Saturday, March 24, 2007
“A McKinsey Of Pop Culture?”
Steve Stoute is making hot sellers out of cold brands by turning execs on to “the tanning of America”
Several months into his new job as vice-president of U.S. marketing and advertising for General Motors, Mike Jackson came to the conclusion that the automaker was just not cool enough. Young, urban trendsetters on the East and West Coasts were not paying attention to GM’s cars. The message being sent to consumers, Jackson says, was all wrong. “We worried far too much about the sheet metal, color, etc.,” he explains. “What we really needed to worry about was connecting emotionally with our consumers.” So Jackson picked up the phone last spring and called Steve Stoute.
More executives overseeing brands that have gone stale are turning to the 36-year-old consultant and former music executive for help. Stoute’s agency, Translation Consultation & Brand Imaging, offers to imbue brands with a combination of hip-hop ethos and practicality to help reposition products, from Chevy Impalas to Crest Whitestrips to Reese’s peanut butter cups. The end result is for brands to resonate with a younger, more trendy audience. Other successful entrepreneurs have emerged from the hip-hop scene, such as Russell Simmons and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, to help put urban fashion and lifestyle into the mainstream.
But Stoute is more closely aligned with a new guard of innovation consultants providing strategies that go beyond tricked-out sneakers and jeans. His message: Companies have not embraced the changes in the culture to be able to talk to a new generation of consumers. “So many executives,” says Stoute, “are lost in the confines of their own building.” Besides GM, Stoute has successfully taken his mantra to clients that include McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Hershey, Microsoft, and Estée Lauder.
Now Stoute seems to be gaining respect on Madison Avenue. Interpublic Group of Companies Inc., the $6.2 billion-a-year global advertising conglomerate, is in talks with Stoute to buy a majority stake in Translation, say sources close to those talks. If the deal is closed, IPG would get schooled on Stoute’s approach to brands and access to celebrities, while Translation would gain entrée to IPG's large client base and deeper pockets.
As an African American with strong relationships to hip-hop artists (music icon Jay-Z is a good friend and business partner), Stoute knows how easy it is to pigeonhole Translation as a black ad agency. He immodestly characterizes his firm as “a McKinsey of pop culture.” By that he means that Translation is called upon by companies facing strategic challenges. “These are companies who know they have to take advantage of global trends, but at the same time are afraid of jeopardizing core businesses,” says Stoute. “We show them how to walk that thin line. It often comes down to showing them the language and tonality needed to reach consumers.”
But Stoute also says he’s helping executives understand a phenomenon that he refers to as the “tanning of America.” It’s a generation of black, Latino, and white consumers who have the same “mental complexion,” he says, based on “shared experiences and values.” Rap and hip-hop, starting in the late 1980s when white suburban kids began snapping up music by mostly inner-city artists, provided the first glimpse into this shift. “Rap was a litmus test for where the culture was headed,” he says.
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