China’s hip-hop ban: lessons for brands

Why all hope isn’t lost for brands looking to tap Chinese counterculture.

In the summer of 2017, China’s mainstream video streaming platform iQiyi released a very special singing contest, The Rap Of China.

It was special, because the genre was largely a fringe artform in urban hubs, even though Taiwanese singer Jay Chou’s R&B influenced brand of hip-hop first entered into mainstream music more than a decade ago. But each of the 12 episodes of The Rap Of China—hip hop’s first appearance on mainstream TV—got between 200 and 300 million views. All of a sudden, music with a stronger hip-hop flavour became mainstream.

At first, its rise was dismissed by the government as a ‘foreign-born’ homage, an inevitable by-product of the cultural globalisation of the noughties that saw Eminem and 50 Cent find their way onto the walls of Chinese middle-class bedrooms. Yes, there was the inevitable display of streetwear and bling posturing. Chou eventually launched his streetwear label PHANTACi.

But there was something different about hip-hop in China. The lyrics often talked about overbearing parents, urban boredom and the desire to travel the world. Often sung in mixes of local dialects, Mandarin and English, Chinese hip-hop had a home-grown identity of its own and reflected the unique characteristics of the Chinese urban middle classes, striving for a new identity.

Within the first few episodes, The Rap Of China had generated enough memes and trending topics to skyrocket to a hit. With celebrity judges, gruelling rules and participation from some of the biggest Chinese underground hip-hop stars, it wasn’t long before the show’s key sponsors McDonald’s and Nongfu Spring’s Vitamin Waters upped their involvement by shooting fresh ads with popular contestants.

Nongfu Spring’s Vitamin Waters picked Sun Baiyi, a Guizhou-born contestant famous for representing the voice of the urban Chinese white collar class. Their ad promoted the drinks’ energy-boosting properties (perfect for the 50-hour week) against a backdrop of hip-hop cool.

But in January, the Chinese government stepped in. TV appearances by rap contestants on other shows were suddenly pulled. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), declared that “actors whose heart and morality are not aligned with the party and whose morality is not noble” and who are “tasteless, vulgar and obscene” should not be on television. Beijing decided that hip-hop, as an entire culture, didn’t align with party values. And an entire culture that had been speaking to thousands (if not millions) was outlawed overnight.

Although the hip-hop ban was heavily criticised by Chinese netizens (of course not in the mainstream media), the public had seen this before.

But imagine planning and investing in a campaign wrapped around a culture, only to have it suddenly obliterated. In a market where government crackdowns can come out of nowhere, sending shockwaves through business and culture, brands may legitimately ask: What does this mean for strategy? How can you plan around such political and cultural uncertainty in China?

Recent research by Flamingo and DDB examined strategies for dealing with uncertainty, finding ways to reframe it in a more positive light. One of these, the ‘guide’ strategy, calls for a brand to stabilise itself through a deep understanding of whatever issue it’s facing, followed by reframing and offering a clear message to customers. Here, a focus on long-term goals and messaging is best. In the case of the sponsors of The Rap Of China, one of them, Nongfu Spring Vitamin Water, did just that.

Since the ban, rather than crying over the loss of a single platform, the brand revisited its brand pillars, encompassing a connection with creativity, youthfulness and motivation. The brand went on to sponsor other TV shows in the music genre and to hold inter-university singing contests. By encouraging consumers to look beyond the hip-hop trend and to think of the value of creativity more broadly, Nongfu Spring’s cultural identity stayed in place, appealing to those who enjoyed buying and drinking the rainbow-coloured water.

In the case of Chou’s PHANTACi label, it started out in sports fashion / streetwear rather than hip-hop, but since the show has borrowed elements of hip-hop culture to curate its products and brand. The Rap of China satisfied the curiosity of the Chinese public about a foreign culture. PHANTACi knows that, and since the ban has continued to curate a foreign culture to mass Chinese consumers. But it has suffered less from the ban since its original engagement with hip-hop music is shallower.

Underground and mainstream

Meanwhile, Chinese fans have taken hip-hop back underground since the ban, doing what they do best: playing cat and mouse with official censorship. A new mainstream show called This Is Street Dance launched, with production style that can easily be mistaken for that of The Rap Of China, including the stage, graphics and clothes that the contestants are wearing. This Is Street Dance’s banner in central Shanghai

While we don’t advise that brands play games with the government, we do feel that there is a bigger lesson to be learned from how Chinese culture deals with these occurrences. As a brand operating amid uncertainty, it’s wise to ask what was meaningful about your original engagement with this culture, listen carefully to your customers to understand the reasons that they valued that engagement, and look to your enduring brand values to harness this in the most effective way.

In Nongfu Spring’s case, the brand understood that its engagement with music culture didn’t end with hip-hop. It survived, and even thrived, following the ban by staying close to its customers and not only understanding their need for alternative entertainment, but actually contributing to the creative culture.

Hip-hop in China is not dead, it will just manifest in a different way. It will return to its roots for a while, but what will not change is the mindset of the culture that spawned it. The soft voice of the increasingly numerous and forever resilient urban middle classes. Frustrated with urban life and social pressures, they are still redefining their identity, and brands that recognise and continue to play to this, perhaps with fewer gold chains, will thrive amid uncertainty in China.

Source:; 24 May 2018

Using the same tune is better for adverts, according to new study by Goldsmiths

Using the same piece of music in adverts year after year helps people to like and remember your brand, according to a new study of brain responses led by scientists at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Until now there was no hard data to suggest whether it was better to stick to the same piece of music across consecutive advertising campaigns or change to a fresh tune for each new campaign.

