Steve Stoute: 'Tanning of America' Isn't About Color, But Mindstate
Music exec turned marketing maverick talks about the 'shady' side of advertising
Before Steve Stoute made the transition from music to marketing, corporations were pretty clueless on how to appeal to young, urban communities with disposable income. If Stoute has made selling to this group look easy, it's only because he knows what he's doing. Having served as the President of Urban Music at both Interscope Records and Sony, he marketed and developed the careers of everyone from Eminem to Mariah Carey. Since launching Translation, a marketing, advertising and branding company which he co-owns with Jay-Z, he's gone from putting out records to putting out award winning campaigns.
The award winning marketer is looking to put his official stamp on the advertising world with his book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. His debut book focuses on the impact that Hip Hop has had and will continue to have on how people in America spend their money. Insisting that the term "tanning" goes beyond color, Stoute spoke with Loop 21 about the book, its intentions and the changes he wants to see it make.
Loop 21: Translation can be viewed as a firm that companies go to when they want to get black or urban support. Do you think that is an unfair stigma, or do you welcome that idea?
Steve Stoute: Well, it’s because I’m African American and I came from the Hip Hop music business, so that’s why people think that. Certainly, launching McDonald’s “I’m Loving It” on a global scale has nothing to do with the urban consumer. Certainly, you can’t limit the work I’ve done with Jay-Z to be myopic to the urban consumer. Certainly you can’t look at these State Farm commercials that have couples, Asian people, Latin people [and limit them] to the urban consumer. But I accept that I’ve made such an impact in the Hip Hop world that people always associate me with that. I’m not trying to shake it. I’m proud of everything I’ve done in the Hip Hop business, it is what it is. But when you look at my body of work and the totality of it, then you know that it's much more broader.
You peeped your head back into the music business for a second when you took out an ad in the New York Times to voice your displeasure with the Grammy awards this past year. Some think it was a move to bring attention to your company. Did you get any new business from that?
I can’t say that I did. I think it just gave me a chance to voice my opinion. They did rush and make some changes but I don’t think those changes are sufficient or addressed what my concerns were. Hopefully they will keep changing and become an organization that really does see what their issues are and can improve on. The intent of it wasn’t to get more business. I just try to stand for what's right. Some people may disagree with me, but it had nothing to do with getting business from it. If anything it brought attention to what I’m willing to do when I stand up for something.
Well, like you said, it did spark at least change. With the advertising business being so influential because of the messages, is that something that you see yourself doing more of?
That’s what I’m doing with my book The Tanning of America. With the book I’m showing how Hip Hop culture effected the American economy. I’m speaking to the early beginnings of Hip Hop and how those trends effect how consumers shop and how brands have experienced seismic growth because of Hip Hop and the culture it created. I think it’s going to rub people not necessarily the right way, while others will find it profound. I think it will eventually drive a lot more people in corporate America to have a conversation about it.
So you think it's going to be controversial to the point that it will make a light bulb go off in their head like “oh ok, brown people really do push the culture and trends?”
Let’s not use the word controversial, let’s say thought-provoking. Controversial is a strong term used way too loosely. The book is not about black people or brown people creating trends and the larger audience not acknowledging it. When I say “tanning” it’s not about the physical skin complexion, its about the mindset of young adults. So when I speak about a black kid putting a white kid onto Hip Hop, at the same time I can talk about black girls taking beauty cues from white women and dying their hair blonde.
You’ve been in the game for a minute now. What are some walls that you still see and want to see broken down?
I’d like to see a lot more respect for the consumer. I think the ad and marketing business tends to have premeditated ways of marketing that don’t take into consideration the consumer’s point of view. They still market to them in boxes. 18-24 black, 18-24 Hispanic, 18-24 general market. I think those boxes have to be erased in order to represent your brand properly.
Is that why you chose to go the route you did with that Carol’s Daughter “diversity” campaign?
Not just Carol’s Daughter but with my whole portfolio. All of the diversity projects I push are products of how i think. African American women of pigment are being acknowledged as beautiful but the products aren’t always available or presented with prestige. When they go into mass distribution and end up in Walmart and Target, they get thrown in the ethnic beauty aisle and I think that’s unfair.
When it was announced that you were using Selita Ebanks, Cassie and Solange in the campaign, a lot of darker skinned females thought it was “unfair.”
First of all I think it’s unfair that there’s still a stigma in the African American community about what is considered beautiful and the amount of shades that are considered beautiful. It’s not even like in the 70s anymore where “light is right,” those days are over with. Dark skinned women are world renown beauties and models now. That needs to go away.
Secondly, the campaign wasn’t about skin tones, it was about the hair textures. They each had three different hair textures. It’s odd to me that it got blown out of proportion. But what it did do was prove that the whole dark skinned vs light skinned stigma still exists. It’s unfortunate that as many of our shades as African Americans have gotten globally acknowledged as being beautiful, from Naomi Campbell to Beyonce to Rihanna that we still have that stigma in our community. I’m trying to figure out what I can do to abolish that. I honestly thought it died down and it wasn’t until we announced those three women that it I realized that this thing is still alive.
Dealing with misunderstood messages probably isn't new to you at this point, it happens in the music industry too. That said, is there anything that you miss about the music business?
At the end of the day, my instincts are instincts I learned from working in the music business. In the record business you want to make an impact immediately. In the advertising business the process takes a lot longer, so you can't go in the studio make a record, put it out the same day and watch everybody react. You have to go through a cycle that’s lengthier and watch it grow legs, you don’t get that instant gratification. That’s probably the thing I miss most, not being able to immediately feel the success of a great idea.
Record sells, crowd reaction, magazine covers, etc are considered “success” in the music business. What is the barometer of success in the advertising business?
It changes, you know? It can be about selling a particular product, it can be about raising awareness or it can be about resetting the brand or making it relevant again. The criteria changes very often. My criteria is, I always want it to be a hit. I want people to remember it, I want people to talk about it, have it mean something in their lives. One of the first commercials I ever did was for Reebok, it ran during the Super Bowl, it was called “Office Linebacker.” It was a guy named Terry Tate who went around tackling people in the office. When I did that, it felt like it was a pop culture phenomenon. It got 10 million downloads, which at the time was groundbreaking because people still had dial up service when we did that spot. That's when I knew I could use my creativity and make ad campaigns. I still to this day try to make things of that level. So whether it's Terry Tate or Chris Brown and Wrigley, State Farm, Jay-Z sneakers or McDonald’s “I’m loving it.” All I want to do is make something that people will always remember.