How important is music in building a brand? What drives creative decisions around music in advertising? How does sound shape consumer perception and influence behavior? What role does research and measurement play in evaluating audio choices – and return on investment?
As an audio brand consultancy, these are questions we wrestle with every day, in pursuit of better ways of helping our clients harness the power of sound to engage consumers, increase awareness and drive purchase intent. In 2010, Uli Reese and I decided it was time to turn those questions outward, hoping to benefit from the insights and experiences of key influencers in the worlds of branding and advertising.
Armed with a digital recorder and a passion for discovery, Uli set out on a mission to engage industry leaders in honest conversations about music and advertising. Those conversations were ultimately compiled into a book that contains over 400 pages of candid interviews: “101 Great Minds on Music, Brands and Behavior.”
As we connected the dots, we learned a few things along the way.
“It’s hard to overestimate how important music is. It can transform a message” – Sir John Hegarty, Founder, Creative, BBH
“Music, like smell, evokes more emotions than vision. It’s almost instant recall. And those things are incredibly powerful when you’re creating a brand or working with brands” – James Hilton, Co-Founder, AKQA
“Music is so important. But it’s still a very underdeveloped theme in our industry.” – André Kemper, Founder, Antoni
“Music is possibly one of the most underused and yet most powerful forces at our disposal.” – Andy Payne, Global CCO, Interbrand, London
It’s clear that all these movers and shakers share a profound confidence in the power of music to engage consumers, impact behavior, and enhance brand identity. They recognize that buying decisions happen at an implicit level, and that music is one of the most powerful implicit emotional drivers at their disposal. They understand that music is a tool that allows brands to communicate across cultures, trigger memories, strengthen brand associations, and build top-of-mind awareness in a marketplace that offers a dizzying array of consumer touch points. In the end, each of these one hundred and one great minds are resolute in their belief that music (and more broadly, audio branding) plays a fundamental role in shaping consumer perceptions and communicating brand intent.
But dig a little deeper, and many seem to wrestle with turning these beliefs into an actionable strategy that produces measurable results. Often that struggle is systemic, baked into agency paradigms that divide the world into categories of strategists and creatives. Time and resources are devoted to visual and verbal communication first, relegating music to a last minute decision driven more by campaign centric executions rather than brand centric strategies.
Testing itself is a polarizing concept, with some insistent that testing should inform creative decisions, while others are certain that it only gets in the way of creative expression. When it comes to ROI, there are problems in assessing the monetary value of a piece of music and justifying the associated costs. Discipline in consistently applying audio standards can be a challenge, particularly within corporate structures where key decision makers, agency partners and brand managers may all have varying opinions, preferences, and goals.
So where do we go from here?
Here are four suggestions we think can help:
1. Change the way we think about music. Historically, music has been relegated to the world of the creative director. In this context, there is a preoccupation with execution: write a brief, gather demos or tracks from third party vendors or artists, have editors throw something against picture, then pick a winner. Approached this way, music is often the last consideration, with the decision making process suffering from constraints of time and budget.
Instead, we should consider music from a process perspective. That process begins with understanding brand intent, moving through the stages of discovery, design, creation, evaluation, implementation and management. Our music choices should be intentional, based on a clearly defined strategy, designed to align brand intent with consumer perception. Ultimately, music is a reflection of the brand itself: congruent, distinct, recognizable, likable and ownable.
2. Recognize that testing is not the enemy of creativity. Rather, inadequate testing (and improper data analysis) is the enemy of creativity. When it comes to measuring the impact of music on brand messaging, most brands limit their exploration to likability/preference metrics. While likability is an important consideration, it tells you nothing about congruency, recognizability, consensus meaning, free associations, or explicit/implicit emotional drivers, all of which are measures that can offer valuable insights into the development and optimization of a brand’s sonic identity.
“A lot of musical choices in advertising are about gut feeling – but I’d love to know scientifically a little bit more about how that works.” – Mike Sheldon, CEO, Deutsch North America
Even with adequate testing, there’s another hurdle: confirmation bias on the part of the stakeholders. In a recent study by The Economist, 90% of the executives surveyed said they based their decisions on data analysis, testing, and collaborative discussion. Yet in the same survey, 9 out of 10 of these executives would find a way to disregard the data if it disagreed with their intuition. Bottomline: It’s not enough to gather the data. We need to incorporate it into our decision making process.
3. Measure returns, but move beyond ROI. There exists little to no research dedicated to applied econometrics and predictive analytics that help us determine the value of music in the context of branding/advertising. In the absence of any clear methodology, brands and their agencies are left without any formula for determining costs or returns for music and sound assets. As a result, cost controllers at agencies and brands are at a clear disadvantage when negotiating costs or understanding how to leverage and collateralize potential audio assets. On the other side, copyright holders and content creators have little ability to demonstrate returns and simply determine the price of creating or procuring music based on whatever they think the market will bear.
The traditional approach to calculating ROI may not be the most effective measure. While ROI may offer a short-term measure of the value of music in a specific campaign, other measures like ROE2 (Return on Experience X Engagement) could offer a more holistic reflection of a consumers’ total experience with the brand and a better indication of the value of music over time. Dr. Scheier’s recommendation of considering audio as a KPI could further integrate music and sound into the brand management as a whole.
“It’s not about the right sound or the right piece of music. It is about the strategic question: What should my brand sound like? Which is a completely different thing” – Amir Kassaei, CCO, DDB Worldwide
4. Move beyond engagement and focus on behavioral outcomes. With all the talk of music’s power to engage us emotionally, we should take care not to think of emotional engagement as an end in itself. Behavioral goals and habit formation are measurable outcomes that can bridge the gap between brand intention and consumer response. Music can make us feel. It can also make us act. We should be strategic and intentional in making decisions about music that does both.
So here we are, 101 great minds later, standing at the intersection of audio and advertising. Hopefully, these conversations will lead us think of music as both tactical tool and strategic weapon. As audio branding specialists, we’re a bit like alchemists, combining empirical methodologies with well developed creative instincts. It’s a blend of art and science that, when done well, looks like magic.
Even when it’s not.
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of Transform Magazine.