Scion: Wheel Talk

Jam Master Jay’s Adidas sneaker was just the beginning: hip-hop’s journey from taboo to marketing heaven is at its peak, and companies everywhere are adding a dose of hip-hop to their campaigns. With TV ads for K-Swiss shoes featuring young people awkwardly rhyming their color preference and McDonald’s restaurant approaching MCs to mention its name in their lyrics, it’s pretty easy to lose touch with the culture.

The Scion Corporation does things a little differently. The car company sponsors events such as DJ remix contests and b-boy battles, put on shows with RZA and Grandmaster Flash, and regularly releases mixtapes — some of them featuring indie stars like Peanut Butter Wolf and Jazzy Jeff, and others filled with names you’ve never heard of. In an interview with, Sales and Promotions Manager Jeri Yoshizu explains Scion’s hip-hop madness. What made you decide to use hip-hop so extensively in your approach?

Jeri Yoshizu: Before we launched Scion, we had to extensively study the market for a product launch. When you’re putting a company together, you have a business plan, and part of that was product positioning.

What we found through our research was the common thread amongst a certain mindset is music. Sometimes you have car companies doing action sports, or you’ll see a hotel trying to target people through business travel. We found various examples of what other people do, but we realized that for our target market, that we’re going to address, which is roughly the 24 to 34-year-old group, is music during that part of their lives connects a lot of people together with one activity. When we decided music was going to be a critical factor, we had to pick a genre. We started off early with the dance music genre, because there were no lyrics in dance music at that time. One thing a lot of corporations may need is the assurance that whatever marketing you go to will not get a lot of flack from existing buyers. Our first event ever was the New York Auto Show in 2001; the line-up had Z-Trip. It was a fairly well-attended event, and Z-Trip was the closest to hip-hop that we had done.

As we were doing more research — this is before we had any product out — we started to kind of get into more pinpointing what other corporations were doing, what we were doing, and how we were going to carve our face. One of our objectives as a brand is the diversity factor. Toyota does well with a certain age group, they do very well with females, and they do very well with a certain ethnicity. One of our objectives is that we have a very diverse crowd — we have to hit the Hispanic market, we need to hit the Asian market, etc. We decided that if we were going to be addressing music, hip-hop was the thread that had the most diverse breakout. We learned that not because we got a report telling us that, but we were attending events that were hip-hop related. Like the DUB car show, we would go there and it was 70% Hispanic, they had a hip-hop lineup, etc. We started to formulate, if we’re going to go after a diverse male market, then hip-hop is what’s going to happen. A lot of corporations at that time weren’t even touching hip-hop like they are today. We needed to define our face — we weren’t going to be the action sports brand, we weren’t going to be the collegiate brand. At that time, which was 2002, the relevance would be in the urban hip-hop market/street market. A lot of your events focus around grassroots elements of hip-hop. What made you take that approach?

Jeri Yoshizu: One reason is that we couldn’t afford to go for the flashy, celebrity hip-hop avenue. We can’t afford to pay Jay-Z. Kanye West was in our first magazine, but that was in like 2002; back then, he was still wearing black T-shirts and gold chains. That was exciting, but you see how that path goes. He moved up, and now he’s totally inaccessible.

We launched a car brand off of three cars, which means that your budget is not billions and billions of dollars. It’s very, very small. We didn’t have a lot of cars to sell. What we did was…there were b-boy contests happening, there were MC contests happening, and we started sponsoring those activities because they were local. They were on the college circuit, and they weren’t looking for a lot of money. We sponsored the And1 Tour, and you know that that wasn’t expensive compared to a major hip-hop tour. I think just by the fact that we couldn’t afford it, and we quickly realized that there’s a reason why those things are so expensive. There are very high expectations for the audience. They’re going for flashiness, but we had to be a humble brand at that time. We couldn’t do the Honda Civic Blink 182 tour. It didn’t make any sense, because at the end, I don’t think anyone remembers that Honda had anything to do with that tour. They remember Blink 182 did a tour, and they had a car sponsor.

We’ve been approached by both Def Jam and Blue Torch to do marketing initiatives, and we turned it down, because you would only see Def Jam. You wouldn’t even know there was a car company involved. We were letting everyone know at that time that we couldn’t afford to be eclipsed by Jay-Z or Missy Elliot, because we’re trying to launch a brand.

When people tell you they’re going to do grassroots marketing, it’s not what you would think. It’s a lot different when you’re dealing with promoters who do three shows a week in Raleigh, North Carolina, than it is trying to do a concert tour when you’re working with a major promotions company. Because we work with these local promoters and artists that are not on MTV, the ground flow is a little bit more authentic because of our support — the support directly to the people in the market versus who would want a print ad or watching the VMAs and someone starts shouting out their car company. The media communication on one level, versus “I heard that Nike gives Fat Joe free shoes all the time”…I think that does a lot for some people, but we decided that that’s something that we can’t even compete with. What kind of results has your hip-hop marketing garnered on the business side of things?

Jeri Yoshizu: I think the standard answers are sales are doing really well, and meeting the need of the target. We’re doing well on paper for a car company, but as far as non-corporate ways of measuring success, we’re showing up in places that most car companies don’t get press, whether it’s something like Mass Appeal, Scratch, or, we’re getting into the niche areas more frequently. The attendance of our events, from speaking to the talent, and just seeing the way they react to the events, like, “Wow, this is the real crowd.” If Premier has a bad attitude, you know that there’s a reason. At the end of the night, he is being very appreciative of the crowd that we delivered. Premiere is a pretty intense man (laughs), we toured him for two years, and he brings his guys. I like to stay away from him, because he’s just a different type of person, but he does show a lot of appreciation, more than I would expect from someone hardcore like that.

It’s the same continuously, from Premiere and Jazzy Jeff, to Biz Markie and Grandmaster Flash, to GZA and Raekwon, they’ve all been into it because of the crowd that our corporate events deliver. I know everyone gauges success on different things; I like to listen to what the artists are saying because they see it all the time. I know Grandmaster Flash can be jaded, because he gets corporate gigs, and he’s played for half-empty rooms to a bunch of people who don’t even know who he is. You’re still an artist, and you still have integrity about what you do. By him telling me that he would lower his price to play our shows, that’s kind of a compliment. He can charge whatever he wants, because of his kind of level of demand. He said that he can’t believe how great the kids were, and I think that can be a compliment that we’re delivering the right show to the right people. What would you say are some of your favorite moments with the company’s hip-hop marketing history?

Jeri Yoshizu: I think my favorite was when we had Guru MC for the Hip-Hop Orchestra in Las Vegas. We’ve been supporters of the Hip-Hop Orchestra for a while, and they have so much respect for Guru, and he had no idea there was an orchestra that played Gang Starr. No one had really seen him for a long time, and he came out and he had a really good time. He was really excited, and the orchestra was really excited. The energy was very positive, and I think it was getting to these people to connect, that was really special. We put a lot of work into that show too; there was a lot of coordination. It’s a 65-piece orchestra. They kicked off doing songs by The Roots, and then they ended it with Guru. They also performed with Saul Williams, and that was really crazy too. I think I’ve had a lot, but I think that with the orchestra, there’s always the more powerful experience.

But the fact that we haven’t had any negative incidences at any of our hip-hop shows, I think that’s also (significant). Corporate America is always afraid, but the fact that we’ve done three years of events and never had an incident, and we’re doing six a month. I think that somebody needs to say that it isn’t about the negative stereotypes of hip-hop. We focus on the positive, and it’s worked out very well for us.

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