Putting the Word Out : Group Uses Freebies to Create Product ‘Street Buzz’

To be hip in urban America, a new product’s gotta have street buzz.

But some cutting-edge marketers are now convinced that the buzz needs some carefully crafted cajoling.

Enter the Street Team.

The name of this urban marketing group sounds like some sort of tactical weapons squad. But the “weapons” are freebies--T-shirts, records, posters--that are used as tools to promote new products, from Miramax films to hip-hop albums from Sony. The group has also promoted Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan in some urban neighborhoods.

The marketing twist is who passes out these goodies--and where: 18- to 24-year-old hipsters walk America’s urban neighborhoods hitting the hot spots, from night clubs to car washes. Their sole objective: to create street talk about new records and movies.

“There are no rules on the street,” said Steven Rifkind, the 32-year-old entrepreneur who runs the Street Team operations out of the same Melrose Avenue building that houses his hip-hop record label, Loud Records, and his marketing firm, Steven Rifkind Co. “People ask me, ‘What does the Street Team do?’ I tell them the Street Team gets out the word.”


The young, mostly black and Latino crowd targeted by the Street Team is an audience that buys lots of CDs and movie tickets. Mainstream marketers have an especially difficult time reaching this audience.

“You can’t reach America’s youth with off-the-mark radio ads or insulting television commercials,” said Rifkind, a scrappy ex-New Yorker who dropped out of high school after getting into a fistfight with the principal. “You have to reach them where they live--clubs, parties and barber shops.”

His Street Team is a multicultural mix, mostly African Americans. In addition to Los Angeles, it has operations in 23 other major U.S. cites, including New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington. The team has specialized in promoting hip-hop recording artists--including the Wu-TangClan on the Loud Records label and Nas on Columbia Records.

But it is just beginning to branch out into film marketing, with its crew now promoting “Fresh,” a movie from Miramax Films that opens Wednesday. Executives at Miramax say such promotion is exactly what’s needed for the film about a 12-year-old boy from Brooklyn who uses his street smarts to break away from his drug-dealing neighborhood.

“The Street Team plants the seed in areas that the general media never gets to,” said David Dinerstein, vice president of marketing at Miramax. “They move with the crowd.”

There are risks, of course. After all, hip spots can also be hot spots.

Moments after two Street Team members finished handing out flyers at a Downtown Los Angeles nightclub two years ago, one patron of the club was killed in a gang-related shooting. The Street Team members left the club unharmed but shaken. Some find the very notion of big marketers targeting inner-city youth a sign of respect for an often ignored consumer group. But others caution that the Street Team’s approach is a hit-and-run tactic that fails to establish long-term loyalty.

“It sounds more like exploitation than appreciation,” said J. Melvin Muse, chairman of the multiethnic Los Angeles ad agency Muse Cordero Chen. “Eventually, that constituency is likely to feel it’s being exploited,” he said. “It’s all a matter of how sincere you are.”

Others insist there are better ways to spend urban promotion dollars. “Nothing gets more to the street level in the black community than black radio,” said Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in marketing to African Americans.

But one urban marketing expert believes the Street Team is a terrific concept. “There is nothing more effective than word of mouth in the urban market,” said Herbert Conley, professor of marketing at Howard University in Washington.

This week, the 4-year-old Street Team meets its biggest test yet. For several weeks, it has been out on the streets of Los Angeles--and 23 other U.S. cities--talking up “Fresh.” To get word-of-mouth buzz on the streets even before the film opens, the team has been promoting the film and soundtrack day and night. Last week, a Times reporter accompanied two Street Team members on a three-hour promotional spin through the neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. In those three hours, the team hit commercial areas in Baldwin Hills and the Crenshaw district-- distributing nearly 1,000 flyers, 500 stickers, 80 audiocassettes and 60 compact discs.

But they don’t just give away stuff. They talk up the film.

“A lot of the kids we’re trying to reach don’t watch TV or listen to the radio,” explained Bill Operin, retail promotions manager for the Street Team and its oldest member at 28. “Many kids just listen to their cassettes--and hang out.”

His job is to find those hangouts and look and act as if he fits right in. That’s why Operin wears baggy shorts below his knees. His marketing partner this day, Terrell Hall, 22, is a struggling but eager hip-hop singer who wears a New York Mets baseball cap.

Operin has the route mapped out in his head. During the day, he’ll hit a number of spots, including a car wash, hair salon, fitness center, swap meet and several record stores.

The first stop is Simply Wholesome Health Foods in Baldwin Hills, a popular spot with neighborhood African Americans. The Street Team walks in the door armed with flyers, stickers and cassettes. After first checking with the owner of the store, they hand out the goodies to patrons--then leave behind a fat stack of flyers.

“Sure, I’ll go see the movie,” said Kwesi Jordan, a 17-year-old clerk at the store who has just grabbed a flyer. “I hear it makes ‘Boyz N the Hood’ look like a TV comedy.”

Two security guards--who spot Operin carrying a handful of flyers--temporarily stop the Street Team from entering the bustling Slauson Swap Meet. But Operin knows the ropes. He hands each of the men cassettes and CDs, and it isn’t long before the doors are opened.

The swap meet is jammed with merchants, including several blasting music in a bid to sell their CDs. Operin is quick to hand each of them several copies of the “Fresh” soundtrack.

He hands a cassette to a young African American man walking through the swap meet. The man disappears, then quickly returns. “Say, can I get another one for my cousin?”

Now, that is buzz.