Branded entertainment strategies and partnerships were discussed on second day (Sept. 7).

Branded entertainment strategies and partnerships were discussed at the second day (Sept. 7) of the seventh annual Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Conference & Awards, held at the Renaissance Waverly Hotel in Atlanta. Panelists, culled from the worlds of advertising, artist management, fashion, entertainment marketing and TV, shared their evolving approaches for targeted strategic partnerships.

At the “I’m With the Brand” panel, the evolving marketing landscape was discussed. It has exploded in terms of the multi-platform possibilities, noted Chaka Zulu, co-CEO of Disturbing Tha Peace. “Co-branding with other companies and products has helped create more branding outlets,” Zulu said. “You have to ask yourself the question, ‘How can I connect my brand -- my artist -- to the brands that already that a have relationship to consumers.”

Zulu illustrated this with a recent partnership between one of his artists, Ludacris, and Pontiac. For Zulu, the deal was a natural fit, because of Ludacris’ love of cars and because of timing. It was between albums, so the ad for the Pontiac Solstice would keep Ludacris in the public’s eye in a campaign with a media buy in the millions. Ludacris appeared in the TV spot, which also featured his song, “2 Miles an Hour.”

Since the track had no accompanying video, and Pontiac needed visuals for the commercial, the auto manufacturer agreed to pay for a video. This was music to the ears of Zulu and Ludacris.

According to co-panelist Valerie Graves, chief creative officer of the Vigilante agency, which helmed the Solstice campaign, this was fine by the Pontiac executives. “We’re living in an age of authenticity,” she explained. “When you saw Ludacris in the Solstice commercial, you really saw Ludacris. That’s the shift that’s happening in this business right now.”

Such words did not go unnoticed by Music World Entertainment founder/CEO Mathew Knowles, who, as a panelist, shared stories of his own dealings between brands and his artists, notably the members of Destiny’s Child. Brand partnerships must be the right fit, Knowles said. During the early days of Destiny’s Child, he said he was bombarded with branding offers, the bulk of which he turned down. “You must always keep the artist’s reputation, image and credibility in mind when considering partnering with a brand.”

The topic of building one’s brand -- be it an artist or a consumer product -- continued throughout the day. In a discussion panel focusing on A&R trends, songwriter/producer Rodney Jerkins spoke of working from the street up. “You must first build a strong foundation,” he said. “You can’t expect to make millions with your first record. Work on building your brand, your music, your artistry.”

Universal Music Publishing VP of urban Ethiopia Habtemariam agreed. She used uber-hot producer Polow as an example. “We’re both from Atlanta,” she said. “I’d been hearing his tracks and liked what he was doing and where he was going. Once I heard a track he did for Ludacris, I knew this was someone with a vision. So, I signed him two years ago.”

When talk turned to navigating the digital landscape, the focus of the “Retail and the Digital Divide” panel, everyone agreed that music is more popular than ever -- but with a twist. “Major labels have lost their power over distribution,” said Jeff Price, president/founder of spinART Records and Tunecore.com. In the past, he noted, major labels promoted to commercial radio, MTV and consumer magazines. “All these efforts were pushed by the majors. But now, music fans on the Internet are handling these efforts. They are spreading the word about the music they like.”

Upon hearing these words, producer Hank Shocklee nodded his head up and down, and said, “With digital, it’s about pushing things forward. A DJ posts his playlist on his Web site. People can click on the songs and hear them and immediately purchase them. With a few clicks, you are creating your own brand, selling music and making money.”

Additional reporting by Gail Mitchell.

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