Drake Is Thirsty, and Sprite Wants Everyone to Know It

As someone under the age of 30, it’s easy for me to take for granted hip-hop’s place in the cultural mainstream.

I grew up listening to “Mo Money Mo Problems” on the Top 40 radio station that played on the bus ride to elementary school, cast my first ballot for a guy who’s friends with Jay Z, and took a job covering a marketing industry in which even the dopiest white-bread brands regularly dip into the hip-hop vernacular to communicate with young people.

But when Sprite launched its “Obey Your Thirst” campaign, in 1994, it was almost unthinkable to run ads on national television featuring the stars of a genre considered by many to be too obscure, too violent, and too black for general-market advertisers. Nonetheless, the campaign’s iconic ads, featuring freestyles from underground favorites like CL Smooth and Grand Puba, were a hit, and helped make Sprite the fastest-growing soft drink in the country.

Perhaps more importantly, it signaled to other big brands and arbiters of mainstream culture that they, too, could be successful by aligning themselves with hip-hop culture.

Now, more than 20 years after the introduction of the “Obey Your Thirst” tagline, Sprite is returning to its hip-hop roots with a short documentary video series starring established rappers Drake and Nas, and up-and-comers Isaiah Rashad and Vince Staples. The series’ interviews with the artists seek to explore how they “obeyed their thirst” and worked to achieve their dreams of success.

While betting on Drake in 2015 doesn’t bear anywhere near the risk of betting on Grand Puba in 1994, the films, produced and published by trendy music outlet The Fader, are nonetheless the sort of entertaining interviews I would watch on my own time were I not being paid to write about them.

The series’ more than 1 million video views indicate I’m not the only one who feels this way.

“I think Sprite had a really good handle on how they wanted to relaunch ‘Obey Your Thirst’ because I think they realized they had a legacy they could trade on,” said Joseph Patel, The Fader’s vice president of content. “It was really easy. Every artist that we talked to, and even considered, knew about Sprite and ‘Obey Your Thirst’ from 20 years ago.”

The documentary series is part of a new “Obey Your Thirst” campaign, which also involves the production of limited-edition soda cans featuring the lyrics of the Notorious B.I.G., Drake, Nas, and Rakim. Sprite’s parent company, Coca-Cola, did not respond to an email requesting an interview on the overall campaign.

(Full disclosure: Coca-Cola is a Contently client.)

According to The Fader president and publisher Andy Cohn, the documentary series has been in the works for upwards of a year, ever since the brand came to The Fader asking to tell a story about hip-hop artists overcoming obstacles. The publication settled on a video series due to the medium’s strength in narrative storytelling, and decided to make four videos: one documenting a veteran artist’s story, one about someone currently at the top of the game, and two on emerging artists.

Sprite requested that Nas and Drake be included in the series, while The Fader was asked to use its expertise (the magazine gave early cover stories to the likes of Kanye West, The Strokes, and Bon Iver) to tap two acts who were not yet household names. While Drake and Nas might draw more eyeballs, Cohn says that the selection of the two up-and-comers gives Sprite a chance to form a real connection with the artists’ hardcore fans.

“I think this series shows that Sprite understands the culture,” Cohn said. “There are probably a lot of Isaiah Rashad and Vince Staples fans that think it’s incredible that Sprite has embraced these guys who aren’t Drake yet in their careers. I think that means a lot to people.”

The four videos, each between two and four minutes long, comprise footage cut from master interviews The Fader team did with each of the artists, as well as B-roll the team shot while spending a day or two following the rappers. The topics covered in the final product were the result of what both Cohn and Patel called a “tedious” back-and-forth process between Sprite and the artists, one that landed on the rappers dispensing words of wisdom and anecdotes about their climbs to the top. Viewers learn that Drake was encouraged to rap by his father and that Nas rearranged his boyhood bedroom to look like a business office.

In order to preserve the authenticity of the finished product, The Fader uses the same production team for its branded content as for its editorial work.

“We don’t separate it because the sweet spot for branded content is to do the stuff that you’d want to do anyway and do it with a brand, and I think having separate teams creates a divide in the voice of the stories we tell,” Cohn said. “We actually like having The Fader voice in all of the branded content that we do.”

The videos were distributed on The Fader’s website and social channels, as well as those of Sprite and the artists involved. Each artist shared his video more times than he was contractually obligated to, a spokesperson noted. The Fader also native ads on Facebook and YouTube.

So far, The Fader is happy with the response it has gotten from fans. Cohn describes the video series as “the most successful content-driven campaign we’ve ever done,” a fact he attributes in part to the fact that the mega-popular Drake has done limited media appearances since the release of a mixtape earlier this year.

Though the videos have generated nearly 200 million press impressions, Cohn appears to be most proud of how true The Fader stayed to its brand in creating a series of sponsored videos.

“This content has fit easily into the natural voice of Fader, and our audience has eaten it all up. We’ve done some branded things in the past where you’ll see some comments underneath like, ‘This is too much of a commercial,'” Cohn said. “The sentiment about this program has been overwhelmingly positive, and I think that for us, that’s really why we would categorize this as one of our most successful things.”

Indeed, the hip-hop audience has always placed a premium on authenticity, and the name of the game is no different for the brands and publishers hoping to win its support.

Image by Sprite / The Fader

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