In 1993, nine New York rappers dropped an album that would go on to… I don’t need to finish it, do I? You know who the Wu Tang Clan is, and if you don’t, you can read one of the many pop-cultural accounts of their rise to stardom, power, and a place in the hip hop canon.
They’ve made their way into film, video games, fine art, and the American vernacular. They have their own clothing line. Even in the fiercely self-promotional world of hip hop, Wu Tang stands out as a brand of its own. Here’s what they can teach us about branding.
Consistency is key
The nine members of Wu Tang have a slew of diverse styles. There are the GZA’s somber reflections and steady flow, Ghostface’s hysterical charisma, ODB’s deranged genius. But RZA’s beats and production hold the clan’s creative output together. While the Abbott’s tight creative control has often been a point of friction for the group, it’s also the glue that makes Wu Tang stick. The result is a singular sound and a unified vision. More often than not, you know a Wu album when you hear it.
The lesson: Keep your messaging on point; don’t dilute the brand
Don’t try to be everything to everyone
Wu Tang might have massive appeal, but they didn’t get there by writing radio hip-hop songs. Their lyrics draw from Five-Percenter teachings, comic books, kung fu, sci-fi, and chess. The single off their most successful album is six minutes long and doesn’t have a chorus. Their most beloved member was a total wingnut. They’re mostly vegetarian and kinda Muslim. They doubled down on doing them and it worked.
The lesson: Differentiation is crucial. Don’t pick vanilla.
Diversify your bonds
First and foremost, Wu Tang is
for the childrenabout the music. But the group’s side ventures have broadened their appeal and deepened their cultural hold. Clothing label Wu Wear, created by Wu affiliate, hypeman, and entrepreneur Oli Grant, has reportedly raked in millions since its 1997 launch, while giving fans more ways to rep the Wu. RZA and Method Man’s film and TV appearances have kept them in the spotlight and exposed them to new audiences, as well.
The lesson: Your brand could benefit from exposure and long-term insurance
Don’t be afraid of change
The nine members of Wu Tang seemed set in stone at first. But adding close affiliate Capadonna as an official member ultimately made sense, even if it shook up the lineup. Capadonna, long termed the “unofficial tenth member” of the group by fans, was closely involved with the Wu Tang from its inception, yet he lacked a spot among the nine. But eventually, years after ODB’s death proved that change is inevitable, Capadonna found himself a made man in the Wu Tang family.
The lesson: Every rule deserves an exception when the reasons are good enough
Brand building = storytelling
All rappers are storytellers, sure. But Wu Tang do it in another language. Some of their slang is now in the mainstream (CREAM). Some of it is almost impenetrable to the uninitiated. Clan Slang Chef Raekwon took this to the next level: do you even know what Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… means? Then there’s the overlay of kung-fu movie landscapes onto 90s New York. Inventing words and worlds adds to Wu Tang’s mystique and draws listeners in.
The lesson: Tell your story in your own language