The Abstract for My Doctoral Dissertation

Exploring Social Contagion Within A Tribe Called Hip Hop

Research Motivation

Social contagion of branded products within a defined and accessible culture of consumption is a marketer’s dream. Members who subscribe to these cultures of consumption — the tribe — collectively decide on consumption norms — which brands and products are ‘in’ and which are ‘out’ — based on the cultural characteristics of the cohort. The brands which are adopted by the culture of consumption become enriched with cultural meaning, which represent the styles and ideologies of its members (Hebdige, 1979; Kinsey, 1982; Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1985), and elevates branded products from their utilitarian function to totem status (McCracken, 1986). The adoption of such branded products are shared and imitated within the tribe, which translates into collective, and often loyal, consumption. Furthermore, these consumption activities are known to diffuse beyond the tribe and, at times, become imitated by larger audiences (Fox, 1987; Klein, 1985) and marketed for mass consumption (Blair and Hatala, 1991; Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1985). Yet, the occurrence of this phenomenon is thought to be serendipitous, and the process by which social contagion happens throughout these cultures of consumption are largely unknown.

Though defined by consumption activity, the ties that bind the members of a culture of consumption extend beyond their shared commitment to branded products. The tribal nature of these collectives are governed by “identifiable, hierarchical social structure; a unique ethos, or set of shared beliefs and values; and unique jargons, rituals, and modes of symbolic expression” (Schouten and McAlexander, 1995, pg 43), which are constructed by its members. In some cases, the influence of certain cultures of consumption have been known to extend beyond demographic segments (Pearson, 1987), racial and ethnic demarcations (Klein, 1985), social class rankings (Harris, 1985), and even national boarders (Stratton, 1985). No greater example of this can be seen than that of the hip hop culture of consumption, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry and influenced consumption activities across such areas as music, automotive, fashion, sport, marketing, and tech (Taylor and Taylor, 2004). Hip hop is a large, well-defined, valuable, and growing culture of consumption with a set of beliefs, norms, and artifacts which govern the behaviors of the tribe and the social structure thereof. The construction of these governing cultural characteristics are highly visible and accessible by social media and other marketing channels of communication. What makes this potential even more staggering is that social contagion takes place among this culture of consumption not rarely but routinely, as seen in the adoption of Beat By Dre headphones, Adidas’ Yezzy sneakers, and Tommy Hilfiger clothing.

Research Question

Social contagion within the hip hop culture of consumption is an extremely important marketplace phenomenon. However, there has been little systematic research done to examine under what conditions it takes place, what encourages it, what limits it, and what effect it has on the well-being of consumers and the financial performance of brands. This research, therefore, aims to generate a grounded understanding of the mechanisms of social contagion within the hip hop culture of consumption. In particular, what are the processes by which social contagion happens among the tribe and how are consumption activities constructed and informed as a result of it? How does the propagation of memes and content, exchanged between the hip hop tribe, translate into culture characteristics within the hip hop culture of consumption? A netnographic analysis will enable this research to observe the interactions and exchanges within the hip hop culture of consumption to develop a rich understanding of how branded products diffuse throughout the tribe. The ever-expanding influence of hip hop on consumption behavior creates an urgency for marketers to better understand how branded products, across a spectrum of industries, are adopted and socialized among this consumption-positive tribe.

The Road to Dr. Collins

There I was in the dead of night, in the fall of 2011, staring at the ceiling of my New York City apartment experiencing what I now refer to as my ‘Jerry Maguire’ moment. Although I never worked as a sports agent, the metaphor still holds up. I was a newly hired executive at an advertising agency where I was tasked to build and lead its social media marketing practice. At that moment, however, I realized I knew nothing about ‘social,’ despite my past experience working in social media at Apple’s iTunes, running digital strategy for Beyoncé, and leading accounts for a pure-play social media agency. Perhaps knowing nothing is a bit hyperbolic, but at the time it certainly felt that way. A more accurate statement would probably be that my understanding of ‘social’ was grossly incomplete. Until that fateful night, I thought about social media as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Foursquare, and all the other fast-growing platforms of the time. I held a technology-centric perspective on this phenomenon, and evangelized its benefits to clients and teammates alike. But something became irreversibly clear to me. ‘Social,’ by definition, is all about people. Much like social work, social welfare, and social justice are focused on people, social media is all about people.

I laid awake that night feeling like a fraud. I was hired to be a thought leader in social media marketing, tasked with the responsibility of building a social media practice to serve clients like State Farm, McDonald’s, and Anheuser-Busch. Yet, I realized in that moment that I knew nothing about ‘social,’ because I knew nothing about people. I had no understanding about human behavior — why people do what they do. My knowledge of human cognitions did not extend much further than the term ‘freudian slip.’ I felt equal parts illuminated by this new epiphany, and terrified by the fear of being found out. I decided to lean into this revelation. In the days and weeks following, I began investing myself in the social sciences to learn about people. I started with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and I could not stop reading. I found its exploration to be nothing short of fascinating. In it, Ariely proves that the cognitive biases which sway human behavior are so strong that they are partially predictable, despite how illogical they might be. I read the book twice and, in my second pass, I highlighted the research which I thought was most interesting. More importantly, I noted the researchers who were referenced, and whose work I began to read shortly thereafter. Ariely led me to Kahneman, and Kahneman led me to Loewenstein. I detoured to McLuhan and then turned to Berger, who led me to Watts and Thaler, and soon after to Asch and Milgram. My curiosity was insatiable and, as a result, I read broadly and deeply. After about a year of discovery, the research started to became self-referential. And then something amazing happen. This research grounding began to manifest in my own work.

With my new grounding in ‘social,’ I found myself challenging the long standing conventions of traditional advertising and marketing. If a colleague suggested an influencer program based on the number of followers a person of interest had, I relied on network theory, whose dynamics inform the propagation of influence, to guide my approach. When another colleague recommended a tactic to help increase the likelihood of a behavioral adoption, I recalled the importance of creating defaults in the design to act as a nudge. And so on, and so on. The more I applied theories from the social sciences to my work, the better the outcomes were. This was evidenced in my work launching the Cliff Paul campaign for State Farm and the Brooklyn Nets’ “Hello Brooklyn” campaign when the team moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn, for example.

Since that late night in 2011, I have embraced the world of academia. The more I learn about people, the better my practice becomes. The better my practice becomes, the more curious I am about people. Maintaining this balance across academia and practice has become my career’s North Star. I am so passionate about this intersection that I now teach it in classrooms around the world, to undergraduate and graduate students and executives alike. And this is why I’ve set my sights on a pursuing a doctoral degree, to bring the worlds of academia and practice even closer together. This is the road to Dr. Collins. Let’s get it!