“It is almost like you see in the movies.” A beautiful sunset on a warm summer night; someone proposing to his girlfriend in a restaurant; a roadblock in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes life seems so perfect or so unexpectedly spectacular that it looks like it has been directed by one of Hollywood’s finest. It reveals how we are using the representation of reality through media as some point of reference for how things should look, sound and feel like. In a way, the fabricated version of reality has become our new reality. When you show someone original footage of World War II, it is very likely that they’ll think: “It is almost like watching Saving Private Ryan.”
The idea that the world we are really living in is now a copy of the actual world, might leave you a bit confused, but it is an important one. Great minds such as the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and author Umberto Eco called it “hyperreality”: the authentic fake, the simulation of something that has never really existed. It is an important idea because this hyperreality has become our benchmark for pretty much everything, even for Christmas. Although I have nothing but happy childhood memories of the holidays (except that one time Santa brought me a board game instead of something more game console oriented), I cannot remember a single Christmas evening that looked like the “real” ones shown in Coca-Cola commercials. That’s not just because we don’t see a lot of snow in Belgium. It is because big trucks with colourful lights only come driving into town in hyperreal life, not in real life.
Not only Coca-Cola creates the hyperreal Christmas. Retailer John Lewis also did their part in this year’s campaign…
Brands are not just creating the hyperreal by presenting a photoshopped version of reality. Some brands cleverly thrive on an absolute form of the hyperreal, where they suggest an inexistent connection with a reality that is not theirs. Consider Häagen-Dazs, the famous ice cream brand. Sounds Scandinavian, but isn’t. Not at all. The company was established in 1961 by Jewish-Polish immigrants Reuben en Rose Mattus in… The Bronx, New York. In 1999, their daughter Doris Hurley explained in an interview how “father sat at the kitchen table for hours saying nonsensical words until he came up with a combination he liked.” Reuben had used the digraphs “äa” and “zs” (although not a part of any word in any Scandinavian language) to refer to Denmark, which was known in the United States for high-quality dairy products. By using simple signs Mattus connected the brand with the hyperreal of a Scandinavian country.
When preparing his book, Joeri Van den Bergh told a group of Millennials the story behind Häagen-Dasz and asked them how they felt about it. Quite unexpectedly they did not condemn it as an evil marketing trick. On the contrary, they were rather enthusiastic about the smart move the brand had made and still thought Häagen-Dasz was keeping it real. The reason why the marketing savvy Generation Y feels like this, relates to their definition of authenticity: more even than being true to reality, being real means staying true to yourself – in this case, never compromising on premium quality. Growing up in the post-modernity of the nineties and naughties, old and new media have expanded their reality that now spans the entire world. But it is mainly a hyperreality and Millennials have become so accustomed to this idea that they look at reality and fiction from a completely different angle that creates an opportunity for companies to keep their brand hot.
Does this imply that brands are allowed to lie? Not at all. In the early days Häagen-Dasz took it a step too far by integrating a map of Denmark in their logo. Obviously, due to legal reasons they had to remove it from their visual identity. Since then, they have never made a secret out of the fact that they were not a Scandinavian brand. By opening their first ice cream parlor in Brooklyn, they pretty much gave away their roots. On the other hand, it is true that suddenly turning it into, let’s say, an all-American family brand would be considered a lie by today’s most powerful consumers. Generation Y expects you to stick to your DNA, even if it is hyperreal. Even if something that was real before but has changed over time, it is often a better idea to stay true to the hyperreality it has become. That’s what we can learn from Dr. Dre.
Dancing the tango in a tuxedo
Andre Romelle Young is a much acclaimed hip hop artist, entrepreneur and occasional actor. Although a promising diver during his high school years in Compton, Los Angeles, Dr. Dre gained fame and fortune as a rapper and producer, first with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru and the influential gangsta-rap pioneers Niggas With Attitude, later at the legendary record label Death Row Records and now as the CEO of Aftermath Entertainment.
With “Fuck Tha Police” being the biggest hit of N.W.A.’s platinum selling debut album “Straight Outta Comption”, it is no surprise that Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella not only received props from their fans, but also an official warning from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in response to their provocative and aggressive lyrics. When Dr. Dre’s first solo-album, “The Chronic”, was released in 1992, it became clear that the warning had yet to make an impression, as the album was filled with hood slang, tales from the street and catchy yet questionable references to women and drugs. The album was an instant classic and went multi-platinum. After using the same cocktail of top notch beats and street-wise lyrics not only for his own tracks, but also to launch the careers of Snoop Doggy Dog, Warren G and Ice Cube, it seemed as if Dre had found the magic formula to please his audience and make his dollars.
