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Translating: How the “Elite” of Charleston, WV, are Getting a February Tan

I’m fascinated with the idea of “Translating” – a marketing concept developed by Steve Stoute, the founder of Translation, a brand imaging consulting firm. Stoute’s firm specializes in forging connections between established corporate brands and the community of musicians, rappers, actors, and sports figures generally referred to as “urban.”  

Stoute says of his work, “What I do is contemporize a brand." But, he emphasizes, "I don't take the brand away from what it stands for. I don't change who they are in order to appeal to the next generation."

Stoute is the hip-but-safe go-to guy for large companies like Hewlett-Packard, Target, Samsung, and many more. I have to admit that just one short month ago, I had never heard of the guy. Never.

And then I started searching to understand why I was so uncomfortable with the idea of “diversity” marketing. It’s a genre I have been cast in, for reasons including the fact that I am one of few African Americans in my state working in the marketing industry and because I possess a passion for thinking about who has been forgotten in any given campaign.

I’ve always felt that “diversity” tactics seemed to simply swap out white faces for black ones or strive to target messages along racial lines. I wanted to develop an inclusive and holistic approach to “diversity.”  That’s when I came across Stoute’s book, The Tanning of America, and - eureka!  - there it was.

“Tanning” is the term Stoute uses to describe the blending of class, race, and culture in America, with a significance given to the reality that by 2020 America will no longer be majority white. Stoute’s basic point is that the demographic and social changes facing America are leading it to become more multi-hued and tolerant. This was the information I was looking for. At least information-in-progress; “tanning” and its tactics of translation are still evolving, in both Stoute’s theory and in mine.

I was first faced with the need for translation when working with our former client, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). It took the Boy Scouts’ project to really start challenging my thinking as we began to understand the desperate need to Translate BSA values (the “Scout Law”) to a new generation. How to be cool, yet maintain BSA core values? With the right Translation, BSA could usher in a new generation of Scouts as they seek to revitalize their 200 year-old organization and re-brand it to a “tanned” American generation.

The Boy Scouts know all about the demographic shifts in America. Many companies know this, too, and are also trying to simultaneously update their brands to reach new audiences while maintaining their core values.

It’s not an easy thing to do; in fact, I know this from experience, as I am experimenting with translation right now in my community life.

I am co-chair of the West Virginia Symphony League Fashion Show, a fifty-year tradition in Charleston, WV. Since its inception, this event has always pulled its models from a veritable “who’s who” list of prominent women in the community. Although I didn’t necessarily fit that mold, I did start modeling professionally at a very young age, and, because of my experience, I was always asked to be in the show.

This year is special. I’m not a model. The leadership of the show has decided that it’s time to change. They want to reach out to a broader sector of the community in direct and indirect ways, while staying true to their fifty year-old roots.

They asked for my help.  I understand the integrity and core values of the event. I also understand its vision and purpose. It has been a part of my life for twenty years and it’s not rocket science. Like Stoute says, first get “cool” and then you can succeed at making as many people as possible the show’s glamour and opportunity, in ways both direct and indirect. At its essence, what the Symphony Fashion Show needs is a translator to bridge the old and the new.

The show is March 14, 2012, and new sponsorships are coming in every day. We opened the door to new models by holding an open model call. We launched into social media and are utilizing a host of other tactics to re-brand the fashion show for a wider segment of the community.  

Check out the video.

Fashion from Ben Robinson on Vimeo.

Tanning?  Yes. We have black, white, and Asian models, in addition to a diversity of sizes, ages, and socio-economic backgrounds.

One thing Stoute’s book does is remind me how influential hip hop is, and will continue to be, in America. He makes this argument throughout the book, describing hip-hop’s rise and gradual commercialization, starting with the grassroots success of the first Sugar Hill record “Rappers Delight” and the legendary 1986 concert where the German executives of Adidas first heard Run-DMC’s “My Adidas” rap song.

That being said, I’m still working out the details for the show to feature its first ever DJ, International Core DJ Charlie Blac to be the 2012 WV Symphony Fashion Show’s maestro.

We’ll see how it goes.                                   

With a little luck and little open-minded support, even the elite of Charleston, WV, might be able to get a tan in the middle of February. 

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