Effects of Music on Brand Perception

Psychologist Daniel Mullensiefen on why music is an important part of ads and how it can influence purchase decisions

videos | August 22, 2019

The question of how music affects brand perception is a very applied question by its nature. It’s relevant for advertisers, people working in the marketing industry and also musicians or music consultants who try to sell music to brands to enhance brand perception. So there’s definitely a commercial angle to it. If you know the trick how to make a brand perceived as more interesting or more attractive with music, that would be a great achievement.

There’s a long history of using music in commercial contexts and with brands and advertising campaigns but research only started about 25 years ago. People have tried in the lab or in experimental settings to pair certain brands or products with music. The music presented with the brand does change brand perception, obviously. But not all types of music work for all products and all brands, there’s a bit more to it. So you need to know three things. You need to know the values of the brand or the positive of the brand that you want to transport, you need to know features of the music that you’re going to use and characteristics of your target audience. Only once you know who you are playing the music to, and who you are advertising to and what features the music has that may be able to transport the positive values of your brand, then putting these three things together would make for effective use of music in brand perception, in advertising.

There have been studies from the 90s that looked at musical fit, the fit between the music that’s being played and the brand that’s being advertised. They found very prominently but the better the music fits the product or the brand, the more effective it is in enhancing positive brand perception. So there’s this practical line of research in psychology where people have tried to use different music with different brands, manipulated fits, manipulated contexts.

There’s also a whole other layer of psychological research that contextualizes these investigations. It does fit within the know condiments framework of biases and heuristics of human cognition. It basically states that in many situations we don’t make rational decisions, especially in daily activities. The chewing gum we buy at the till or the shampoo that we grab quickly from the shelf aren’t decisions that we think long and hard about because we don’t have to, we don’t have the time, it’s not a big investment and there’s hardly anything that can go wrong. But especially these decisions that we make all the time where we don’t invest a lot of thinking, they are open to biases and heuristics, so they are often not rational but driven by contextual factors.

Contextual factors can be associations that we make with a specific brand or that we recognize a specific logo from previous episodes. One of these factors that can come into play is music. Music is a stimulus that is good for introducing an emotional context for almost any information that is presented with it. So if a brand or product is present with music on TV or radio or in other contexts then even though you might not be paying special attention to the music, it sets the context, it puts you in a certain mood, it gives associations, it has a style or genre or there’s a singer. If it’s popular music and you’re familiar with that style it will remind you and you will associate something with it and these associations then get remembered and committed to long-term memory. That’s very hard to suppress because we don’t have any conscious control over the associations that we commit to long-term memory. At the point where you present it again with a brand choice or the choice between different products maybe this positive association that was initially triggered by the music when we were first exposed to the brand will come up in that choice, situation, and it will have the effect that you’re a bit more likely to choose brand A than brand B just because it has been presented with music that you happen to like or that comes to your mind in that situation again.

So that’s a mechanism that describes why music is a very good candidate for enhancing brand perception and why it’s particularly useful and effective. It does creep under the radar in the sense that we can’t really suppress it and it’s often connected to an emotional way of processing which is quick and we don’t scrutinize it cognitively. That’s different to arguments that are made as part of the message. For example, if you say: ‘This car is so much more effective in its fuel consumption than other cars’, this is something that you can challenge cognitively, you can compare the information with other information and you can have your own cognitive defences against that advertising message argument. But that’s not the case with music, so if a car ad is paired with, say, music by John Lennon and you happen to like John Lennon, there’s no cognitive defence that you would build up against that or you might not even notice that there is an emotional effect of the music on brand perception.

Obviously, it’s not a silver bullet and it’s usually not massive effect sizes that would sway our opinion or purchase intent from one product to the other. There are many other biases and heuristics that influence purchasing behavior, the most important one being like “I buy the stuff that I bought last week and I was satisfied and happy with it”. But yet, especially for small consumer products that are purchased around the country all the time presenting the brand and advertising with music can make a difference to sales and it can help building up brand perception over time.

So emotional brand building is something that doesn’t pay off immediately. A brand wouldn’t notice that in their revenues next week but over time your brand might develop into a premium brand or a brand that is seen as better or more attractive or interesting than another brand if you’ve invested into brand-building in the longer term. And then you can actually sell your phone twice the price than a competitor phone that might have very similar technical qualities just because people want that brand and they’re willing to pay a much higher price than would be justified just by manufacturing price.

So, in‌ ‌the‌ ‌end, open questions are, can you identify, can you automatically identify music that would fit a brand? For example, can you search music databases with the brand profile that would return a list of candidate tracks that would fit that brand? That’s a really interesting question, and again, developments from music information retrieval might be relevant here that pick up so-called softer attributes like emotions or mood or human associations that we have with certain types of music and that we might have in a similar way with certain types of brands.

On an emotional level, the brand and music could be matched even automatically. But what is really important to evaluate is whether a particular song fits a particular brand or product. So there should always be empirical testing before a TV ad goes out or a brand decides to sign up to a new music- or audio-profile and a new sonic campaign. Even if you think a certain piece of music fits a brand you would always need to validate that with the target audience, because your target audience might have a different music taste, might have grown up in a culturally different world, be older or younger than you. It’s very hard to judge what these people make off a particular song, whether they think the association between song or music type and brand type is actually fitting and is enhancing the positive values of the brand. I think that’s why it’s very exciting, an exciting line of research to look at it in the future.

Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London
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