But in 1996 he had enough of being a gangsta. On his second album, “Dr. Dre presents… The Aftermath”, he made it clear that he had a new life in his symbolic goodbye to the life in the hood, “Been there, done that”:
“You got drama, I got the gat, but we’re both black so I don’t wanna lay you flat. Instead let’s get paper, while it’s paper to get. Private Jet, 600 coupes that I runs if I’m livin’ on another level that y’all ain’t been yet. Spend a mill, no sweat, water the line with my wet…”
Obviously, Dre’s reality had changed from being a nobody raised in the ghetto to being a succesful and rich entrepreneur in the music industry. A couple of years before, rapping how he did NOT want to “lay you flat” would have been the exception rather than the rule in his lyrics (which by the way were most of the time provided by a team of ghostwriters, but as one of them once said: “Dre doesn’t profess to be no super-duper rap dude – Dre is a super-duper producer.”). Ironically, the song where he said farewell to his old reality, was the only hit that album produced. Despite going platinum, the remaining songs were not well received by his fans, who felt he had disconnected from the unique style that had made him bigger than life.
1996 was not only the year of the release of his second and least successful solo-album. It was also the year that Dr. Dre married Nicole Threatt, with whom he has two daughters, worth mentioning for their names alone: Truth (1997) and Truly (2001). As she reveals in an MTV documentary about her husband’s career, Nicole truly told him the truth: although he had become a wealthy family man, his fans wanted to hear about – pardon my French – hoes and bitches, guns and gangstas, blunts and weed. She gave him her blessing not to keep it real, but to keep it hyperreal.
When “The Chronic 2011” came out in 1999, there was no doubt about it – Dr.Dre had listened to his wife:
“Now this, this is one of them occasions where the homie’s not doing it right. I mean he found him a hoe that he like, but you can’t make a hoe a housewife.”
Not only the lyrics show how Dre went back to his gangsta roots, the introduction movie that was used during his Up In Smoke tour with Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Xzibit and others leaves little to imagination as well.
It turned out to be the right choice: his third solo-album was a certified six time platinum record, made it to number two on the Billboard 200 and earned Dr. Dre a Grammy award in 2000. That he knew exactly what he was doing and why his previous record had not been a huge hit, is revealed by the track “Light speed” in which he refers to the music video of “Been there, done that” in which he was seen dancing a tango – the epitome of the new, gangsta-free style he had pursued in 1996:
“Introduced you to my Doggs, that don’t love hoes and Firm Fiascoes – assholes. Fucked you up with my last video, tuxed up doin a tango..”
Dr. Dre dancing a tango in his tuxedo. Also note how his wife is explicitely mentioned at the beginning of the music video.
Keeping it hyperreal
In “How Cool Brands Stay Hot” it is explained that “realness” is an essential driver of brand leverage when targeting Generation Y. The stories of Häagen Dazs and Dr. Dre show how it can be better to keep it hyperreal, than to keep it real. Millennials want brands to stay true to their DNA, even if the context in which they exist evolves over time. As said before: even if something that was real before has changed over time, it is often a better idea to stay true to the hyperreality it has become.
Companies need to realize that they can be Dr. Dre – building on a story that once was true or even never was, but that is such a powerful benchmark for a reality consumers want to believe in, it becomes the core of what the brand stands for. It is not about creating a lie – otherwise we wouldn’t see Snoop Doggy Dog showing his family life in a reality show on TV while at the same time releasing songs like “Pimpin’ ain’t EZ” or “Gangsta Luv”. It is about staying true to your origins, whether they are nothing but reality, have become hyperreal or have always been.
This is an ongoing challenge. In 2002, Dre announced that he would release one last solo-album that would again leave the gangsta-rap behind, so he told MTV News at the time.
“I’m not talking about lowriders and blunts and all that anymore. I mean, that’s played. As a matter of fact, I’m tired of hearing other people talk about it, to tell you the truth.”
“Detox” has in the meantime become one of the most highly anticipated hip hop albums of all times, with the release being postponed time and time again, leaving fans all over the world eager to finally hear the “chronicle of a hit man, what he goes through and how he lives his life,” as Dr. Dre has described the storyline of his upcoming “hip hop musical”. It seems safe to assume that the delay in sharing the album with the world is caused by the difficulties the producer/rapper faces in reinventing his game one last time, while keeping it hyperreal – the same difficulties brands are facing in catering to the needs of the stimulation junkies that Millennials are, while staying true to their roots:
“I have to come up with something different but still keep it hardcore.”