September 17, 2021

Branding the Beat

Branding the Beat

All we own as marketers are the brand mark, the products and the expression. People own the interpretation of it.”

Marcus Collins, DBA ’21

The world of Hip Hop is full of references. Listen to lyrics from Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar or Cardi B and hear plenty of allusions to events, people and products. 

But how do those references make their way into the cultural consciousness of listeners? And even more so, how can music change consumer behavior? 

In this episode of Catalyst, we speak with Marcus Collins, DBA ’21, distinguished marketing professional, researcher, educator and Hip Hop fan. Collins walks us through his research about the intersection of marketing and music, where he dives into “social contagion” within the Hip Hop community. 

Collins studies how brands are mentioned, adopted and spread through the community of Hip Hop. He explains that through social contagion, Hip Hop both influences and reflects the attitudes and behaviors of fans. He lets marketers in on lessons learned—and what precautions to take—to help their brands and products “go viral.”

Collins also speaks to his own experience as both a marketer and academic and how diverse perspectives are necessary to shift the attitudes and assumptions that are reflective of a historically privileged worldview. 

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Episode Transcript

Host: Welcome to Catalyst, the podcast of Temple University’s Fox School of Business. I’m your host, Tiffany Sumner. Don’t call it a comeback, but we are kicking off our third season with Marcus Collins, distinguished marketing professional [00:01:00] researcher, educator and Hip Hop fan. Marcus tells us about his research that explores the intersection of marketing and music; he dives into a phenomenon called social contagion and how it operates within the Hip Hop community. Through the lens of Hip Hop, he shares what social contagion is, how brands and products spread through music and how that cycle influences consumer behavior. He also lets marketers in on lessons learned and what it takes to make their brands go viral.

Host: Tell us a little about what drew you into marketing as your career.

Marcus: Yeah, I actually started off as a songwriter so I was very much about putting ideas in the world that brought people together right, the people you fall in love with, like a Frank Ocean album if you will, and I felt that marketing was the best way to do that and actually make a living.

Host: Did you have any famous relatives or friends, or anything? What really drew you to the love of music?

Marcus: No I didn’t at all. It’s actually very much antithetical to the rest of my family. I come from a family of educators, which is probably why I found myself in academia at the end of the day. I grew up loving Michael Jackson. My ambition as a teenager was to be the fifth member of Boyz II Men. [00:03:00] It’s just who I was, and I took music theory when I was in college. I played piano in church and sang in choirs and was in singing groups. I don’t think that I would be as happy as I am now doing what I thought I wanted to do, and that’s actually very sobering as well as very empowering. I feel very very fortunate that I get to put ideas in the world as an advertiser and put people in the world as an academic.

As a marketer and a cultural producer, I’ve always been fascinated by how things spread, how things propagate within a population of people. As a fan of Hip Hop, I’ve always wondered how it is that things catch on the way they do within this population and then propagate beyond the community of Hip Hop. There are people who wear Beats by Dre headphones, that is of the Hip Hop culture, who have no sort of association with Hip Hop. It’s just the meaning that’s been impregnated [0004:00] in these things through which we listen to music, they become a driver that influences consumption.

So when I got into the doctoral program at Fox I spent a lot of time thinking about what really gets me excited, what I am really interested in, and contagion is, at its core, how things spread. But through what context I wanted to look at contagion, through what lens do I want to explore contagion? I thought, “Man it’ll be kind of cool to look at Hip Hop, at least in the community of Hip Hop.” I remember talking to some professor and he was like, “Hip Hop? Why do you say that, what are you talking about?” The more I got pushback, the more I got excited about it and clearly, people are missing this thing that is not only the most consumed music genre in the country, it also is the catalyst to consumption in the world of music obviously but auto, [00:05:00] fashion, sport and technology. All these things are being driven by these collective of people that at one time was a subculture, then now I’d arguably say is the dominant culture.

Host: So, you mentioned social contagion. What does that mean, and how does it work?

