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On the right track

During the course of a recent ethnographic study for a manufacturer of high end music systems, I started thinking about music and the role it plays in our lives, as well as how it may affect our perception of brands.

Everyone we spoke to in that study told us of its prime importance in their lives, whether as a background to household chores, work, relaxation or entertaining. People play music to match their mood, or often to change their mood, or just to ‘fill the space’.

Music affects us in different ways, and taps into the dialogue between instinct and intelligence, System 1 and System 2 types of thinking. The effects of music permeate our whole being; at a physiological level it can affect our heart rate and brain waves, as well as our breathing. It can be soothing or put us on edge. At a psychological level, music can have an impact on our state of mind, making us feel happy or sad, or even change our mood and how we feel. A recent study from the universities of Kent and Limerick showed that when people are feeling down, listening to ‘beautiful but sad’ music can actually enhance their mood and boost their emotional well-being.

Music can, therefore, be a powerful communications tool, a universal language which transcends borders and cultural barriers, and this is increasingly important in the context of global brands and advertising. Academic literature shows that the right song or soundtrack can increase attention, making an ad more likely to be noticed, viewed and understood.

It can enhance enjoyment and emotional response, aid memorability and recall, induce a positive mood, and create positive associations between brands and popular tunes. It can build on core messages, influence intention and likelihood to buy and increase sales. The brain encodes emotional memories more deeply, and memories formed with a resonant musical component are, therefore, likely to be stored as emotional memories, and potentially subsequently acted upon.

Any old music won’t do, however, and there are many watch-outs in choosing the right one for your brand or ad. Clients may be keen to align themselves with a new artist or current chart climber, to bask in the reflected glory of a popular singer or band, and thereby come across as cutting edge. The obvious risk here is that it’s the track and not the brand that people remember, and so likeability per se isn’t enough; the music needs to enhance communication, rather than overpower it. M&S has done this well in its recent ads, using Uptown Funk as a backdrop to give the brand an upbeat, edgy vibe; Microsoft’s use of Clean Bandit in its Cortana ad, on the other hand, is positively toe-curling.

Memorability is important, and great music can help build that; but connecting at an emotional level and communicating information are also vital ingredients that will lead to sales or shifting perceptions. There’s a spin-off benefit, too, with the rise of social media in finding the right match for your brand and audience. When people hear a piece of music they like, they share the content that’s associated with it, and can in their turn become brand advocates.

There are many examples where the brand has ‘got it right’ either by picking the right soundtrack or song. Air on the G string is forever associated with Hamlet cigars; British Airways and Lakmé is a match most brands only dream of creating; the recent iPad ad with Alabama Shakes is also a good fit. The music doesn’t even necessarily have to be cool, new or indie to work across a broad target audience — think of the iconic Levi’s Launderette ad from 1985 with Marvyn Gaye’s I heard it through the grapevine, a song which was 20 years old even then, and became so popular that it re-entered the charts.

So why is the soundtrack often decided once a new campaign has been agreed, playing little or no role in the careful research process that goes on in the development of the rest of the ad? There are of course often pressing reasons for deciding on the music only at the end — not least the client’s budget. However, given its integral role in conveying or reinforcing a message, or gaining emotional engagement and connection, it seems a nonsense that it should play little or no part in the research.

All of this has implications for us as researchers, given that music can make or break an ad. There are two issues here: firstly, how can we research music in a way that goes beyond the superficial and simplistic; and secondly how can we overcome the reluctance on the part of the agency to allow the music to be researched? Music, by its very nature, is highly subjective and difficult to research, because it operates on System 1.

Creatives will say that choosing the right track is intuitive, and they are right up to a point. There is an art to choosing music congruent with and appropriate for the brand, and which aligns with brand values and visual communication. It is, however, much tougher to second guess what a particular target audience will appreciate nowadays, given the streaming revolution which has led to more eclectic tastes.

So should we push the agency/client for at least some notion of the music that will be used? And reassure the creative team that we’ll be analysing and interpreting responses to the music in an ad-literate way as part of the broader picture? I’m a fan of drawn responses/psycho-drawing in creative development, a simple technique which can bring out responses to elements of the mix like music which operate on System 1, going way beyond rational likes and dislikes. But it needs to become a more prominent part of the creative development process. How do other researchers deal with this important issue? Answers on a postcard (or @AQRUK), please!

 

Fiona Jack
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