The Importance of Music in Brand Recollection

Oh hi, were you looking for a fun internet K-hole to fall into, forever? Then pull up any commercial with memorable music–can be good or terrible–and scroll through the comments.

just Shazam it, bruh

Asking “What’s the name of the song?” has become so common a question on video hosting sites that there’s a running joke answer: “Darude Sandstorm,” a troll meme from ten years ago that’s still going strong. Websites like Find that Song and apps like Soundhound cater to the person who thinks I need this song in my life! which turns out to be, well, everyone. From launching music careers and reviving old hits to inspiring full-length fan remixes (check out the comments on that one, phew), it’s clear that commercial music has the power to elevate a 30-second spot beyond a mere sales tool and, if YouTube counters are anything to go by, initiate repeat viewings.

But just how effectively can music keep a company front-of-mind? If the audience remembers the soundtrack instead of the message, the commercial is merely a vehicle for another brand. How can companies ensure that the means don’t overshadow the ends?

According to Psychology Today, music increases cognitive load, potentially decreasing a user’s level of engagement in the message. In the way that background noise can reduce the ability to focus on a task, says royalty-free music blog Music for Makers, “when an ad features music, the audience must work harder to identify and remember the key message.” It would seem ill-advised, then, to introduce another element to your branding; after all, shouldn’t the emphasis stay on the product?

Consider the popularity of the commercial jingle. A catchy tune’s undeniable power has been used to sell goods and services since the 1920s, when Oldsmobile capitalized on the popularity of the 1905 tune “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” by Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan. Ten years later, advertisers circumvented a strict rule prohibiting direct advertising during prime-time radio hours by running original jingles that merely mentioned, not explicitly sold, a product or brand in the context of a song. Designed to stick in the listener’s memory, jingles use repetition and rhyme to ensure that, should a consumer should feel ambivalent about two similar brands, they’d subconsciously choose the one with the soundtrack more easily recalled.

Neurologists later discovered that music eliciting a strong emotional recollection in the audience was difficult to forget, leading to the initially controversial practice of using commercially licensed pop songs in advertising. After all, isn’t it easier to forge a connection through shared emotional or cultural experience, rather than build a relationship with the customer from scratch? (Also, like jingles, pop songs often contain earworms, or easily memorable hooks contained within a generic melody.) The 1968 Beatles hit “Revolution” in Nike’s 1987 sneaker campaign paved the way for established musical artists and advertising agencies to work together (despite the fact that the Beatles never consented to the use of their music in advertising). Over the years, the concept of “selling out” weakened and musicians began to consider advertising another venue for their work.

Just how valuable is the right music–pop, jingle or other–in the context of a commercial? According to researchers from North Carolina State University who analyzed 50 years of hit songs, added emotional depth can drive advertising impact and recall. Marcomm’s blog Ebiquity explains it further:

For evolutionary reasons, the brain encodes emotional memories more deeply, and memories formed with a relevant, resonant musical component are stored as emotional memories. This means that ads with suitable music are more likely to be remembered and acted upon.

The key, then, is to align your music to the message so that the two won’t compete. Studies have shown psychological appeals resonate more with consumers than functional appeals: If your message and soundtrack congruently induce positive vibes, your audience will associate those warm feelings with your brand, even if viewers don’t necessarily remember all of the individual features your product offers.

The addition of music to a commercial is also a good way to connect with a consumer who might not otherwise hear your message, a key tenet of advertising for more than a hundred years. Says a 1904 article in the Atlantic, not everyone receives information in the same way, and a tactical variety of media will influence the viewer on a level that a purely informational ad won’t.

A person can be appealed to most easily and most effectively through his dominating imagery. Thus one who has visual images that are very clear and distinct appreciates descriptions of scenes. The one who has strong auditory imagery delights in having auditory images awakened.

The style of the music, meanwhile, affects the audience’s impression of the brand or product being advertised. A study in Science Daily concluded that when a commercial’s backing track was faster with a “greater musical range,” subjects saw the brand as “more energetic, sporty, exciting, refreshing, young and fun.” On the contrary, when the same viewers watched the commercial with music that had “less tonality and a slower tempo,” they found the brand to be “more delicate, soft, relaxing, mature, natural and healthy.”

The music, to a large extent, was what made the brand “identifiable in the mind of the buyer;” familiarity that may make the difference between your product being purchased over a less recognizable brand. A study on background music in Psychological Science found that after priming students with a combination of luxury images (palaces, racehorses, etc.) with classical music, they were willing to pay more for social identity products. More interestingly, subjects who only had 5 seconds to decide on a price were willing to pay more than those who had a minute, suggesting consumers equally “primed” with a commercial would pay more in “real world conditions” like being mentally taxed.

Music may seem like a second thought for many clients and their agencies, but it’s a great way to keep a product front-of-mind for many consumers, including those who wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention to their screens. The key lies in using research to choose or create the correct song for the product, rather than randomly selecting a piece of music that fits at that particular moment. The proper soundtrack can align a client’s brand with the right emotions and shared references, ensuring that the viewer will choose the more memorable company the next time he or she is in the market.

A final note: Say you’ve created the perfect song for your commercial, have gotten licensing approval and everyone’s giving you kudos on your fabulous taste. What next? Please release the song in its entirety! Don’t let your brand be pilloried for not releasing a full-length version, as these comments will live online forever, waiting to be read by anyone looking to lose themselves in an internet K-hole.

I think we all know where “Audy” works …