How Jay-Z Met H.P.: Blame Hip Hop Branding Wizard Steve Stoute

Former record exec Steve Stoute and the case of the secret chewing-gum jingle.

“Marketing? You call that marketing?” Mr. Stoute asked. “You’re trying to skip the entire process and just hire some celebrities to save your ass. That’s the epitome of ridiculous. Marketing? Kodak?” He was nearly shouting. The commercials, he said, didn’t convey the function of the product. “Can you imagine how stupid that is? What am I gonna do with a Kodak? It’s not a smart phone. If I don’t tell you why you need it, why would you buy it? Because Rihanna and Pitbull said so? Yeah, congratulations.”

The Kodak campaign was “of limited duration,” according to a company spokesperson and was only for the So Kodak line. “Our data showed that it was effective in raising brand and product awareness among the target audience.” It also won an Addy Award, “so obviously some difference of opinion out there,” the spokesperson added.

He can be just as brutal with potential clients. Back when he first partnered with Reebok, he told Paul Fireman flatly that the company couldn’t compete with Nike by marketing their shoes as superior for athletes.

“I think most people, especially when they are interviewing, tend to not be as forthright as I would like,” Mr. Fireman said. “Most of them think that by telling you what you’re doing wrong they’re going to insult you. Steve pointed out our disconnect from the consumer. He is very blunt but not rude. You’re either going to accept it or you’re not. I thought it was refreshing.”

Mr. Stoute is most proud of having pioneered the practice of surreptitiously embedding marketing messages into the pop cultural products. He followed up the successful McDonald’s-Timberlake switcheroo with a similar deal involving Wrigley’s and Chris Brown. After Mr. Brown’s song “Forever” became a hit, it was revealed that the familiar lyric “Double your pleasure” was no coincidence—the song was a gum jingle. Before radio stations, deejays or average listeners knew they were all offering free advertising time—and mindspace—to a major corporation, the song was embedded in the culture.

Mr. Stoute was a bit perplexed by the anger the stunt engendered. “If you got upset because it was really a brand message intertwined with the song you loved, if that bothered you, shame on you for getting that emotional about something you loved anyway,” he said. “I didn’t understand that. Gawker and all those guys were writing stuff about me. Say anything you want, but its brilliant, it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s stunning. It’s so smart. You actually made a song and in the song, it said, ‘Double your pleasure/double your fun.’ And that worked. And then we came back with a commercial behind it and when it was revealed, it was a home run.”

Mr. Stoute then looked at his phone. It was almost 6 p.m. “I gotta get ready to get out of here,” he said. He had tickets that night for The Mountaintop with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.

“If you thought the song was sponsored by a brand,” he added, “you would not have been open-minded about how the song made you feel. All I did was remove that filter.”