‘Urban’ is a word that has risen in popularity over the last few years. As the author of The Urban Mashup blog I guess I should be pleased about this, but when I recently noticed that CBS Outdoor had adopted the new end line: ‘Outdoor by Name, Urban by Nature’ I was left wondering if we are all urban now.

A quick scan of Wikipedia is enough to highlight that ‘urban’ can be used in many contexts. Most of us will have heard an urban legend, used the Urban Dictionaryor possibly even studied urban theory covering topics such as urbanization, urban decay and urban regeneration.

The dictionary defines ‘urban’ as: 1) a characteristic of a city or town; 2) popular dance music of black origin, or 3) popular black culture in general. However, the brand that can probably claim most credit for popularizing the word is Urban Outfitters. Originally launched in 1970 as ‘The Free People’s Store’ in Philadelphia, it now operates a worldwide franchise in 140 countries and is valued at over $4 billion.

I’ve been using the term since the late 1980’s when, alongside my brother and a few friends, I founded a sound system called Urban Sounds Inc. We spent a good few years DJing in house parties and clubs across London. The music we played was of black origin, but back then the term urban wasn’t in common usage in this context.

Scroll forward 15 years or so and Choice FM went from being ‘The Home of Hip-Hop and R&B’ to ‘London’s No. 1 Urban Music Station’. This appropriation of urban has extended to other areas. We now have ‘Urban Explorers’ and a popular Tumblr site proudly defines itself as ‘We The Urban’.

The ambiguity surrounding the word seems to be part of its appeal. Urban feels more inclusive and less confrontational than Black. It is often used to convey a street attitude without mentioning the problematic issue of race. With CBS Outdoor adopting ‘Urban by Nature’ as its brand positioning, it seems the word has finally crossed over into the mainstream.

The Tanning Of America

Steve Stoute, founder of the marketing agency Translation has documented a similar trend in the US.  He refers to this in his recent book The Tanning Of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture that Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy.

Forbes outlines his argument that ‘hip-hop has established a new, pan-ethnic sort of cool – one with an appeal that reaches far beyond the sort of demographics that Madison Avenue old-timers might expect.’

However, it seems the Mad Men are paying attention. Last year Ogilvy announced the launch of Ogilvy Culture, a new cross-cultural offering to help clients ‘anticipate and prepare for new ways to market to an ever changing consumer population’. Meanwhile agencies such as Noise in New York (part of Engine USA) are setting out to transform the way companies engage young adults.

Urban by name – suburban by nature

All of this should give me cause to celebrate, but despite the increased recognition of the importance of urban culture, brands and agencies in the UK remain ambivalent.

Although many campaigns try to increase their cool credentials by engaging urban celebrities and audiences (with varying degrees of success), the underlying composition of the creative communications industry is still largely anything but urban. With only a few exceptions, our industry has a woeful track record in this regard, preferring to talk urban rather than walk it. (After all, the streets can be dangerous).

The good news is that almost everyone in the industry agrees this is a problem. The bad news is they’ve been agreeing on this point for a number of years and outside of small-scale initiatives such as The Ideas Foundation (with which I am involved), precious little has been done about it.

Ten years ago Professor Richard Florida drew attention to ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’, highlighting the positive economic performance of cities that are characterized by having diverse, tolerant and creative cultures. Hopefully it won’t take another 10 years for brands and agencies to realize the implications of this and fully embrace what it means to truly be urban by nature.

The above image is taken from the 1972 campaign, aimed at the British public, to raise awareness of the racial discrimination preventing the non-white community from finding employment. Source D&AD

This post was originally published on Campaign Live


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