Marcus: Yeah, so social contagion is well-worn territory. It’s been studied for over a century and there are many definitions that are cousins to each other. The one that I gravitate to, the one that I use, is that social contagion is the spread and adoption of effects, behaviors, cognitions, and desires due to direct and indirect peer influence.

Host: And why social contagion in Hip Hop?

Marcus: Well because it happened so much. These things spread way back to the 90s and Tommy Hilfiger. [00:06:00] How is it that we all started wearing it, and then not? How is it that, you know, we still wear Timberlands and Jordan’s? How is it that you know there are many headphones that we wear over the ear, but Beats by Dre comes out and that’s what we use? How is it that of all the sneakers that are available, these Yeezys are the ones that are so significant? I mean they happen in such a pervasive wave, and the impact not only resonates within the Hip Hop culture of consumption but how it resonates out to other people—it’s significant. How could you not study this?

Host: How does Hip Hop and social contagion change people’s habits, like in terms of their consumption and in terms of what they wear and what they buy?

Marcus: Totally. So Hip Hop at its core, it is a culture, right; there are beliefs, artifacts that have meaning, behaviors and language that is normal in this community. [00:07:00] Rap music is the music of Hip Hop. I often refer to it as the mythology of Hip Hop. These are the stories that are told; this is how the beliefs, artifacts, behaviors and language are evangelized from sort of the orators of the culture that is MC’s, to the population of people who subscribe to the culture. That’s what Hip Hop is and in the research, I looked at how brands of branded products spread within this community.

I scraped data from Reddit over a three-year period, did an s-shaped curve analysis to see if things are spreading. That’s kind of telltale signs of spreading. Then I analyzed the inflection points on those s-shaped curves to see if new people are entering the conversations about the brand at the time (that things are spreading) and then looked at the relationship between those people in a network analysis to see if those were connected, that they talked beyond just that particular subject matter [00:08:00] about a particular brand, to see if they are connected like they are part of some community. I chose Reddit because Reddit’s the tip of the spear of the social web, right, like it happens to Reddit before it gets to Facebook and Twitter. Not only that but Reddit is a community of communities, and within these communities, there are moderators who make sure that whatever is posted in the subreddits are aligned to the cultural characteristics of the community. They are basically cleaning the data for us, which is phenomenal for a researcher.

So I scraped that data and I looked at over that three-year period which songs were number one on Billboard, the songs that are the most popular storytelling vehicles for the culture, and I looked at which brands are referenced in those songs using Rap Genius. So then I looked at Reddit for those brands to see which brands were being talked about the most; did the s-shaped curve analysis, looked at the inflection points [00:09:00] and I looked at the relationship between the people who talked about them to say, ‘All right, great: for these brands, there is some social contagion is happening. Now, how does it happen?’

What the literature tells us is that this idea of social contagion, the social process of contagion happens through some vehicles at play; that’s legitimation and evaluation. Evaluation is how we judge things; good or bad, cool or wack. Legitimation is whether we accept it or not. What the research revealed to me is that there are four mechanisms at play that go into evaluation and legitimation. We go through evaluation and legitimation through a means of mean making, how we decide what something means.

This is done through our social discourse, how we talk and what we talk about. These four mechanisms, I [00:10:00] called them the 4 R’s of legitimation and evaluation; the first is how we respond, it’s the language that we use. Do we respond in the discourse with explicit language or implicit? That is, do we come out and say I think such and such is bad. No, instead we use implicit language that is informed by the cultural codes of the community. That is, we use coded language. Then the second R is recontextualizing, that is where we take what we hear and then we put it in our own context. It’s like a Meme, here’s a thing that I see, now I’m going to make meaning of it in my own contextual frames.

Host: What do you mean by ‘meaning-making’? How do we re-contextualize Hip Hop in a way that leads to changes in behavior?

