Sound bite: the power of a daring music choice


Every once in a while you come across a shop with a more daring approach to the shopping experience. Doing something unexpected can really set you apart from the mass of competitors. Let’s look at a great example I ran into recently.

The shop I will be discussing today specializes in gifts and cookware. Everything from cutlery to little herb plants and from pots and pans to coasters. All the stores of this small chain are consistently styled with natural materials and a focus on simplicity and serenity.

A traditional and safe approach to the instore music would be to play pop music since we are dealing with a rather broad target audience. An emphasis on acoustical instruments could be made to reflect the organic feel of the formula. As my regular readers already know, I am not a big fan of this conservative approach. It is a surefire way to create an uninteresting environment that is exactly the same as the neighbor’s.

So this is right up my alley: this shop has gone for subtle classical music. I recorded the audiofile below to give you an idea of the atmosphere that is the result of this music choice. Note that the music is simply a subtle background element.

Upon entering the shop you immediately feel “this is someting else”. All the natural colors and complete lack of blatant signage and promotion materials blend perfectly with the serene classical music. Almost as if this shop is not participating in the traditional seduction game of shopper marketing. But it is. Capably. This particular retailer takes it to the next level by selling CD’s with their favorite classical music to move the instore experience to the customer’s personal audio system in the home environment.

Being distinct and different is not easy in a market where everyone is trying to be. It requires strategic thinking and extreme consistency across your outings. And courage to be bold.

Classical music, particularly, is very scary to most retailers. I found in my daily practice that there is a strong misconception that it will scare off young customers, that it will bore personnel and that it will make the formula seem old fashioned and dull. Recent developments of shopping malls implementing classical music to scare off young troublemakers are not helping its reputation.

If we look at the research though, we find classical music has a strong influence on quality perception and willingness to spend money. Spaces are rated as being more up-market and classy when classical music is playing. A famous study showed that people are willing to pay significantly more money for products in an atmosphere of classical music, compared to silence and pop music. The products and the atmosphere feel more luxurious and trigger the preparedness to spend more. The perceived value of products goes up.

That is, obviously, not to say that all shops should switch to classical music straight away. As with all facets of formula management it all depends on context and congruency across the outings. At the simplest of levels: a discounter will not benefit from a high price and quality perception. An haute couture tailor probably would.

This cookware shop managed to match the organic and natural feel of the products to a high quality atmosphere of serene classical music. The combination puts a strong emphasis on the sustainable, organic nature of the products. It also refers to the moment of usage. The high quality classical music is reminiscent of lush dinners and implies: “you deserve quality materials for your cooking”.

The reserved reaction of retailers to a more distinct musical backdrop comes from the audience-selecting qualities of music. Music tells people who is welcome and who is not. Loud dance music in fashion stores is used to let people know it is young trendy people they are targeting. What is cooler for a teenager than a shop that clearly states “not for old folks”?

This is why shops with very broad target audiences usually go for conservative music choices that are sure not to insult anyone. No one will feel particularly drawn to such common music, but no one will be put off either. Safe choice.

I usually propagate against this approach. The resulting atmosphere is usually so common and ordinary that the function of music as a brand outing is lost. Rather, search for music that really reflects your brand values and underlines what you stand for. This way, you fully utilize another channel through which you can communicate with your audience.

The positive effects of this approach outweigh the negative effects of playing music that is perhaps not your customer’s personal favorite.

It all comes down to your individual goals. Do you want to loved by some, or liked by most?

Thomas van Straaten
Instore Media Consultant

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