How And When Brands Should Tap Into The Musical Zeitgeist

Now more than ever, music in advertising has the power to both inform and respond to the cultural zeitgeist in real time.

Spotify offers brands real-time data information about the listening preferences of its users, while social media allows brand/artist collaborations to target very specific demographics using certain types of music.

This is all part of the rise of sonic branding, sparked by the growth in voice-activated tech and AI. Voice shopping alone is set to hit $40 billion by 2022, according to global consultancy firm OC&C.

Where brands have traditionally focused on logos and color palettes, they’re now tapping into the ability of sound to make an even quicker and longer lasting impact.

Think of the power of songs to make us feel just about any emotion, and then think of how instantly brands like Intel, McDonald's and NBC permanently imprint themselves on our consciousness within a couple of seconds of music. After all, “brands with music that fit their brand identity are 96% more likely to be recalled than those with non-fit music or no music at all,” according research carried out at the University of Leicester, U.K.



When considering their sonic options, a lot of brands understandably want to link to what’s the most relevant right now by associating their brand with the most famous artists. This often involves licensing and sync, but there can be big challenges here. For example, a large beauty company might want to secure the latest Beyoncé song — but either the song becomes an expensive addition to the campaign or it ends up being an inexpensive stock piece. Any chance at creating lasting value for the brand is lost.

Similarly, blindly tapping a musical zeitgeist without giving it deeper thought could easily backfire. Hip-hop or mumble rap might be super-trendy if you’re looking to reach 18- to 25-year-olds right now, and might get you a spike in new users, but it might also result in a drop-off of your existing loyal audience. Meanwhile, the same demographic might fall out of love with that genre six months down the line.

A more effective approach to using sound in the most culturally relevant way is to spend time figuring out a clear direction for how your brand should sound in and of itself, and then make it flexible enough to tap into other genres and artists.

Love it or hate it, McDonald’s is great at this. Its iconic 5-note musical mnemonic is featured in every ad it creates, and it’s also able to partner with artists like Justin Timberlake. A reskinned version allows the music to be adapted to reap the benefits of linking to relevant artists but it’s still uniquely and recognizably McDonald’s. Simply licensing one of JT’s songs would have been at the expense of McDonald’s own sonic brand expression.

Apple has created lasting impact through sound without using a mnemonic but by creating a strong musical aesthetic, to the point that people can easily recognize what an Apple sound is. Overall, Coca-Cola has developed a musical aesthetic, but refreshes it a bit too often, missing an opportunity to fully capitalize on long-term impact.

In short, brands need to have their own recognizable sonic identity with an inbuilt malleability that can be sculpted around the musical zeitgeist without losing its core integrity.

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