There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence testifying to the impact of hip-hop lyrics, from sales surges in Courvoisier cognac to the rise and fall of Girbaud jeans. (Indeed, companies are even emerging that promise – threaten? – to bring paid placement to pop songs.) With these examples in mind, I got to work: I grabbed the lyrics to almost 40,000 hip-hop songs, covering just about everything you can think of from 1996 until today. I then matched the artist and album name against Amazon’s music database in order to get the album’s release date and sales rank (a distinctly non-trivial task, given hip hop’s creative and ever changing relationship with grammar and spelling).
To verify that there is real signal in this information, I first took a look at all mentions of Tommy Hilfiger (including variants like “Tommy Hil”). Hilfiger is a well-known example of the dangers of being adopted by ‘urban’ trendsetters: the quicker the youth market embraces a new brand, the faster it falls. Hilfiger hit peak popularity in 1999, with sales doubling that year from $847m to $1.63b. Then, just one year later, everything fell apart: newer urban brands like Fubu became more popular with teenagers, while Hilfiger’s traditional customer felt the brand was now too edgy for them. Hilfiger has spent the last eight years extricating themselves from this mess.
You can see the sordid tale in the figure above, with the number of songs that mentioned ‘Tommy Hilfiger’ peaking in ’99 and ’00, plummeting to a new low in 2002, and now slowly slogging its way back.
Of course, Hilfiger was a small enough brand, offering an affordable enough product, that suddenly coming into favor with an urban audience, courtesy of hip-hop, was enough to really move the needle. Other brand names are more symbolic: mentions of them in songs tells you more about the overall economy, and perhaps the state of materialism, than it does about the brand’s future sales. Take that bling-standby, Cartier, for example. The chart showing how many times Cartier was called out in song over last ten years looks remarkably like the S&P 500 ten-year chart.
I think this very rough metric offers a worthwhile clue to how our relationship with brands, and consumerism in general, is changing. To be sure, it is a metric easy to abuse. Smaller brands, for example, are rarely mentioned enough times to draw any statistically significant inferences. Still, I did recently look at which brands have suffered the largest declines in hop-hop popularity. To address the data shortage problem, I used one of the published mathematical models to map Amazon’s sales rank to number of albums sold. (Actually, log number of albums.) Seemingly appropriately, Burberry was at the top of the list.