In my home state of California, the Cookies brand is as ubiquitous as the “3” hat in Chicago. Drive through Berkeley and throw an old 50 Cent mixtape out your window, and it’s likely to land on the doorstep of a boutique that sells Cookies gear.
The original logo looks innocent enough: “Cookies” in a cartoony font, accompanied by a “C”-adorned cookie with a bite missing. Stoners and West Coast hip-hop lovers know that the brand has 420 connotations, but for the thousands of tourists and casual Instagram fashion perusers that buy Cookies-brand apparel every year, it’s just another trendy t-shirt or bucket hat or skateboard deck to add to the collection.
For Berner, a rapper from San Francisco with the entrepreneurial spirit and independent ethos that created the branding giant, Cookies is a life's work. In addition to being a self-made marijuana and fashion mogul, Berner is a successful recording and touring artist signed to Taylor Gang. But it’s the brand he’s built and sold so well to such a wide fanbase, that has given the Bay Area artist a transcendental platform.
Recently, I got the chance to speak with Berner about Cookies and the work he’s done to craft the brand. I was expecting an enthusiastic response, but Berner’s response drifted closer to somber than celebratory. “I don’t think people understand how much work this takes. I don’t sleep, I got crazy insomnia, I work all day long,” he says, his voice sounding mostly tired until this point.
“I tell my girl and my kid I’m gonna turn my phone off but I’m sitting there on my other phone just texting, texting, texting,” he added.
On the other side of the state, somewhere in a far-too-chic-for-his-goofy-smile apartment in North Hollywood, rapper, television casting specialist, and recently-minted reality TV star Emoney is wrestling with his own inner turmoil as his personal brand is thrown into the public eye like never before.
Emoney was in the first-ever TeamBackPack cypher and he has a strong underground following as an increasingly versatile artist with a unique and relatable perspective, so none of the oddities that come with being an adored entertainer are new to him. But for the next couple months, Emoney can be seen on MTV’s Are You The One? every week, which means he’s been forced to spend a whole lot of time figuring out how to strengthen his brand as a music artist, for fear of losing his bearings in the world of “reality” TV. (Emoney’s response when I asked him about the silly show he’s on: “MTV was the most miserable experience of my life, but at the same time it was the most necessary. I needed to be humbled.”)
In their own far-apart worlds, both Berner and Emoney are wrestling with the same thoughts that plague many indie artists, asking themselves the same questions that everyone from Kanye to the rapper down your block has contemplated: What’s the next step for my brand’s growth? How can I evolve to stay ahead of the challenges of changing markets? What happens when I need to focus my time and energy entirely on making music? Will the brand die?
Amongst typical music consumers, these questions and the layers of intricacy and intention that go into finding suitable answers aren’t subjects that get talked about much; as Berner says, people don’t “understand how much work this takes.” Peel back the curtain, though, and the inner workings of branding in the music business will give you a whole new kind of respect for your favorite artist.
To do just that, we’ve assembled a panel of four experts and peppered them with questions about how branding in the music business really works. The other justification for this deep dive: helping independent artists themselves understand branding better. We’re committed to empowering aspiring creators by helping them better understand the industry.
Our Panel: Berner is a rapper and entrepreneur based out of the Bay. His “Cookies” brand started as a marijuana endeavor and has evolved into a global fashion and lifestyle brand. Emoney is a rapper, internet personality, and TV professional based out of LA. His perspective is informed both by underground grinding and Hollywood talent coaching. Erin Burke is an experienced publicist specializing in music artist representation. She represents Redman, among a handful of well-known clients, and has handled projects like Soul Plane. Jordan Callahan manages Macntaj, a buzzing EDM-tilting rapper from Seattle, and heads a multifaceted artist service and consulting group based in the Northwest.
The conversations below have been edited and synthesized for brevity.
Do you think music consumers really have any idea of how important branding is to artists?
Jordan: I think most consumers just take in the product they are given. A good brand resonates, good branding most simply for me is an image plus consistency. And listeners don’t have any idea of what goes behind that.
Emoney: As an artist, branding is literally everything you do. People think, “Oh, your brand is your logo,” but it’s every time you post on social media, the shirt you wear when you’re out at a show, how you talk to your fans, the face you make when a fan takes a selfie with you. Branding is how you make someone feel when they see anything that represents you or your artistry, and the biggest part is that you have to get the consumer to not even think that what you’re doing is branding.
Why should artists care about their brand in the first place? Why is this so important?
Erin: Unfortunately, music is not the only thing that matters. You want the music to speak for itself, but that’s not all people are looking at. It’s a highly visual world. People like to find ways to remember you. An example, when you think of Snoop Dogg, sure you think of his music, but you probably first think of this mellow stoner. And that’s something that’s helped him have a bigger, longer career. Your brand can take you further.
Berner: If you have a platform and you’re making good music, it’s the way to monetize that platform. At the end of the day, you could be played out at any second, like you could get knocked out on WorldStarHipHop and your shit could be over. So you gotta expand outside of music. Shit, most of the money I got doesn’t come from music directly, it comes from everything else related to being an influencer.
Jordan: If you don’t focus on your brand and you just allow yourself to be ill-defined while you spend all day making music, you can’t pitch yourself to others. Why should people care? A lot of times when people higher up are looking at an artist, they're not listening to the music. They’re asking themselves, “Does this brand fit and does it have an avenue for profit? Can I market it?”