The study also found that classical music was rated more favourably than other musical genres when used consistently across multiple adverts. Radio adverts using classical music in this way were especially successful at getting people’s brains to ‘engage’ with the brand or product, according to measurements of brain activity.

A report of the research will be published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics.

The researchers investigated whether using music ‘strategically’, consistently across advertising campaigns, or ‘tactically’, changing music across campaigns, had a greater positive impact on participants.

16 volunteers took part and were exposed to 27 radio adverts and 27 TV adverts with one third of adverts featuring ‘strategic’ music, one third ‘tactical’ music, with the rest having no music. The volunteers wore EEG (electroencephalogram) caps with electrodes attached that recorded electrical signals generated by their brains as they listened to or watched the adverts. After each advert they were asked to rate how much they liked it, how familiar it was, how much they liked the music, and how well the music fitted the brand or product advertised.

Joydeep Bhattacharya, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths and lead author of the study, said: “Not only did using music strategically, using the same tune across multiple adverts, boost the ratings people gave each advert regarding how much they liked them and how familiar they were, but this strategic use was also associated with music being a ‘better fit’ for the advertised brands. We didn’t just see an increase in these subjective ratings. EEG recordings showed that ‘strategic’ music was associated with more power in high frequency brain waves, the beta and gamma oscillations, compared to ‘tactical’ music and especially over frontal brain regions. Previous studies suggest that the boost of these brain waves is a signature of reward networks ‘lighting up’ and we believe it demonstrates an enhanced engagement which could make an advert more effective at influencing people’s behaviour.”

The research also suggests that the effects of strategic music are more impactful and immediate in the brain for radio adverts than for TV adverts.

Co-author Richard Lewis (PhD), MD of Neuroformed Ltd, said: “The most satisfying thing about this particular study is that the data clearly supports strategic use of the same tune across different ad campaigns, as opposed to switching the music for each new advert. It’s good to finally have some clarity on this prickly issue. During the exit interviews many volunteers mentioned that, for the ads that have been using the same music over many years, the brand would often instantly spring to mind as soon as the first few notes had played, even before any brand imagery had appeared on screen. Such is the power of music to trigger brand associations when used strategically.”

According to these findings, the researchers say advertisers should select a backing track carefully and stick to it over consecutive campaigns so that it becomes the ‘common thread’ associated with a brand even as other aspects of new TV and radio adverts change. Of course the big challenge, they say, is to pick a tune that will stand the test of time.

Source:; 17 Jan 2018

Sound advice: How to reach new audiences through streaming audio

Audio streaming is reaching audiences in places that video can’t go – it’s time to get your message into people’s ears

Streaming media is now well and truly mainstream – but it’s time to stop thinking of it as a homogenous mass. The different types of media we stream, and the ways in which we stream them, are creating new opportunities to connect with audiences – and to better understand them.

Nearly half the online population now streams entertainment content on a weekly basis, according to research – but what’s most interesting is how audiences are consuming different types of streaming media. 60 per cent of music streamers are listening on mobile devices, compared with 40 per cent of TV and movie streamers – and they’re listening to audio in places that video simply doesn’t penetrate.

For example, commuters are five times more likely to stream audio content than TV or video. When you’re working out, you’re 3.5 times more likely to be listening to content than watching it. And when you need to concentrate, the last thing you want is to be distracted – so it’s not surprising that three times as many people who are focusing listen to audio rather than watching video.

Audio is a particularly evocative medium. Podcasts directly address the listener, as Lea Thau, host and producer of the podcast Strangers (Radiotopia and KCRW) points out: “People actually listen…you are talking right inside someone’s head.”

Music builds an even more emotive connection, with studies revealing that people use music to regulate their moods and emotions. Streaming audio offers insights into why listeners have picked the tracks they’ve chosen, too; the 1.6 million followers of Spotify’s Dance Workout playlist are likely feeling very different to the 380,000 who are listening to Breakup Songs. Where social media enables people to present their public face to the world, music creates a more personal, intimate bond with listeners. “There is a really strong connection between music and experiences,” says cognitive neuroscientist Amy Belfi. “Music can take us back into a specific moment and cause us to feel all the emotions we were feeling then.”

The good news for brands is that many streaming audio listeners are expecting to hear advertising alongside their music and spoken word content. While many services offer a paid, ad-free tier for subscribers, ad-supported free options are also available. An estimated 15 per cent of the internet-using population is currently streaming music weekly using free services – going up to 20 per cent in mature streaming markets like Sweden and the US. It’s not surprising, then, that the music streaming ad revenue opportunity is worth $1.5 billion today – and it’s expected to reach at least $7 billion by 2030. The market for contextually-relevant, emotive and intimate advertising on audio is here – and it’s growing.

Three ways brands can use the power of audio to reach consumers

Build intimate, one-to-one connections with consumers

Audio has 100 per cent share of voice, and audiences are primed to listen – so think about how you can use native content and dynamic creative to reach them.

Target moods and activities

Correlating data such as time of day, location and playlist titles, it’s possible to gauge listeners’ moods, whether they’re working out, concentrating or getting ready to go out. Use this to direct targeted advertising that builds emotional connections.

Consider how people are listening

Listening in the car, on mobile devices and on smart speakers are very different activities and demand different types of messaging. Think about whether you’re addressing people directly, through their headphones, or making up part of the “background noise” as they drive, cook dinner or relax.

Source:, 17 Feb 2017