Marcus: So that’s the interesting thing, we don’t recontextualize Hip Hop, Hip Hop becomes the meaning frames by which we recontextualize. It’s the lens that we use to make meaning of the world. We talked about meaning-making, meaning-making at its core [00:11:00] is just about our interpretation or translation of reality. So you and I can look at the exact same thing and see two totally different things because of how we make meaning, and the way we make meaning is mediated by our cultural subscription.

So for Hip Hop, as a Hip Hop community member, a member of the culture of consumption, I see the road in one way and it’s probably different than someone who is not. So when we are responding to discourse, recontextualizing what we see, that recontextualizing is happening through the meaning frames that Hip Hop has established, which is culturally constructed and negotiated.

Host: I’m interested in, and part of what we do in this podcast, is to bring it down to how we can see these tangible changes in our day-to-day lives. I’m sort of curious with these recontextualizations, can you give us an example of how that leads to a change in consumer behavior? [00:12:00]

Marcus: Yes! Perfect example: in the research surprisingly one of the brands that was exhibiting social contagion was Xanax, and I wasn’t expecting that. And then I started looking at the conversations and what I heard: people would repeat a Hip Hop lyric as a way to recontextualize the meaning of a brand. For instance, a lot of verbatim was this Kanye West line that says, “Sometimes in my Yeezys, sometimes in my Vans, if I knew that you made plans then I wouldn’t have dropped a Xan.”

What was happening is that first people were just repeating the line, just kind of quoting the MC, and then people started to recontextualize their situation with the meaning frame associated with the lyric. They’d say, “My girlfriend came over, if I knew she made plans then I wouldn’t have dropped a Xan.” What is happening is that as we take something as taboo like prescription drugs, recreational use of prescription drugs, we start to use it as a part of our normal vernacular [00:13:00] through the lens of Hip Hop, recontextualizing it to our own lives. It reduces the taboo and therefore becomes a part of normal consumption.

Which leads to the third R, which is reconciling. That’s when we look at, ‘Okay I know the meanings associated with this brand now based upon my identity as a fan of Hip Hop or Hip Hop culture consumption member. This is aligned to my identity.’ We’ve found that people go jump through major hoops to make sure these things are congruent. Responding and recontextualizing help us establish meaning, then we reconcile whether that meaning is aligned to the identity project that I want to pursue. Which leads to the last R, which is reinforcing. That is; when I do talk about it through my whataboutery or I do wear it, right, I do rock the sneakers. I am signaling to other people like me that these are okay and now it begins to spread. [00:14:00] Because people like me do something like this, I’m more inclined to continue to do it.

Host: So I guess my question is does that mean Xanax sold more bottles of Xanax?

Marcus: So. I didn’t know… this is—I should have put this in my limitations and I should’ve looked at the unit sales of Xanax relative to when these things happened but I will say, though that like if you look at a lot of deaths that happened in Hip Hop in over the course of this three-year period, a lot of it was the consumption of prescription drugs. That’s probably the scarier part is that rather the sales went up. I guess it’s not arbitrary, it’s meaningful, but what’s more meaningful is its consumption within this culture and what it does; legitimating things that are harmful.

But here’s the interesting part though, it wasn’t just the Kanye West line because in that three-year time horizon of the research there is also the Drake [00:15:00] line in Travis Scott’s AstroWorld record that I can’t think of at the moment — oh ‘Sicko Mode.’ Drake says, “Took half a Xan, 13 hours till I land, had me out like a light.” People were saying, they would repeat that lyric and then put it in the context of their own lives just like, “Man worked all day, took half a Xan, had me out like a light.”

Host: So, I think maybe sort of going back to clothing and other types of social contagion so it does become identity right? So what do you think it is about music that really really inspires that change of social contagion?

Marcus: Well music is the perfect vehicle because it is a cultural product by its very nature. You think about culture being like the definition I like to use is Raymond Williams’ construct, he says, “Culture is a realized signifying system, [00:16:00] which is a realized meaning-making system.” The ways in which we make meaning, and it is anchored by our ideologies. Our ideologies are the lenses through which we see the world, and they inform our identity, which is the stories we tell ourselves about the world and how we fit into it. We exercise those ideological subscriptions through the artifacts that we wear, the behaviors that are normative and the language that we use. Then we express that through cultural products; music, film art, dance, fashion and of course brands – they help us make our culture material.