Who do you see as the perfect case study of an artist whose branding is on point and is really a determining factor in their success?
Berner: Of course, Tech N9ne. Right now, up-and-coming people, Casey Veggies really got his brand right. A$AP Ferg has his brand shit cracking. But not too many people really have it figured out as far as what I see.
Erin: It might be kinda out there to think this, but DJ Khaled. And you might not realize it all the time, that’s part of the point. Even his beat tag, it’s catchy. He has his catchphrases, he’s dedicated to a lot of different social media mediums, he’s constantly pushing his products on Snapchat and what not. He’s even recruited his newborn son into the brand.
Emoney: I’ve literally seen this guy go from reaching out to me in the DMs to headlining a nationwide tour and selling shit out: Token. The “No Sucka MCs” video, that was so simple, but it got a million YouTube views in two weeks. He works so hard and his moves are so calculated, but when he puts content out, he makes it look effortless.
Jordan: My favorite group right now and the one I really think has it figured out is Brockhampton. They’re a textbook definition of a consistent brand and aesthetic, right off the bat, down to their intros and the way their videos look. There’s a lot of elements that go into Brockhampton obviously, but that’s all just good branding at the end of the day.
What’s the single most important factor in a successful artist brand?
Erin: Personality. I know that sounds strange, but you want to be able to express yourself and make sure that your personality comes out. You build on that, sometimes you might amplify it a little bit, but staying organic to who you are, staying true to who you are. With Redman, what you see is what you get. That is Redman. It’s more amplified in TV or in the movies, but he’s very genuine.
Berner: Create your own vision and stay hands-on. In the beginning stages of everything, I had to learn a ton. I remember I did a show one time, and there were 8,000 people there, so I'mma press 2,000 shirts and we’re gonna sell 'em all. I only sold 120 shirts. I was fucked, those shirts lingered around for years back in the beginning stages. But you gotta be hands-on as you develop a brand so that you can learn from your mistakes.
The process can be overwhelming, so where should indie artists who are hoping to develop a strong brand start?
Jordan: It’s important to define yourself within your first few projects and within your first few big steps, because that’s gonna set the tone for what kinds of fans you're gonna get. I only say that to people who have their sound down. Especially in hip-hop, when you’re learning how to rap and learning what kind of artist you wanna be, you’re gonna go through several phases until you find that one that really clicks with yourself and others. So make sure you self-identify.
Berner: First things first, you have to realize you can’t win until you lose. You gotta lose in order to win. I lost with the Cookies shit a few times, putting my own bread into things. The best way for an artist to start is to put your own money into things. 'Cause if you take your own money and you put it into something and it doesn’t work, you’re gonna figure that shit out, cause nobody likes to lose their bread. Don’t rely on anyone else, stay hands-on. That’s what it takes to be successful.
Some of the most successful artists are brand-flexible. How can an artist pull this off?
Emoney: Never get pigeonholed. I was starting to get put in the box of “cypher rapper,” and I fucking hated that. I think in order to not get pigeonholed, you need to do things that will make fans mad at first, but you keep doing them, you keep trying new things. And ask yourself where you wanna be: do you want to be respected in the underground, or do you want to sell out venues? Figure that out and don’t typecast yourself, that’s how you stay flexible.
Erin: If you want to have a long career, you can’t stand still and be that guy you were in your twenties when you first came out. JAY-Z is a good example; when he first came out it was the Timbs, the jerseys. As he grew and matured as a person, he’s grown in his look. And he’s grown in his music right alongside that. Artists need to realize that they can’t always be who they were in their teens.
Berner: Pay attention to what’s going on, what’s now. And be innovative; for Cookies we’re coming out with a new style of rolling tray soon and some new female handbags and accessories, that’s shit I designed when I was high at the house but it’s shit that’s not out. If you’re innovative, you’ll always be relevant.
With so much of branding tied to social media and online mediums, what has changed the most?
Erin: I started working in the music industry over twenty years ago, and it was hard for artists to get information out there. Music, press photos, bios—you had to send everything through the mail. It’s easier to have access and to know what you’re doing now, but it’s two-sided; you don’t want to get crazy on social media and just start posting every single thought that you have in your head. People will get sick of it. You know, Donald Trump [laughs], sometimes you need to stay away from social media for a little bit.
Berner: I got rich off Instagram. I’ll say it right now: God bless Instagram, ya’ll got me where I’m at. I started my clothing line on Instagram, I’m not a fashion guy, but just by me posting my clothes on there, that was the spark that led to a multi-million dollar company. It’s crazy as hell.
Any last words for our independent artist readers?
Jordan: Have some artistic integrity. You can’t try to create your brand off of a current trend because as soon as you put yourself in that box, you put a deadline on how long your art can be relevant. Remember Hammer pants? You don’t want your artistry to be Hammer pants.
Erin: Be yourself. All of Wu-Tang, I love working with them because they’re not fake. The way they portray themselves is who they are.
Emoney: Just because you’re a rapper with so many YouTube views, or just because you’re amazing at rapping, it doesn’t mean you should be an asshole. Really we’re just entertainers, that’s why in my branding, I try to show people that humility is going to be the new cool thing.
Berner: Pick a strong logo and rep it. Rock that shit hard. Your identity is everything. It’s that simple.