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How 50 Cent scored a half-billion

THIRST FOR SUCCESS: Not content with album sales alone, the rapper branched out into Vitaminwater, backing the Formula 50 flavor.
THIRST FOR SUCCESS: Not content with album sales alone, the rapper branched out into Vitaminwater, backing the Formula 50 flavor. (Boris Grdanoski)
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By Dan Charnas
Sunday, December 19, 2010

In "The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop," author Dan Charnas traces how rap grew from its obscure roots in the ghettos of 1970s New York to its culmination as the world's predominant youth pop culture and a multibillion-dollar industry.

The event that epitomized just how far hip-hop had come was the headline-grabbing partnership between the rapper 50 Cent and the upstart beverage company Glaceau, the maker of Vitaminwater. It may well have been the biggest deal in hip-hop history, propelling 50 Cent's personal net worth toward a half-billion dollars. In this excerpt, Charnas outlines how it happened.

By the summer of 2003, 50 Cent's debut album, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," had sold more than 5 million copies, and he was easily on his way to becoming a multimillionaire on these sales alone. But the rapper from Queens, who was born Curtis Jackson and had begun his career on the reputation of being shot nine times (a bullet was still lodged in his tongue), wasn't content to remain a recording artist. And his young manager, Chris Lighty, himself a Bronx street kid turned businessman, was well-positioned to exploit 50's stardom by creating multiple income streams. Lighty had come out of the Def Jam fold and managed such stars as Missy Elliott and LL Cool J.

With Lighty, 50 Cent created the "G-Unit" brand, including a record company, a clothing company and a sneaker deal with Reebok's RBK line. The G-Unit Clothing Company was a joint-venture deal, with hip-hop-influenced designer Marc Ecko fronting the money, handling the manufacturing and distribution, and splitting the profits fifty-fifty with 50.

At his Violator management company (named after a rough crew that Lighty ran with as a kid), Lighty helped pioneer the use of 900 numbers for his artists. Over a decade later, he negotiated a different kind of phone deal: 50 Cent cellular ringtones to be sold for up to $2.99 per download. Lighty inked other agreements, too: a video game and a biopic with MTV Films and Paramount Pictures. When the agency that represented Lighty, CAA, balked at representing a rapper so closely associated with violence, Lighty secured a deal with an eager William Morris.

One of Lighty's business acquaintances was Rohan Oza, a marketing executive who has just moved from Coca-Cola to a small Queens, N.Y., beverage company called Glaceau. Oza considered himself not a brand manager, but a brand messiah. He believed that passionate proselytizing of his products could transcend costly corporate ad campaigns. Oza's Vitaminwater brand was doing well at more than $100 million in sales, second only to Pepsi's Propel brand in the $245 million "enhanced-water" market. He knew how to take them out.

Stealing a page from the hip-hop street-team and word-of-mouth ethos, Oza created a fleet of 10 "Glaceau Vitaminwater Tasting Vehicles," staffed by 200 "hydrologists," to cross the country and spread the gospel of Vitaminwater's growing line. But hydrologists working one-on-one with consumers wouldn't break Vitaminwater out of the gourmet-deli and new-age-health-food market. He needed more than brand messiahs to convert individuals. He needed brand ambassadors to influence millions.

That's when Oza saw a commercial for RBK sneakers in which Lighty, rather sneakily, had his artist chug a bottle of Vitaminwater.

Chris Lighty is a smart man, Oza thought.

In a phone call soon thereafter, Lighty told Oza that he wanted to find a way to work together to make Vitaminwater huge.

It turned out that 50 Cent had a true love of the product. He had grown up around alcoholics, so he didn't drink. He spent hours a day working out and ate healthy. Like Oza‚ who got bored with imbibing the recommended eight glasses of plain water a day‚ 50 had found Vitaminwater a more pleasurable way to hydrate.

On Oza's desk in his New York office, at that very moment, was a test bottle of a new Vitaminwater flavor, recently formulated by Glaceau's head of product development, Carol Dollard, who had worked hard to get more vitamins and nutrients into their drinks - much more than the 2 to 3 percent of the recommended daily allowance in other "enhanced" waters. Recently, Oza had asked Dollard for a product that would make it easy to highlight this difference. She had returned with a flavor that contained 50 percent of the RDA of seven different vitamins and minerals. Oza's marketing team responded with a great name for the new variety: Formula 50. The coincidence was uncanny.


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