Instore music: A balance of art and science


When I tell people I approach music from a scientific point of view, I often get suspicious reactions. Music is all about emotion right? About being touched by something mysterious and artistic. Well…yes it is. And on top of that it is also extremely personal. Not the ideal playing field for a scientist then. Is it?

While all those points about the untouchable nature of music have some truth in them, it is incorrect to believe it is therefore wrong to try and understand music. To try and explain those magical qualities. Use them, consciously, to your advantage. In fact, if you are going to invest your hard earned cash in some form of commercial music for use in advertising or instore, it is absolutely crucial to know what you are doing.

Approaching music rationally is nothing new. In fact, baroque composers had a teaching that described the emotional responses different musical choices would trigger with listeners. So the emotional power of their music was well thought out and intentional, rather than the incidental result of divine inspiration alone.

This is the foundation of my field as well. If you want to trigger very specific events in the perception or behavior of your customer, you have to thoroughly understand the mechanisms at work. And for that, we need science!

By testing our hypotheses, both in laboratories and in ‘real life’, we slowly but surely gain a deeper understanding of the influence of music on our perception and behavior. This allows us to intervene in the performance of a retail space with great precision and effect. It also makes sure that any music will add to the retail formula, not detract from it.

A good scientifically supported strategic approach to instore music will enable you to really make a difference with this one medium alone. We see customers spending more time in a shop. Or less, depending on the goals of the specific retailer. We see them spend as much as 15% more money(!). We see customer satisfaction going up. All in all, there is much to be gained from this powerful medium. That is, if you know what you are doing.

Opponents of this scientific approach will often say that it is a cold and rational approach to something that should be emotional and mysterious. Such complaints usually originate from outdated ideas about retail and music. The scientifically supported strategy is only half of the equation, which is exactly why they are wrong to cling on to old fashioned methods that lead to ineffective and unpredictable results for the retailer. The other half is emotion and the magic of an experienced music connoisseur.

I currently work with music programmers who indulge themselves with the latest music of all genres, as well as the most obscure classics and niche genres. They know exactly how to entice a specific target audience by implementing subtle tweaks in craftily composed instore music channels. They supply the emotion and ‘untouchable’ feel.

The difference with the old fashioned approach is that they do so within carefully crafted strategic boundaries of my scientific approach. Basically, we first build a steady foundation. Technically perfect, to enable the architect to go bananas with his creative design. The result is not a cold, rational block, nor a ramshackle leaky piece of art. But a creatively inspiring building, on a super strong foundation.

So really, there is no conflict between art and science when it comes to instore media. They need each other. Only the right mix will ensure you get an inspiring music channel that, at the same time, triggers exactly the right experiential and behavioral responses with you customers.

Thomas van Straaten
Instore media consultant

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