Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Branded sounds

Sounds are part of any experience, and music has become integral to retail shopping. Piped-in music is not always brand-enhancing, however. Look for shampoo at CVS pharmacies and you’ll suffer a musical assault that will drive you to the aspirin.

Zabar’s café in Manhattan has played Beethoven’s violin concerto over and over for (get this) years. There used to be occasional bursts of cheeriness from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik – but the Beethoven now predominates. Did the Zabar family discover that people crave more bagels and coffee while Beethoven drones in the background? Do lox-shoppers drool more in D major (the Beethoven) instead of G major (which dominates in the Mozart)? I wonder if they ever experimented with Vivaldi? Wouldn’t that help push the olive oil?

I heard recently that Abercrombie & Fitch cranks up the volume to drive older folks from their spaces – and the music ain’t classical. A new hotel experience is enhanced by mellow acoustic guitar. New York’s cavernous, intimidating Port Authority Bus Terminal pipes in sophisticated cadences of Bach – giving the place the dissonant feel of sipping champagne while strolling on I-95. Sit on a plane being boarded these days and you’ll hear some truly abrasive sounds – not Latin, not rock, not classical, not jazz, not anything. Not even elevator music. It’s just an expression of the airline’s need to fill the metal tube with noise so that passengers feel that they have a host, albeit one with the taste of a 4-year-old.

Marketers and brand consultants will be able to run the kind of data analysis on music’s effect that direct marketers have perfected in mailed solicitations. But first they can try to match the environmental sounds with their intended image of the brand. My rules?

1 – Start with your brand’s attributes. If you are associated with low-key healthy living, gangsta rap is not for you. If your store is a clearinghouse for international clothes, dare to bring in sounds from around the world. India, Brazil, Ireland – human culture has produced rich and powerful sounds. Being unfamiliar is not bad.

2 – Think of your target audience. If you cater to weary business travelers, bring in music that helps them relax. Why not the music of lapping waves and tweeting birds?

3 – Spell out what the music is supposed to do. If you want customers to come in and browse, find music that might enhance contemplation. If you want to induce the folks to buy aspirin, take a recorder to CVS and pick up some ideas.

Whatever you choose, stay away from music with no edge, no distinctiveness. Music intended for everyone is the worst kind – and its impact will please no one. Worse, it will leave visitors with the impression that your brand itself is not distinctive.