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Stop Tuning Out: The Right Music Will Get Your Audience to Listen

By Lindsay Cottman

“Where words fail, sounds can often speak.” Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen was on to something when he penned this oft-misquoted line, and the sentiment still rings true over one hundred and fifty years later.  

Anyone who has experienced the raw power of music understands how a single note can speak to audiences of any race, gender, or creed. Brands have employed the art of song to tell their stories since the advent of radio, but it would be a mistake to confuse omnipresence with value: only a handful have been able to tap into music as the an effective medium for connecting with consumers. 

Sound is the human sense most closely connected with emotion, and music is more effective than almost any other sound at triggering an emotional response. Even people from divergent backgrounds and cultures often agree on whether a specific song is happy or sad, giving credence to the adage that music is a “universal language.” Though music’s ability to conjure images and memories is not completely understood, it is known to involve a complex harmony of brain activity.

The end result is a transcendent sensory experience that taps into the depths of a listener’s emotional core. It is a surprise that for most brands music is merely a tool of entertainment: used correctly, it’s a powerful way to associate raw feeling with a company in a way other content cannot. 

Jingle, Jingle, Jingle 

Despite Mr. Anderson’s aphorism, the first music marketing was driven by words. General Mills is credited with airing the first jingle for its Wheaties breakfast cereal, containing the not so subtle lyrics “Wheaties — the best breakfast food in the land!” The resulting spike in sales was a testament to the power of music to move audiences, and other brands quickly followed suit. 

Tight restrictions on advertising during the radio era meant jingles were an effective way to infiltrate the homes of consumers by mentioning products without explicitly advertising them. Anyone who’s baloney had a first name (O-S-C-A-R) knows how efficient this approach could be. Jingles validated the power of music in marketing, but were hampered by virtue of being music outside the mainstream. Jingles were an overt means of pushing products, but advertisers saw potential: the use of mainstream music in marketing for a more subtle, lasting effect on listeners. 

Popular music’s proliferation in advertising coincided with the demise of the jingle. The anti-consumerism of the 1960’s and 1970’s took its toll, but Michael Jackson’s 1984 Pepsi campaign, which included a lyrical re-write of his hit “Billie Jean,” was the watershed moment of a fundamental shift in how pop culture and product promotion coalesce. Since the 1980’s, thousands of artists have leveraged their original songs for commercial use. What brands have gained in cultural relevance, though, they have often surrendered in cachet: just because a song is popular, doesn’t mean it aligns with the story a brand seeks to communicate. 

Up Close and Personal 

Apple has always placed sound, and music specifically, at the forefront of its strategies to connect with customers. The iPod, and a distinct devotion to music, was the catalyst for Apple’s legendary comeback – and that heritage has persisted through the HomePod, a product whose major competitive edge is superior sound quality. 

Anyone who lived through the 2000’s recalls the ubiquitous iPod commercial series featuring people in silhouette, dancing to raucous indie rock hits, including the Ting Tings’ infectious “Shut Up and Let Me Go” and Jet’s breakout hit, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.” These ads perfectly accompanied their visual imagery, and conveyed the freedom experienced by the iPod’s ability to deliver music on the go. The songs were culturally relevant — but also well curated. 

Apple’s most recent campaign celebrating marriage equality in Australia is a heartfelt homage to love itself. Four different spots feature real couples enjoying the first dance at their weddings, with each video set to Courtney Barnett’s cover of “Never Tear Us Apart” by the acclaimed Australian band INXS. The fact that the videos were shot on an iPhone X is almost an afterthought — Courtney Barnett’s pared down version of the original ballad lends an intimacy to the images captured on screen; viewers are meant to feel like they’re part of this special event, and a sense of warmth and affection permeates each short clip.  

By using music to tell the story of its customer, and letting the product fade into the background, Apple successfully transforms a basic smart phone commercial into an endearing celebration of love.  Leveraging the power of song to connect with an audience not only creates a memorable experience, it proactively and intentionally shapes the ways in which consumers identify with brands 

Messaging is Everything 

Just as music can elevate a brand experience, it also has the potential to muddle the message. Many businesses seem to select songs based strictly on their popularity — just because The Beatles remain global icons doesn’t mean their groundbreaking hit about revolution is the right fit for peddling sneakers. In fact, the more popular a song is the more likely fans are to appreciate its true message — exposing any dissonance with the brand co-opting it.  

Countless examples highlight this mismatch between brands and the musicians they choose to represent them. Janice Joplin’s 1970 blues anthem “Mercedes-Benz” about the illusory happiness promised (and rarely delivered) by the pursuit of worldly possessions was a blatant rejection of consumerist culture. That didn’t stop Mercedes from using the tune in a commercial years after Joplin’s death. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines made a similar mistake in selecting Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” a song about illegal drug use, which they paired with footage of jubilant vacationers snorkeling and horseback riding on the beach.  

Even Apple has erred in this regard. In 2014, they took their obsession with music a step too far, and automatically downloaded the U2 album Songs of Innocence onto every iPhone around the world. This force-feeding offended users in a way beyond the music itself: it undercut the emotion Apple had long associated with music and its brand (and even specifically U2). It’s a reminder of how music makes consumers feel like nothing else: there are no such protests with the release of each new pre-installed app in the latest iOS. 

Make Music a Priority, Not an Afterthought 

Integrating music into effective branding isn’t hard — it just requires thought. Selecting music based on what its lyrics may appear to communicate is the most frequent offense; don’t take an industry known for irony at its word. Instead, look to music’s resonance to a brand’s hero, and the way it makes individuals feel (regardless of lyrical content). 

Mastercard creatively used this litmus test to seize the hearts and minds of its audience. The “Start Something Priceless” campaign showcases real people whose relationships for whatever reason have deteriorated over a period of years, and brings them together in an enclosed “Listening Room” where they face each other, and the music. Each pair of listeners dons headphones playing a specially composed piece of music, and as the song unravels, the couples are quickly overcome with emotion. A mother-daughter duo both shed tears before embracing as the glass divide between them is lowered, signifying the dawn of a new day, and the start of a new conversation.  

Considering music as core in this instance paid dividends for Mastercard. Had it been treated as an afterthought they never would have been able to truly capture an authentic sound that resonated with consumers, and likely would have totally missed the mark. 

The marketing trends of the moment may be pushing more and more brands toward video and other multimedia formats, but overlooking sound as the central component is a missing the point. Music isn’t the backdrop to a good campaign, rather it’s a potent tool that, when used judiciously, can seep into an audience’s subconscious. In a world where consumers are over stimulated, brands looking for an emotional connection shouldn’t try to cut through the noise — the noise is where they want to be.

Lindsay Cottman is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.