In my first post on this subject, I highlighted that it is the combination of authenticity and appeal that delivers brand uplift. In this post I discuss how to approach building a music strategy.
“My first encounter with Billie Holiday was as a listener not as a biographer or critic. Aged 14 I happened to spot an album ‘The Essential Billie Holiday’ and curiously listened to the voice, a strange voice that was more real and true than anything I’d ever heard before. It told of experiences so deeply felt, wailed huskily from some netherworld, that I had no choice, I had to listen to where that voice was coming from.” - Linda Lipnack Kuel
Replace ‘Billie Holiday’ above with the name of your brand and you will begin to understand the potential of getting your music strategy right.
Most brands have historically used music for marketing – to sell more stuff. There is nothing wrong with that and it can be very effective. This is what creative agencies aim to deliver. But as soon as you elevate music to being a core brand asset, i.e. a mechanism to build brand loyalty and brand value, then a different approach is needed. This is what sonic branding agencies aim to deliver.
In sonic branding this is often approached by creating a sonic logo or sonic watermark that anchors all compositions to the brand personality. This is then used (often in different keys or with different instruments) in every original track created for the brand. While this may not be the most effective approach to convey authenticity, at least it delivers a level of consistency, which is a key component of authenticity.
Once you have nailed that subconscious (implicit) emotional connection with your brand, then you have significant freedom to be creative with your music choices. Bruce Springsteen can perform ‘Born in the USA’ and the ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ back-to-back and deliver complete authenticity with both – despite the fact that the attribute brief for each song is about as diverse as they come.
Some major brands do get this and have been pursuing a strategic approach to music for some time. Shell have over 500 music compositions anchored to their core sonic identity, Mastercard are pursuing a similar strategy - but the point is that whatever the music, it has to reinforce the brand personality.
The risks and rewards of Band/Brand partnerships
When Theodore Roosevelt said: ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, he highlighted a key consideration for modern day band/brand partnerships. Who wins when a band partners with a brand?
Brands have been coupling with music artists for decades hoping that some of the coolness and pulling power of the artist will rub off on them. This is usually from a marketing perspective to drive sales/engagement – a form of influencer marketing.
When brands pursue big name music partnerships with global superstars it’s often, but not always, done to satisfy Cialdini’s law of likeability, on the assumption that if consumers like the band they’ll like the brand in the same way. The problem is that while this may drive a short term lift in sales it may be completely off brand in terms of personality. This is music marketing (for the brand and artist), not strategic sonic branding.
These partnerships are peppered with risk to the innate value of both brands. The band risks cheapening its brand by so clearly pursuing material gain - often an anathema to what built their brand in the first place, and while it may appear that the brand has less to lose, the reality is that if there is a clash between the brand and artist personality it can damage brand equity – a cool artist coupled with an uncool brand is the corporate version of dad dancing. Partnerships that are forged in the hope that the artist association will emotionally connect the brand with millions of band fans are rarely successful as the approach is built on the premise of influencer marketing, which is not an effective music strategy.
Alternatively, a brand can seek to harness the personality of a movement or group of individuals to build brand equity. Red Bull’s music academy, supporting over 1,000 unsigned artists over many years, is perhaps the best and most heroic example of this. It brilliantly tied the personality of the brand to the hopes and aspirations of idealistic musicians. The Brand was the dominant personality in the partnership, feeding off the association with the unsigned band sector rather than being in the shadow of one global megastar.
The concept has strategic integrity, and almost certainly helped to build brand equity, but it did not also deliver the desired lift in revenue because the Red Bull artists did not have a sufficient fan following to drive sales. Red Bull wanted both (increased brand equity and additional sales to the fans of the bands). Partly as a result of this, Red Bull’s music academy was shuttered in October 2019.
However, if the band genuinely adopts the product as part of their long-term image, and it resonates with their personality, then it can work. While not in the music realm, a good example is George Clooney and Nespresso. Whatever the reality, we all have no doubt that George uses a Nespresso machine for his morning caffeine hit. Nespresso’s sophisticated luxury brand positioning is perfectly aligned with George - it feels (and looks) totally authentic. This is truly a strategic brand partnership. Beyonce and Top Shop were another good example, Beyonce’s Ivy Park apparel range showed authentic brand integration and Top Shop’s core target customer base also had a huge overlap with Beyonce’s fan base.
How to start building your music strategy
So, if you want to start to treat music as a strategic brand asset, you may want to consider the following points:
If you don’t start with authenticity, then you’ll never be more than a brand that plays music (a cover-brand if you like). You must start with a clear understanding and definition of your brand personality. Fortunately, you often need look no further than the brand strategy team to find if this already exists. Whether it’s a set of core attributes, a persona or an archetype, you may already have the foundation for your authentic music personality. If it doesn’t exist, there are tools such as our own BrandMatch, which is rooted in decades of psychology/music research, that will rapidly map your personality (as defined by you) to the right music.
Remember that the wrong artist collaboration may actually diminish your brand equity - even while providing a small sales bump. So, always map the artist personality to your brand as well.
While not being blind to your competitors sonic efforts, keep focused on your core brand personality and let that be your primary benchmark and focus when creating your sonic brand.
Adopt an integrated approach to the use of music that is benchmarked to and controlled by the core brand personality. So, it’s worth auditing where music is currently used to engage stakeholders from sales and marketing to recruitment and from conferences to product or service sounds.
Start as you mean to go on by planning to protect the authenticity of your music strategy. You should create a library of all your sonic assets (anthems, logos, licensed music and other compositions) and check that all are well matched to your brand personality. Then any future music initiatives can first be searched against that library using the desired attributes for any execution in the knowledge that every track highlighted is already ‘on brand’. Any new ones under consideration should also be benchmarked against the brand personality before they become more than concepts.
Be bold, be different, experiment and test – as Billie Holiday once said:
“You can't copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you're working without any real feeling.”
Music has the potential to be your brand’s most powerful asset because music is the only one that can connect with the subconscious of the consumer with transformative effect. But your use of music must be controlled strategically if you want to minimize the risks and maximize the rewards.
It would be great if you have examples of brands that are talking the talk and walking the walk in music strategy (there are many that are still crawling). Over time, I think that this will lead to far closer collaboration between creative agencies and sonic branding agencies as brand strategists gain more control over music marketeers.