires that marketers and the broader community accept it and help define a new reality for their constituents and clients, albeit one that is no longer exclusive and is still subject to gross stereotypes and offenses from its mainstream residents who will get quite comfortable in their new urban address (i.e. controversies surrounding Bringing Down The House and Malibu's Most Wanted).

Make no mistake, though, the black American and Latino urban experience will continue to set the pace and a miscalculation of this will doom many brands and companies to failure as they'll only be sprinting in a field of marathoners. The only difference now is that the field has widened and the competition is more steep which should bring out the best in all of us.

So, what is "urban?" It's up to you and I to provide the solution. Just know that the answer lies within the consumer/individual who will define its future. Just make sure you study the field, first, to make sure that you and your clients are equipped to run this new race through the new urban neighborhood.

Erin Patton is President & Chief Strategic Officer of The Mastermind Group, a New York-based integrated marketing and communications think tank and can be reached at

Friday, April 25, 2003

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