So music by its very nature is a cultural product, which makes it so much more powerful to help signal what is normal – what is acceptable for people like us. Hip Hop in particular, which talks more than just like you know, ”I love you baby ooh ooh” like R&B music, which I love greatly, but more importantly it talks about a way of seeing the world. [00:17:00] By the stories and tales about themselves, the MC, where they’re from; which people see themselves in as well. These are very powerful ways by which we evangelize ideals and values and norms.

Host: So what lessons can marketers take away from your research and is there anything that you found in your research that you would caution them against?

Marcus: Whoo, so much. One of the biggest takeaways for me was that marketers don’t make meaning – people do. Marketers signal meaning, but people make meaning, right, like marketers say, “Hey we’re this, we’re cool, we’re great,” but people go, “Thank you so much, let me discuss with my people to see if we really believe you’re that.” Jay-Z said it best, “We don’t believe you, you need more people.” We look at what people do as signals for what people like we should do.

As marketers, and me as an advertiser I guess I’ve been guilty of this as well, but marketer’s we’re often like, “What are we going to tell people so they can hear those [00:18:00] lines and go, ‘Okay, this is what they’re all about,’” but it doesn’t really work that way. We signal things because all we own as marketers is the brand mark, the products and the expression. People own the interpretation of it, they own alignment, and they own congruence, which is a form of legitimation right, that people like me set where this is acceptable for us. So marketers have to get really, really, really close to these cultures of consumption if we are to find meaning congruence.

Host: Going back to the Xanax example, could Hip Hop and social contagion lessen the taboo against prescription drugs?

Marcus: Yes! Not just prescriptions drugs, but getting people to vote more, getting people to wear a mask or get vaccinated. All these things that as a society we have negotiated are a good thing, we can use these means as a way to get people to adopt behavior. [00:19:00] And for marketers, that’s our job; at its very core, our job is to get people to move, and what it’s telling us is that using culture as a vehicle to do that is a powerful means to make that happen.

Hip Hop culture is just one culture and there are very, very, very many cultures. I would implore other researchers to look at evaluation and legitimation as the social processes of social contagion to see if these four R’s stand up in different genres of music where there is a culture associated with it, like maybe country music for instance, or look at other cultures of consumption to see if these things stand up. Because if they do, which I am inclined to believe that they might; if they do then it empowers us all, not just marketers to help socialize, help us negotiate and construct what is acceptable, which means then our votes matter. [00:20:00]

We can make things like, “Let’s stop using– recreationally using prescription drugs in our community. Hey, let’s get out there and vote.” How about this, “Getting an education is kind of cool.” Right, like I mean I grew up as a kid being called a bit of a nerd. I was a cool nerd, I will say that, I was a Pharrell-like nerd. I wasn’t living on the edge, if you will. But being a smart kid in Hip Hop wasn’t always considered cool. Being savvy, being street-savvy is, but being academically astute – not so much, but we can legitimate that. We can legitimate voting, wearing a mask, vaccinations, objectification of women – which the genre or the culture has long been guilty of. We can change all these things and I think that is an optimistic way of looking at it, but it’s realistic considering what the research tells us.

Host: What would you say to other people who might want to do more research about Hip Hop and its impact on the business? [00:21:00]

Marcus: I’d say that we need you. We need you. And I’d arguably say that if I can do it, yo anybody can do this. All it requires, I think, is discipline and curiosity. A lot of times, the curiosity will overcome the lack of discipline. There are things that you are super interested in that you’re like, “Man, no one’s ever said that before,” or, “Man, I wonder why these things are the way they are.” Keep looking, because what comes out of that not only helps our aggregate knowledge and dissemination of knowledge, which is what we’re meant to do as the academy, but it encourages and inspires other people to go, “Oh that’s kind of cool, well I want to look at this little thing that no one’s paying attention to.” As we do more little things no one’s paying attention to the alchemy of them, the aggregate; leads to these really big revelations that hopefully make the world a little bit better whether you’re a practitioner or someone living in it.

