by Booker Sim
“My first year of ninth grade, can’t forget that day of school/ It was cool, till your man MC Shan came through/ And said ‘Puma’s the brand, cause the Klan makes Troops’ …must have been true, because man, we done banned they shoes…threw them in the trash, like they yesterday’s news” – from Eminem’s “Yellow Brick Road”
In the 80s, Puma was a premier “urban” brand, in large part due to an unofficial endorsement by MC SHAN, one of the leading MCs of the day. Shan was front man for the first rap super group, THE JUICE CREW, most of whose members hailed from QUEENSBRIDGE (QB), the world’s largest housing project. For a time, the Puma brand was almost synonymous with Queensbridge and The Juice Crew.
Thanks to a 20-year history of birthing gifted MCs, Queensbridge has since grown into a world famous brand in its own right, with the QUEENSBORO BRIDGE as its internationally recognized symbol, and “THE WORLD’S LARGEST PROJECTS, WITH THE RICHEST LEGACY IN HIP-HOP” as its motto. In the transient world of rap, QB’s enduring legacy has put it in a class of its own.
As QB blossomed, so did hip-hop culture as a whole – now a multi-billion dollar global industry, with urban apparel generating billions a year in the US alone.
However, while the Puma brand is undeniably popular with other segments of youth culture, since the 80s it hasn’t kept pace with the Queensbridge brand, nor with the broader urban culture to which it belongs.
RAP & KICKS
Run DMC dedicated a whole a song to their Adidas sneakers. KRS-One used his Nikes to mark his Bronx pedigree. By wearing Pumas, MC Shan forever linked the brand with his native Queensbridge Projects.
Since the golden age of hip-hop, rappers have used sneakers to symbolize their crews, their neighborhoods, their lifestyles. And their fans followed suit, using their “kicks” to show their membership in the “hip-hop nation.”
This was a coming of age for hip-hop. By investing mainstream products with urban cachet, rappers now had the power to remake Puma, Adidas and Nike into urban brands. And that’s what appealed to hip-hop fans: it was ‘the hood, not Madison Avenue, that made the sneakers popular.
Or unpopular. MC Shan rapped that he wore Pumas because he believed the Klu Klux Klan were the makers of Troop sneakers, a fashionable brand in the day. Though an unfounded rumor, Troop lost favor amongst many hip-hop savvy consumers (like a young Eminem).
Since then, hip-hop has grown exponentially more popular, with urban music accounting for up to 25% of American record sales in recent years, and of late, has been the fattest growing musical genre in most major world markets . So it’s no surprise that hip-hop has been used to sell everything from soft drinks, movies and videogames, to champagne, cognac and luxury goods, to of course urban apparel, in what now amounts to a multi-billion dollar “hip-hop economy.” Last year, urban apparel generated billions in the US alone. And this does not include brands like Louis Vuitton that use hip-hop to sell their clothes. And more than just using urban styles in their product design and urban artists in their ads, mainstream Reebok has even released a Jay-Z and 50 Cent sneaker, with great success.
However, as a sneaker “major” fully embracing hip-hop, Reebok is the exception – and wasn’t even considered an urban brand by 80s hip-hop fans. Adidas, Nike and Puma, which were seen as urban brands back in the day, haven’t fully capitalized on their once privileged (if at first accidental) access to the urban market. Instead, companies like Ecko, Phat Farm, Bape, Akademics, Roc-a-wear, LRG and G-Unit have stepped into the multi-billion dollar urban sporting goods void left by the sneaker majors, with these upstarts branding every type of clothing with hip-hop flair.
BRAND STORY SEQUEL
Perhaps the sneaker majors only tentatively embraced hip-hop for fear of tarnishing the mainstream appeal of their brands with the “gangsta” aspects of the culture. Or maybe they didn’t want to gamble their hegemony on something that may have looked like a fad.
But hip-hop is here to stay. And there is much more to rap than crime and violence…more than even music. Hip-hop, like branding, is about telling stories – universal stories about the triumph of the human spirit.
A case in point.
Eminem and 50 Cent have both overcome tremendous obstacles to get where they are today. Both tell their stories through their music. And together they dominated the charts for more than half a decade.
And both have made the transition to the silver screen, with movies based on their lives.
But while Eminem’s “8 MILE” took in over $50 million its opening weekend, grossing $120 million during its North American run, 50’s “GET RICH OR DIE TRYING” faltered, with “disappointing” North American box office receipts of $30 million.
