Tag Archives: marketing

Tahir Hemphill and the neglected genius of his rap almanac


Last week, I had a chance to listen to Tahir Hemphill at the Office of Creative Research in New York City.

The OCR is 111 Bowery and you walk up two flights, up out of a neighborhood dominated by Chinese grocery stores.  It feels like moving up in space is moving back in time, like you are caught in something Victorian, entering one world secreted in another.  Think something out of Sherlock Holmes’ London.  A delicate, organized world now bursting with, on the verge of failing to contain, the forces that made it.  A little dreamy.  A little strange.

The Center does not disappoint on this score.  You enter to see 8 Oscilloscopes staring at you all in a row.  Back room science.  Wild inquiry.  The pursuit of knowledge running away from academic, professional and commercial convention.

Waiting for the talk to start, I fell into conversation with a guy from the “green tech” sector and for some reason, perhaps that Victorian vibe, we started talking about what great ghosts this building must have.  I was once part of the museum profession and we used to talk a lot about how to get the knowledge of the museum into the world.  Usable holographs were just then appearing on the horizon and surely some day, the green-tech guy and I agreed, every building would have hand-crafted ghosts that wander through and can be relied to tell you the story of the building.  This will be a standard feature of the well-appointed office space.  As in, “Well, I was going to work at start-up X but when I asked them what ghosts they had installed in the building (they have this great warehouse on the river), they just stared at me like it had never occurred to them.  Dude!  Dump the ping pong table and get some ghosts!”

And Tahir does not disappoint.  He started talking about his childhood, about parents who wanted him to concentrate on math and science, how he discovered art, and the talk sort of spiraled out of control like opium smoke rising (to evoke our Victorian theme again).  We were spell bound.  Only.

Tahir is famous for his searchable rap almanac, The Hip Hop Word Count.  I was complaining the other day that in an era of generalists, we are disinclined to dig deep on any given topic.  Tahir dug very deep.  Millions of people have supped from the hip hop well.  Hundreds of thousands have participated in the profit stream that ensued.  But far as I know, Tahir is the only one who actually charts exactly what happened and is happening now.  (This is a little like learning, first, that we have discovered a lost continent and that, second, only one person has mapped it.)

As nearly as I can tell (and this is me guessing) hip hop the most formative cultural trend of the past couple of decades.  It is now part of the cultural vocabulary of every cosmopolitan.  (Thanks to Jey Van-Sharp for illuminating remarks on this theme over drinks after the talk.)  It’s possible that some day we will say that hip hop made us the way people now routinely say that Shakespeare made English and the English.  (Speaking of ghosts, if Shakespeare is witness to hip hop, just how much do you think he loves it?  Very much, that’s how much.  By the way, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is coming up.)

Tahir Hemphill has been a Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard and at The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University.  So some resources have been available to him.  But as nearly as I can tell, he does not have people lined up the block to give him money.  This is distinctly not the fate of those guys who made a Hip Hop encyclopedia called Rap Genius and got bags of dough from Marc Andreessen.  And very wrong.

Really! When you think about how much meaning and value the artistic and commercial world has extracted from hip hop, this is not just wrong but  unimaginably weird.  Hemphill ought to look like a Victorian captain of industry, lauded, celebrated, admired, imitated and the person you go to when you are trying to figure out whether and how the brand or your music or your film can stick its finger in the hip hop socket.  As so many have done.

As it is, he keeps a modest office in a building that is surely the greatest story never told.  Tahir’s office is in the Millionaire’s Retirement Home, a Bronx building created in 1915 (almost Victorian!) expressly for the purpose for giving comfort to very wealthy people who have fallen on hard times.  I know.   The irony is too painful.  Many people have extracted material riches from hip hop.  Tahir is not one of them.  His wealth is all intellectual.

When you are ready to hire the very gifted Mr. Hemphill as your consultant, you can find more about him here.  

Method out of madness

In any square mile of ocean, there are some 46,000 pieces of plastic, a great and growing testament to people on ship and shore so spectacularly stupid or irresponsible that they would rather just chuck something into the ocean than make the small effort the recycling now takes. Every year, this “ocean plastic” kills one million sea birds and 100,000 sharks, turtles, dolphins, and whales. Every year, ocean plastic rises a little higher in the food chain. It’s destination: our dinner plates.

