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Brand Strategy   |   Marketing Communications


Masterpiece in 30 Seconds: Music in Advertising

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Can music make or shape a brand? How does music help consumers feel a certain way about a product? To get more perspective on the topic, I interviewed two successful music composers who work with advertisers on a regular basis.

Peter Rundquist is a New York-based composer who has worked with brands including Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, Taco Bell, BMW, Weight Watchers and Ramey client, University of Mississippi Medical Center. Peter also composed scores for the PBS show Custer’s Last Stand and the award-winning documentary Buck.

Alva Leigh is a singer/songwriter who started in Mississippi, stopped in Nashville and now resides in London. Alva’s original songs have appeared in advertising for Mississippi Gulf Coast Tourism and Pandora, and she has also collaborated on an original score for national shopping mall chain CBL & Associates Properties.

How do you think music can make an ad?

Alva: By associating a product with a song, you convey a mood, an emotion, and an earworm. If that song stays with you, the product stays with you. But instead of the song forcing its way in (like an annoying jingle), you feel like you can choose to let it stay because you like the song, and you begin to wonder if you’d like the product.

Peter: Put any piece of music against any piece of film – shake it, stir it, and try it again. Information brushes, collides, and infuses with other information. The results are startling and infinite.

What makes a piece of music memorable?

Peter: Really great compositions – it could be a minimalist electronic piece or a full-blown orchestral composition with large choral accompaniment. Behind every piece of music, there must be a thought process – an artistic intent. That is when the emotion and the intellect of the piece reveal themselves. Music is sound. The ear really doesn’t have a “point of view,” does it?

Alva: When the melody and the rhythm really work in sync – whether it’s an emotional waltz or a poppy jumping around-even an intense, focused dub step thing can work sometimes. I think there has to be a good melody, and the rhythm and instrumentation has to flesh it out to make it truly memorable.

What brands do you think effectively use music in their advertising?

Alva: The UK actually takes a different approach and uses way more emotive, moody music in their ads. An example is the John Lewis 2012 Christmas Campaign. I remember walking into the other room just to see what was going on. There was hardly any spoken word, and the song was mixed so loud. The song illustrated the holiday spirit in an innocent and sentimental way. It felt fresh to me.

I really loved this IKEA advert that aired in the UK – so fun, child-like. The music was so clever, and you felt like a kid every time you listened to it.

The ad for the Google Chromebook is another example of a song that makes you feel happy – sets the mood, and the tempo really moves it forward. The punk vibe plays into the rogue idea of the product – a laptop for $249! That is crazy. The home video footage gives it that DIY feel, and the song just adds to that, but you bob your head and can’t look away – every time it comes on!

Peter: I guess it depends on the definition of “effective”. When Cadillac paid buckets of money for Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” or Nike used the Beatles “Revolution,” it made for incredibly shocking and memorable television. Everyone talked it about for weeks, but did it sell product? I think “effective” should mean “lasting”; that is to say, leaving an impression that moves the recipient to the point of emotion and creates an indelible memory. The alternative approach is shock value, loud short bursts, high intensity, and high volume. That flame burns bright and hot but doesn’t last long.

Is there a specific ad or brand that immediately comes to mind when you think about music in advertising?

Peter: The old jingles from the TV adverts of my youth – those sonic hooks are set deeply in our brains. It seems every generation has its own. Lately, the lines have blurred quite a bit with the recording industries’ use of advertising as a means to promote artists. It seems the “new jingles” come from pop music and are no long specifically written for the medium. Of late, Apple seems to have been very successful in marrying the latest pop songs with new products.

Alva: I think electronic brands do the most interesting ads – Apple, Sony, Google, etc. They push the boundaries and sell products in a more emotional and organic way. I’m not being told to buy something. I’m shown that other people just like me think it’s a good idea, too.

Describe the process you go through when you’re writing music for advertising.

Alva: You have to identify the atmosphere of the ad and what the company wants to portray for the product. Then you have to communicate the goals of the campaign in the lyrics at an angle. The song cannot sell the product. The song supports the campaign that sells the product by building the right kind of atmosphere and inviting the viewer in.

Peter: Composing for an advert involves organization, communication, and clarity. Oh yeah, and then there is the whole music theory and production knowledge base that has to be part of the composer’s arsenal. My point is this – it’s about the whole toolbox. It’s about understanding the composition and production of music on a multilayered and multidimensional playing field.

How is writing music for advertising different from your other songwriting?

Peter: The very minute music is created for picture, it becomes a slave to that medium. Music must serve its new master, the film itself, and ultimately the story that film is trying to convey.

Alva: You usually don’t write complicated songs: no multilayered metaphors, key-, or time- signature changes, etc. They have to be immediately accessible and open-ended. The production has to be unique but clean and professional. However, there are some interesting companies that push boundaries and use more stylistic, independent music for ads. I almost always like it when companies use an independent song that wasn’t written for an ad – there is something more organic about that sales pitch to me. Apple has done that well. It humanizes the company and makes the consumer feel less manipulated. It’s effective in a different kind of way.

Describe the moment when you are in the studio writing, and you realize the finished product is good. How do you know it’s good?

Alva: It’s a fantastic feeling – very exciting. I think in the advertising realm, you know by association what songs will work and what songs won’t work. You know when it sounds like something you’ve heard on TV. When I’m writing songs as an artist, it’s a different process. It’s more personal.

Peter: Instinct – I know it’s good when the process is quick and surgical. Great art is rarely a struggle. The struggle lives in the wreckage of all the failures that led to that great moment of creative bliss.

What is your most treasured piece of music you have ever used in advertising, and what brand was it for?

Alva: When my song “Skyline” was used in the Mississippi Gulf Coast tourism ad, I was so happy to help out the coast after the BP oil spill, and it was really great exposure for my music.

Peter: I save the treasured ones for myself. That separation keeps the muse very happy.

The movement, dynamics, and overall composition of music plays a vital role in delivering an emotion to advertising and the story it’s telling. Whether targeting a young audience with a progressive indie track or a mature audience with an emotionally compelling score, music selections should be chosen with intentionality and purpose.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
– Aldous Huxley
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Erick Evans, Account Executive at The Ramey Agency.

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