Could it be that “8 MILE” outsold “GET RICH” because Eminem is more popular? True, Eminem has sold 27 million albums in the US compared with 50’s Cents 11 million. But it took Em more than twice as long and in a more robust market. Nor is it that 50’s life is less interesting (50 was shot 9 times, and battled against even greater odds than Em to find fame).
No, “8 MILE” outsold “GET RICH” because it was truer to the protagonist’s story. “GET RICH” betrayed the truth of 50’s life. To succeed, it needed to be less – not more – Hollywood.
It’s also worth noting that “8 MILE” has little in the way of sex, violence and “bling,” proving that hip-hop’s appeal is more about honest, moving stories than glamourizing the “crime life.” Certainly, crime factors in when it’s truly part of a rapper’s story, but it’s not in-itself compelling.
The lesson here is that harnessing the power of hip-hop is not just about rap music, nor even the story told by that music, and even less about sex, money and violence. Hip-hop is about HOW the story is told: with honesty, power and conviction.
And so it must be in writing the QB-Puma story through “THE LEGACY” reality TV series and related branding activities. No Hollywood endings. No gratuitous violence. Just honest tales of overcoming the odds through music. Power and integrity is the moniker of truth, and the secret of the QB brand’s longevity – an attribute so rare in an industry of quick-fading fads. If we stay true to the QB story, “THE LEGACY” won’t tarnish the Puma brand. It will only make it shine brighter.
A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
Aside from rappers who’ve used the Queensbridge name to sell records, no one has capitalized on the QB brand. Puma is poised to take advantage of this opportunity. But there are obstacles.
Though no one would disagree that Puma is part of Queensbridge history, the brand has largely been absent from the hip-hop scene since The Juice Crew era. To launch a QB ad campaign this late in the game may seem as opportunistic, alienating not only QB residents, but core urban tastemakers, opinion making journalists and the mainstream consumers they influence.
With “THE LEGACY,” we must therefore expand Puma’s part in the QB story to include not just the past, but PRESENT and FUTURE as well. And taking cues from “8 MILE,” “THE LEGACY” must strictly adhere to the essence of the QB brand on which it’s based:
• QB’s PAST – a part in the story MC Shan wrote for Puma. “THE LEGACY” will remind consumers that far from opportunists late to cash in on the hip-hop economy, Puma has been part of hip-hop all along. But simply relying on past glory would make Puma seem dated. So we’ll write Puma into –
• QB’s PRESENT – a place we’ll secure for Puma with endorsements from contemporary QB rap stars (such as Mobb Deep). “THE LEGACY” brand story will then connect past and present – writing Puma into the narrative that runs from The Juice Crew days to the new school revolution headed by rappers like Mobb Deep and Nas, who are still popular today. Not all publicity will be good, however, for some will think Puma is buying its way into the QB legacy. Puma will overcome this stigma by cultivating –
• QB’s FUTURE – with “THE LEGACY” series nurturing the next generation of QB talent, Puma will establish itself as both caretaker of hip-hop culture and on hip-hop’s cutting edge: a maker of trends, but trends based on a knowledge of hip-hop history.
THE LEGACY BRAND STORY
Queensbridge…The Bridge…QB: the world’s largest housing project, just across the bridge from rich upper east Manhattan. Queensbridge is home of the richest legacy in hip-hop, from Marley Marl, MC Shan and The Juice Crew, to Poet, Tragedy, Cormega, Nas, Nature, Mobb Deep, Capone-n-Noreaga (CNN) and a new generation of hungry young rappers.
More than just the world’s largest housing project, Queensbridge is world famous. Through their music, QB rappers have spread the Queensbridge name around the globe, with combined record sales in excess of 14 million units in the US alone. And QB is well known in major hip-hop markets like Japan, Germany and especially France – where the QB sound is the biggest influence on France’s indigenous rap scene, with French rappers now outselling their American counterparts in what is the second biggest hip-hop market in the world. For the French, QB is rap’s mecca.
But beyond just record sales, QB has grown into a global cult movement – with the Queensboro Bridge as its symbol, with its slogan reading: “THE WORLD’S LARGEST HOUSING PROJECT, WITH THE RICHEST LEGACY IN HIP-HOP.” In the ever-changing rap music industry, it’s this enduring legacy that makes the QB story unique. In hip-hop parlance, the QB brand is “classic.”
And since the mid 80s when The Juice Crew dominated the rap game, Puma has been the “official” shoe of Queensbridge. MC Shan was famous for sporting one red and one blue Puma, rapping that “Puma’s the brand/ ‘cause the Klan makes Troops” – without even being paid to do so!