Finally, the planet decided to do something about it, patiently sweeping garbage together into the creation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), an accumulation of crap rotating endlessly out there in the North Pacific.

And there it sits, a floating garbage dump visible even from outer space. Maybe this is an ocean’s idea of accusation. One piece of litter on the high seas doesn’t amount to much, but put it all together and you’ve got one really big ecological “j’accuse.”

For the rest of this post, please visit the Harvard Business Review Blog by clicking here.  

OREOS and murmur marketing

Here’s my Harvard Business Review Blog essay on the way Oreo is celebrating it’s 100th birthday.  

The first two paragraphs:

Oreo recently stepped out with a new look. Several new looks, actually. The cookie is pictured sometimes in the shape of Elvis, sometimes with a tread mark in redcrème in recognition of the Mars Rover landing, and sometimes in colors chosen to acknowledge Bastille day.

This is an excellent way to celebrate Oreo’s 100 birthday, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as advertising’s equivalent to party balloons. There is a method, perhaps even a genius, to this good humor.



Innovation the culturematic way

Here’s my recent post on the HBR website.  

It’s about a clever renovation at the St. Regis hotel.

This is, I believe, a great example of creating innovation through a knowledge of culture and a shift in perspective.

See the full text by CLICKING HERE.

Medieval marketing

Please come have a look at my thoughts on the revolution sweeping through the world of marketing and the rise of secret messages in contemporary culture.

You can find them here at the Harvard Business Review blog.  Click here.  

Nike vs. Skechers: How to battle a brand titan

What does the Marketing 101 tell us about fighting titantic brands?

We have several options.

One is to to play the "size" card.  We use our smallness to be more nimble.  As trends in consumer taste and preference change, we change too…faster than the titan can. If we’re really lucky, we will catch one big trend, early, and ride it to market shared.  (Think Snapple.) 

Another option is to play the "intensive" card.  The titan is trying to be all things to all people.  We try to be one very particular thing for one particular niche.  

The last is to create a competitor so unprepossessing, unattractive, and dubious that no us takes you seriously…until it’s too late.

This appears to be the Skechers strategy.  I haven’t done a thorough search, but it looks like Skechers took the low road.  Product design, the advertising, naming, the product proposition, they all scream awkward and untutored.

Now, of course, this could be an expression of the limits of the Skecher team.  But it could be something craftier.  I mean, it’s almost as if Skechers is being deliberately gauche. 

What a good strategy.  This is the only way to take Nike on.  Talk about a formidable marketing team.  Yikes.  The chances of competing face to face, well, you’d have to get up pretty early in the morning.  Actually, you wouldn’t be allowed ever to go to bed.  No sleep ever.  And you’d still lose.

Not to get too "little grasshopper" about it, but the only way to take on Nike is to use their strength against them.  They expect the competition to look like them, to hold to the same standards, to exhibit the same formidable professionalism.  So when Skechers comes shambling into the arena in sweat pants and throwing around dubious fitness claims, the Nike people must have said, "Please."  It was like a Double A baseball team wandering into Wrigley Field.  Clueless was the perfect Trojan horse, the way to sneak into the market without setting off alarms.  

This is always the weakness of a formidable enemy.  Their self love prevents them from taking certain enemies seriously.  It’s said that one of the reasons the German mercenaries fighting the American revolutionaries lost the first few engagements was that they had a hard time taking seriously farmers wielding ancient weapons and pitch forks.  By the time they summoned their professionalism, the Americans had won just enough engagements to create the impression that they could take the whole thing.  (Which I believe they did. Check your own particulars.  I’m a Canadian.)

Again, I haven’t done the research.  I am just judging things from the externals only.  I mean Skechers stealing a market from Nike.  It’s like learning the Bridgeport Bluefish just gave the Yankees a whipping.  It seems not just unlikely.  I would have said it was statistically impossible.  But it is precisely when things are impossible that hidden assumptions give the cunning competitor a way in.


Townsend, Mike. 2010. “’Toning’ shoes gain traction.” MSNBC. September 6. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37510162/ (Accessed September 30, 2010).