The Tanning of America

I have just finished Steve Stoute's book "The Tanning of America; How Hip-hop Created a Culture that Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy". 

If you don't know Steve Stoute, he is a former music artist manager and record executive responsible for launching the careers of a huge number of famous hip-hop and R&B artists, who went on to create Translation, a brand and marketing firm that prides itself on having its finger on the pulse of culture. Translation has gone on to developed a lot of iconic campaigns - think the Justin Timberlake / McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" partnership.

In essence, the book outlines a history of the rise of hip-hop, and how it has achieved a global connection unlike any other force in a process dubbed "tanning". From Steve:

"But the tale I'm here to tell is less about the music itself and more about the atomic reaction it created, a catalytic force majeure that went beyond musical boundaries and into the psyche of young America - blurring cultural and demographic lines so permanently that it laid the foundation for  transformation I have dubbed "tanning". Hip-hop had come in a time, in places, and through multiple, innovative means that enabled it to level the playing field like no other movement of pop culture, allowing for a cultural exchange between all comers, groups of kids who were black, white, Hispanic, Asian, you name it. Somehow the homegrown music resonated across racial and socioeconomic lines and provided a cultural connection based on common experiences and values, and in turn revealed a generationally shared mental complexion."

The argument here is that with things like digital culture and the flattening of the world through technology we are more connected than ever, and one of the biggest connecting forces is hip-hop as a global cultural glue. This has also transformed our definition of "urban", once a dirty word to describe inner city youths or minorities, to where the majority of people reside - far exceeding exceeding suburban or rural globally.  

There is a lot in this book that is interesting (and not just for hip-hop fans) so I definitely recommend reading it. For the purpose of this post, I'm going to pull out a bunch of key ideas that I found important.

Understanding and Marketing to Millennial

On millennials (the generation born in the 1980's and 1990's, with vast spending power):

"By 2001 the millennials had become the most informed, most discerning consumers ever to appear on the planet. At this stage, factors going into purchasing considerations had also changed. No longer could a brand get away with doing the autocratic monologue to cram down their message. No longer could the language be verbalised as talking to the mass audience; the focus was now on individuals. No longer could slogans or jingles be force-fed because even though they might be catchy, they didn't necessarily entice you to buy the product.

We had arrived at the point in time when it was imperative for brands to issue an invitation. Consumers wanted to be allowed in, to have a point of view in the matter. Elements that needed to be emphasised were social, experiential, and then, finally, retail. In the old days, all advertising had to do was push retail. But now other considerations - the social-status entry point and the experiential / emotional entry point - had to be woven into the invitation. A very gentle relationship, I might add. What's more, with this choosier consumer, design aesthetics were influencing purchase considerations more than ever."

It does amaze me that we still use such distinct demographic brackets to describe consumers in advertising and marketing. It reminds me of one of the first things they teach you in any writing classes - never describe your characters by age. "She was a 16 year old girl" - what the hell does that even mean? It is much more valid to reference the psychographics of the audience.

Translation and Stoute outline an approach to uncovering the psychographics of millennials:

"1. What distinguishes the mind-set of the target consumer? The mid-set of millennials is adaptive. Today as boundaries dissolve and information moves without restriction, demography tells us less about "who" we want to engage. Without our general market consumer universe there exists this psychographic dimension that adapts and responds as a creative collective - igniting pop culture trends, as well as propagating them in mainstream culture. The polyethnic consumers of this mind-set are inclined to make brands their own and within their diverse social networks leverage brands as creative new material in composing self-image and style.

2. Where does our urban consumer live? "Urban" evokes the images of New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Seattle,  San Francisco, Los Angeles, all cities or places where people live in close proximity to one another. In the '00s, "urban" is no longer confined to a literal definition of location. Urban consumers are movers who span urban / suburban / global. Urban consumers are confident and proud of their backgrounds and distinct cultural histories but would not be considered ethnocentric. Urban consumers are truly cross-cultural. They are exposed to, they understand, and they embody this mixing innately. The urban audience, millennially speaking, cannot be entreated in a superficial manner with style cues or compelled by inauthentic, prepackaged, or homogenised messaging. "What to have" and other status definers are all intertwined in the media they consume. The urban consumer is, in essence, the most exacting, precise consumer on the planet - influential not just individually or as a segment but as a megamovement. Their time is now.