But the QB legacy is as much about the future as the past. QB rappers don’t follow, they lead – as evidenced by their central role in the two most famous “beefs” in hip-hop history – beefs that Puma figured into as well.
When Bronx bred KRS-One dissed MC Shan and Queensbridge in the most important battle in hip-hop, he attacked Puma too: “You’d better change what comes out your speaker/ you’re better off talking ‘bout your whack Puma sneaker.”
And ten years later during the East-Coast/West-Coast beef, when Tragedy, CNN and Mobb Deep were the first New York rappers to strike back at Snoop Dogg and Death Row, not only did they redeem QB for the earlier defeat at the hands of KRS-One, but they redeemed Puma too, with Tragedy sliding on “his suede Pumas” in the spine-tingling third verse of the “L.A. L.A.” diss track.
PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE – alive in one song. PRESENT, because Mobb Deep was the hottest rap group in New York at the time. PAST, because not only were Mobb Deep and CNN raised on The Juice Crew, but Tragedy was a member of The Juice Crew as a child, and tapped Juice Crew mastermind Marley Marl to produce “L.A. L.A.” And FUTURE, because “L.A. L.A.” established newcomers CNN as the next hot group out of QB – thanks to Juice Crew alumni Tragedy and Marley – with everything coming full circle.
Taking what’s hot in the present, using lessons from the past, to create the future. That’s what makes Queensbridge – and hip-hop – great.
But QB hasn’t produced any rap stars since CNN. And Mobb Deep and Nas, QB’s most famous, have been in the game for over a decade now.
No new Queensbridge stars. But not for lack of talent. QB is full of gifted young MCs. But unlike CNN and The Juice Crew, they don’t have anyone to help them along.
That is, until Puma stepped up to the challenge. QB held Puma down during the two most publicized beefs in rap history. Now that QB’s legacy is on the line, it’s time for Puma to return the favor.
But if hip-hop greatness is born of love, it’s the tough love of competition. So the next great QB rapper will be born in the war zone of Puma’s “LEGACY” reality TV series.
THE LEGACY SERIES
So, I suggest telling this QB-Puma brand story through a reality TV series called “THE LEGACY.” Similar to Nike’s “BATTLEGROUNDS” show, “THE LEGACY” would be structured around the fierce drama of competition. But instead of a Nike-sponsored streetball tournament, “THE LEGACY” would select up and coming QB MCs to compete for a Puma endorsement deal (including a featured spot on a “THE LEGACY” album, tour and ad campaign). The contest – based on stringent criteria decided by demanding judges (including members of The Juice Crew and Mobb Deep) – would pit these ambitious young MCs against each other in a dramatic battle to determine the next great rapper in the QB legacy.
And like “BATTLEGROUNDS,” “THE LEGACY” would be an exercise in soft-branding, a practice much more effective than ads at winning over skeptical young consumers. While Puma throws the contest, clothes the competitors and produces the show – the focus is on the human drama that engulfs the battling MCs – each with their own “8 MILE” story, set in the hip-hop microcosm of Queensbridge. It’s the authenticity of Queensbridge and the true-to-life human stories therein which will make “THE LEGACY” infinitely more compelling than the manufactured drama of most “reality-TV.” And we believe it will take nothing less than real human drama to build a strong QB-Puma brand story, something that simply can’t be fully and convincingly expressed through an ad campaign.
And after all, that’s what we aim to do here: write Puma into the QB legacy in a manner profound enough to justify broader co-branding endeavors, like a sneaker and apparel line, a tour and album, an internet, TV and print campaign, plus short films for the web. Puma needs to earn the right to use the QB brand. And it can only do so by showing it’s as serious about QB’s legacy as rap fans and QB residents.
And of course in the process, Puma’s urban cachet will be spread worldwide. Whether a thirteen episode season or a four part show on heavy rotation, “THE LEGACY” would generate greater brand awareness than any 30 second ad:
“The strength of a good story is that it can evolve over time. The characters get the space they need to develop their personalities and we get to know them better. If we can identify with the characters, chances are we will embrace the story. And as the conflict drives the story forward, we become more deeply involved and the commercial message is transmitted more easily, almost without our realizing it. Thus, whether the purpose is to sell a product, increase brand recognition or strengthen the company’s image, the advantage of the commercial serial is that it creates a long-term platform for the company to communicate its message, and establishes a long term relationship with the viewer,” (“STORYTELLING: BRANDING IN PRACTICE,” p.153).