News & Views

Special Report / What Brands Can Learn From the Growth of Food Trucks and Hip-Hop

by Chris Barth

Contagious, in partnership with Lapiz, is pleased to release a special report examining what the mainstreaming of previously two niche movements, hip-hop and food trucks, can tell us about how cultural expressions break out of humble beginnings to become pop culture powerhouses.

We aren’t looking for a formula here; there’s no equation that can be solved to predict the next small movement that will make a big impact. But we hope to create a lens that makes it easier to understand the evolution of cultural manifestations as they grow. And perhaps more importantly, we are developing ideas about what this evolution means for culture – and the people, companies, and brands that seek to shape it. 


To achieve this we worked with culture journalist Khalid Salaam to research and analyze the growth and expansion of hip-hop and food trucks, two undisputed cultural juggernauts that were initially popular within a very small community and have since morphed into some of the biggest cultural forces around today.

Hip-hop has shaped not only the music we listen to, but also the way we listen to it, the way we dress, the way we talk, and more. PhD dissertations are written about the genre’s cultural effects. Importantly, for our practical purposes, it provides a well-documented baseline for comparison against other cultural movements. In hip-hop, we have a specific, codified, recorded historical timeline, with a clear and documented start, understandable evolution, and ongoing impact.

Food trucks, meanwhile, have grown exponentially to become a force in the food industry, capturing the spirit of the American dream and changing the food landscape in the country. That, in addition to the practical benefit of being closely linked with social media’s growth and a post-Google explosion, allowed us to have an outstanding grasp into its key milestones.

For both cultural expressions, we identified key moments of cultural expansion and the implications of those moments, analyzed the fundamental factors that influenced their conception, evolution, and extension, and talked to the people who went through that growth, to get a closer look and a unique perspective.

Key findings:

The first part of a trend to go mainstream is often an outlier to the culture. Cultural expressions are not usually massively embraced at their core. Instead, there are versions that first reach the mainstream. Often, the initial ambassadors for a niche culture, who take risks and grow beyond the current boundaries, are people or groups that are outside of the culture's core.

More than tipping points, look for tangential avenues to accelerate impact. As trends get bigger, side industries pop up, helping the movements spread wider and faster. From media channels like MTV and BET to side industries like food truck outfitters, tangential businesses will arise to support and outfit cultural expressions and their creators. Once niche culture proves profitable—or shows signs that it could be profitable in the future—people outside the initial core will be interested and work to grow the niche. Frequently, this spread of a trend will accelerate once its profitability manifests itself.

From context to concept.

Instead of riding the existing cultural fad that everyone is trying to ride, align yourself with the interests of the underlying culture itself. Understand the key values, players and influential factors that drive a specific culture and leverage that knowledge to make an impact long-term, rather than simply being associated with a single manifestation of that culture. Once we understand what makes a local culture tick, we can articulate it to a larger audience and help it evolve. 

Revolutions start small: place bets instead of waiting for the wave.

In today’s social-media-driven reality, with our constant real-time access to information, what’s happening on the streets is easier and faster to adopt than ever before. The long lead time it took for cultural expressions like hip-hop to appear, grow and evolve may no longer exist. Instead, given permanent access to an audience, it's more important than ever to be able to act and quickly embrace smaller movements and expressions. Don't wait for things to get close to the mainstream before getting involved.

There are no media gatekeepers anymore.

Media (and social media) is an important driver in taking niche communities and spreading them to wider audiences. More than any other catalyst, aside from maybe word-of-mouth spread, media attention helps bring niche, geographically distinct trends to the rest of the country and the world. Increasingly, social media enables the creators in a niche area to reach those wider populations on their own, without relying on media gatekeepers. 

Early ideas continue to be relevant to later followers. Although both food trucks and hip-hop have evolved far beyond their original roots, the first forces in each area still impact the trend on a regular basis. Pioneers like Roy Choi and Run-DMC still hold great relevance to today's trendsetters.

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