3. What kind of needs and wants define the savvy consumer? With the ongoing debate as to who exactly comprises the hip-hop generation - whether it's late bloomer adults who connected to the music and culture in the seventies and eighties or Gen X and Gen Y youth and adults who came of age in the late eighties and nineties, or the Now and Next teens coming of age - these savvy consumer millennials are marketing veterans. They have been marketed to - directly and indirectly - since birth and through their parents, giving rise to an extraordinarily aware and often cynical audience. Belief, therefore, is granted only be experience. They want attention and need a certain level of scarcity. Authenticity and aspiration remain critical for the savvy consumer, in both the need and want categories. They are fickle and can spot brands that feign understanding; they spot and shun brands that pretend to know them. The savvy millennial consumer wants to align with brands as badges of identity - as indicators of status. The need is for a much more meaningful relationship than simple utility. The savvy consumer wants to believe in brand properties that confer both instant and perpetual cool.

4. What characteristics describe our consumer in control? Above all, the consumer in control seeks out, takes pride in, and celebrates the unique expressions that define one's self. Consumers in control drive taste making forces behind consumption in a range of areas including fashion, technology, media, and entertainment. They are highly connected, infinitely mobile, literate, and empowered by technology. In the '00's, especially, the consumer in control goes beyond the mere functional use of technology to a self-motivated adoption, utilisation, and creative expression."

So the more we honour psychographics, the less we honour age, race or other irrelevant forces. To continue:

"Because we know youth is a state of mind, not an age, we have identified a youth mind-set that compliments the tan mental complexion - both of which are aspects of youth culture. While we already knew that those with a youth mind-set have a more profound relationship to technology than other consumers, we wanted to provide an overview of passion points for youth culture that were going to be valuable in our strategies. By no means comprehensive, the list includes: music, sports, entertainment, gaming, fashion / beauty, style / design, creativity and self-expression, social connections (real and virtual), the Internet, and, again, technology.

There was something else that we made sure to recognise going in and that is the fact that the remix of culture - which is exactly what hip-hop did from the start and continues to do - is the happy domain of the millennials. They know the history of what's been perpetually cool and they know absolutely what is over. This may explain why Betty White, Tony Bennett, and Jack Nicholson, each seen as having perpetual cool, have a youth following. Millennials like to identify cool and school other consumers. The millennials, raised on hip-hop as a fact of life, believe fundamentally in the power of authenticity. They keep demonstrating that the cool of technology isn't about the technology. It's about what we get to experience as the result of the technology."

Millennial Passion Points.

The Internet has driven instant access to cultural barometers from multiple media streams that defy location. There is now also no delays in the export of culture. If something ceases to be cool in once place, it tends to repeat globally pretty damn quickly - and this can include brands.

How to Become a Loved Brand

Next we are focused on brands achieving cool. This ultimately follows three aspirations - instant cool, which pushes a brand to the top of the cool hill, followed by perpetual cool, to finally embodying cool, which prolongs activation forever.

To be a little more vague, this is for companies to "find the intersection where understanding those consumers can be translated to the hand of their brand, and then the brand can be taught to speak as if they're in the culture, and they can speak with a wink and a nod".

Stoute outlines five stages for consumer brand perception that span a relationship - these are Convenience, Consideration, Respect, Like, and Love in order.


Convenience brands are those that offer rational product solutions and messaging without differentiation in a category. 

Marketing of such brands is usually based on goals or short-term sales, rather than a long-term vision of brand building. Convenience brands do not innovate, nor do they contribute to the wider culture or extend into people's lives. Customers for convenience brands won't intentionally "seek the brand out" or ask people within their community for advice about the brand. Convenience brands initiate a one-way dialogue with their consumers and rarely care what they think.

Example: Vizio


Consideration brands provide a rational alternative to respected brands. Consideration brands manage to transcend a sea of sameness through one-off products or communication (rational proposition versus an emotional connection). A considered brand is not seen as having a conviction beyond building a market share.

Example: Kia


Respected brands are those that have achieved trust from the consumer thanks to the delivery of a successful brand promise and as a result of the long-term brand building efforts. A respected brand has a clear identity for both employees within the company and for customers, and typically follows wider customer trends. They may inspire loyalty, and have a logo that inspires global recognition and trust. However, respected brands are ultimately threatened by brands that deliver greater emotional appeal.

Example: Samsung


A liked brand is seen as having convictions that matter to its community and as caring about the greater good than by financial gain. Liked brands are often driven by outspoken founders or CEO's, who convey the brand's personal identity in personal ways. Liked brands are driven by the art and science of new media and technology, employing multiple approaches to communication with minimal messaging repetition. Like brands surprises and delight their fans through innovation and content yet work hard at carting for existing customer as they do at attaining new ones. 