Host: Anything else that you want to talk about?

Marcus: [00:22:00] I think that academia is more needed now than ever before, particularly when it comes to marketing, I’ll tell you why. One: academia is really about exactness. We spill much ink, as we say, defining words. Constructs, like constructs that we use as a foundation for which we scaffold more arguments, more ideas, more nuance on top of. In the world of marketing, there is so much jargon, buzzwords and meaningless idioms that we use to build arguments, and while we have more data than ever before, the marketing isn’t getting better. People aren’t like, “Oh, the predictability of my marketing is through the roof.” Like no, that’s not what’s happening. As a discipline, we’re not getting terribly better, though our access to data is getting exponentially larger. [00:23:00]

Host: Facebook might disagree with you.

Marcus: Yes, so yes, so we’re good at marketing communications, putting things in people’s faces; but not that good at getting people to move, which is what we’re supposed to do as marketers, to get people to adopt the behavior. I think that the reason why is because we mistake information for intimacy. If we have more information about you then we can think we know more about you i.e., Facebook. Think about, you have a meeting with someone for work. You go on LinkedIn, right. Click to see what they’re all about, where they went to school, to better understand them and get a sense of who they are, but you don’t know them until they start talking.

You don’t know them until you enter the discourse, you interact with them. That’s an intimacy that’s not achieved by just having information, but what we are meant to do as researchers and scientists is to extract insights from the data—or I’ll say it—extract meaning from [00:24:00] the data. I think that as scientists, as scholars, as academics, we’re taught to think this way; exactness, some foundational constructs and what does it mean? What does it mean? What does it mean? What’s the data telling us? Make meaning of it in a narrow context and then in a broader context. That level of discipline, of exactness, could go such a long way in the practice of marketing today.

Host: I think your fellow faculty members would be delighted to hear that you do not want to automate faculty and research.

Marcus: No, not at all.

Host: I think that’s really fascinating. So what’s next? What are you going to study next?

Marcus: Oh, that’s a good question. I’m actually writing a book at the moment so that’s the main focus. What I thought was going to be a translation of the dissertation, it has augmented since then. [00:25:00] I’m writing a book right now that’s called “For the Culture,” which is about how we catalyze and activate collective action; how do we get people to move using culture as a vehicle for doing that, because culture is the governing operating system of man. If we understand how we make meaning and subscribe to these cultural characteristics that govern what it means to be a part of these groups of people, then we as marketers can help find meaning congruence in such a way that people adopt what our thing is all about. Whether it’s a brand, an idea, a political affiliation, religious exercise, whatever the case may be – recycling even. We get people to move because of their cultural subscription as opposed to the value propositions of what the thing is we’re offering. [00:26:00]

Host: I want to thank Marus Collins for joining me today. Along with explaining the impact of Hip Hop on consumer behavior and providing insight for marketers, Marcus helped contextualize the importance of research that relates to the human experiences of diverse voices. Research like Marcus’s and invites anyone with discipline, passion, and curiosity into academia. When different perspectives join the conversation even bigger revelations are possible, and like Marcus said; whether you are a practitioner or a Global citizen, hopefully, these insights can make the world a better place.

Next time on Catalyst join us as we talk about the [00:27:00] ins and outs of coming out at work. Learn why nearly half of LGBTQ Americans are still closeted at work and how organizations can be more supportive of their workforce. Stay tuned for more next time on Catalyst.

Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Visit us on the web at We are produced by Milkstreet Marketing, Megan Alt, Anna Batt, Josh Kelly and Karen Naylor. I hope you’ll join us next time. Until then, I’m Tiffany Sumner and this is Catalyst.