Trail campaign: Beats by Dre presents a cross between basketball, hip-hop and commercials
Campaign Trail is our analysis of some of the best new creative efforts in the marketing world. View past columns in the archive here.
Today, basketball and hip-hop culture is a double helix of influence: Jay-Z was co-owner of the Brooklyn Nets; LeBron James executive produced 2 Chainz album; Drake is the global ambassador for the Toronto Raptors. To exploit this crossover for its latest campaign, Beats by Dre returned to a turning point in the b-ball-rap relationship, reimagining 20-year-old ads — by another company — with a modern audience in mind.
First airing May 7 during the NBA Playoffs, “Dark Mode” is a 90-second spot featuring NBA All Star Ja Morant and Grammy-winning rapper Lil Baby. Soundtrack to an original Lil Baby song, the almost entirely black-and-white clip sees the two rising stars working on their craft in the dark – a nod to how Morant approached his training the last summer, away from the prying eyes of social media.
“It’s about what it does in the dark. Everyone sees the spotlight and what’s going on there, but that’s not what it’s about,” said Chris Thorne, CMO of Beats by Dre, on Morant. “It’s his mantra that he lives by. He gets into that zone and it’s all about training.”
Besides being inspired by Morant’s own philosophy, “Dark Mode” is also informed by a campaign featuring another basketball star with a complicated relationship to the practice. In 2001, Reebok reunited NBA star Allen Iverson – fresh off an MVP season – and New York rapper Jadakiss for a pair of commercials that saw Jadakiss rapping about Iverson to a beat steeped in the sounds of the court. .
The monochrome spots helped break down the doors between basketball, rap and publicity, largely on the back of Iverson, who eschewed the professional suit-and-tie style favored by the league for a look – tattoos , cornrows and baggy clothes – which was more true to her personality and the culture in general. The Reebok campaign was orchestrated by Steve Stoute, a music professional turned publicity executive who would go on to found Translation, the creative agency behind Beats’ “Dark Mode” effort.
“I’ll call this one a Steve Stoute special because Steve has tentacles in so many areas of this industry and other industries,” explained Jason Campbell, Chief Creative Officer at Translation. “There was a bit of engineering that happened between [Baby and Morant] because we knew there was a mutual light between the two. We wanted to find creative connective tissue that we could use as a treatment for what we wanted to create.”
Morant’s “dark mode” turned out to be a compelling creative idea to build around. Directed by the IllimiteWorld production team, the 90-second spot is heavy with reflections and refractions, shadows and subliminal glimpses of a bear (Morant plays for the Memphis Grizzlies). With quick cuts, camera rotations, fisheye lenses, and deep focus effects, the video is kinetic and disorienting, as if shot from the perspective of the basketball itself.
“What we wanted to do was visualize what darkness was and make it a good thing. We wanted to make it interesting, complex, and focused,” Campbell said.
After hearing the track and seeing the video, Thorne and the Beats team rushed to place the 90-second clip on ABC during Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals series between the Golden State Warriors and the Morant’s Grizzlies. That way, the spot could be seen by the basketball and hip-hop fans that Beats was looking to reach — including those who might remember the iconic Reebok spots that inspired it — in an organic way that fit. beyond advertising.
“We knew we had something really special,” Thorne said. “It was no longer an advertisement, it was much more than that.”
Fix yourself with culture
Over the past few years, music branding — in which marketers tap traditional artists to create original songs — has been a go-to tactic for brands looking to engage with consumers around music. culture. As hip-hop has become increasingly synonymous with pop culture, rappers have proven to be effective brand partners. But when many brands talk about culture, they often associate it with black culture in an uncomfortable way, Campbell explained.
“The luxury you have with a brand like Beats is that it’s been playing in the cultural space for years, and it’s one of the few brands that can speak to black and brown culture in a way where people actually listen,” he said.
Translation previously worked on Beats’ “You Love Me” campaign, which considered the role black culture played in conversations about racial justice that emerged amid protests against racist violence in 2020 (Lil Baby also featured in this campaign).
This authentic connection between the brand, the public and the advertisement is clear in the “dark mode”. The song, which interpolates the original track from the Iverson-Jadakiss commercials, finds Lil Baby rapping about the personal player he shares with Morant, and its lyrics are loaded with references to each of their games. A verse that connects NBA stars with puns about money and cars – “Rari red and yellow, wet paint, look like I’m Trae Young / Before I rapped him, I had green like I was Draymond” – wouldn’t be out of place on one of his mixtapes.
“On our best day we do culture and on our worst day we do publicity.”
Creative Manager, Translation
“Dark Mode” is aimed at both hip-hop heads and basketball fans – two intertwined and overlapping consumer communities that don’t always match the assumptions less adept marketers might make about demographics.
“When we look at creating and leveraging culture, it’s less about demographics and how advertising segments people,” Campbell said of Translation’s approach. “We don’t segment like that: we segment on your community.”
Creating community-targeted content — with teams that sound like and speak the language of that community — is essential for Translation. By tightly aligning brand, audience, and creative, marketers can truly engage consumers around culture — an imperative that risks becoming a buzzword for marketers of all persuasions.
“If you have people doing things that are already parallel to the culture…you stack the game to actually create it,” Campbell said. “On our best day we do culture and on our worst day we do publicity.”