Liked brands have shared values and purposes with their user base. Their logo becomes a signifier that transcends race and geographical boundaries.

Example: Virgin


Loved brands have a relationship with the needs and beliefs of communities of consumers, one that has evolved organically. This shared emotion can be so strong that consumers would genuinely feel their lives wouldn't be the same without the brand in question. In fact, loved brands benefit from these internal stakeholders who act as a wider marketing department. Loved brands regularly have a CEO who spearheads branding efforts for the company. Loved brands don't market to different cultures in different ways or stereotype people via their race. They utilise one narrative and allow cultural nuances to build emotional connections. Loved brands are culturally curious and look for advice from consumers, thus transcending a one-way conversation into a two-way dialogue and ultimately a megalogue that is advantageous to all.

Example: Apple

Ultimately, the goal is to find the sweet spot between the brand's core values and the cultural cues. And also not banking everything on following a trend - like a house of cards, they can collapse at any time, and trends never tend to have lasting power. Aim to achieve being Liked, and if you are very lucky, you can transcend into love.

The 5 Stages that Span a Relationship.

Brand Journalism

One of the key ways to move through the cycle to love is fluidity, with a concept called Brand Journalism. When you think of fluidity, remember the philosophy of Bruce Lee:

From Stoute:

"Back in 2004, Larry Light - the marketing visionary who had come to McDonald's and helped turn it around when it was losing consumer share - began to talk about that fluidity as a change in storytelling. Instead of having one catchy message or one simple idea to be hammered home like nails in the sensibilities of consumers, he argued that the time had come for a broader chronicle of many stories that spoke to why the brand mattered in the context of the times.

Brand Journalism suggests that there is a continual flow of news and information that is consumer generated and needs to be followed."

This idea hammers on the need for a brand to move away from a mindset that everything hinges on one execution of big idea (1950's advertising thinking). Instead, we need one big idea that can be used in a multidimensional, multilayered, and multifaceted way. I found this concept to be very similar to Hoopla, the CP+B secret sauce in their approach to marketing.

If this seems overly difficult, think of brand building as raising a child. You shouldn't do it if you don't have love and patience to give. But if you do, and it grows up and learns to embody cool on its own, it can have a real impact on peoples lives.

How Brand's Lose Credibility:

The Thinnest Slice

In the chase for cool, or just being the top of the pile or number one for both brands and entertainers, sometimes the trappings of success can turn around and bite you. This becomes a perilous crossing of the line, and results in a catastrophic loss of credibility - consumers no longer view their values as being shared and come to reject the brand or person. A situation that can be incredibly hard to reverse.

Stoute outlines three main culprits for this occurring:

"Lack of Depth. When a brand or an icon exhibits the inability to really deliver the goods time and agin, they become exposed as not having truth or depth or both. Sometimes brands that do deliver in terms sales still lack true depth. In music the classic example of lack of depth in the "one-hit wonder" ("Mambo Number 5").

Lack of true understanding. Here's how a lack of true understanding of tanning can be problematic. It's important to understand and look at the world throughout the eyes of cultural producers on the street, in the malls, in neighbourhoods, and to arrive there at the moment to witness what is now counterculture but will soon become culture. Generally, where there is an understanding those who are pioneering and daring enough to forge ahead and accept the changes usually succeed, while those who keep their heads in the sand fail. With political brands, you can observe how lack of understanding worked in 2008 for Republicans versus Democrats.

Lack of innovation. When change is ongoing or imminent, icons and brands can tumble from not knowing how to innovate against what is coming and from not being able to embrace a culture of rebirth and reinvention. Probably the best case in point is Windows versus Mac."

The goal here is to remain in a space Translation dub the "Thinnest Slice". This is the bleeding edge between enduring success on one side, and consumer apathy and rejection on the next. 

How do we walk this tightrope? We do it via an "Ever-Evolving" mindset. "Ever" is the enduring promise that the brand is always going to be there, be moving forward, and remain true to its essence - timelessness and timeliness. "Evolving" encompasses dynamism, improvement and adaptation, the agents of momentum that create a sense of innovation.

"Ever-Evolving" therefore summons a spirit of keen sensitivity - knowing what to change, how to change, and when to change.  


Quite a lot in this book! I have barely touched on the content, so I highly recommend you pick up and give this a read. Great insights for anyone trying to understand culture, millennial consumers, and the changing nature of marketing.

Grab a copy and have a read, or check out the VH1 Series based on the book.