Rex Hirschhorn and Hannah Cahill, research and insight consultants at amp, discuss the value of sonic branding when trying to resonate with the Gen Z audience.
Gen Z is the first generation with nearly universal access to any music from any era, on demand. Once upon a time, the creation of one’s own unique musical ambiance required a painstaking process consisting of personal playlist curation. Now, playlists generated from just one track can effectively soundtrack entire days.
Popular music is no longer strictly determined by record companies; apps like TikTok have enabled artists to grow their audience while remaining independent, and trending songs can now be anything from a harp cover of a metal song to an unknown guy singing an old sailing song in his kitchen.
However, music is clearly still as culturally important as ever – Spotify recently found
that in just the first half of 2023, Gen Z listened to over 560 billion songs, which is a 76 per cent increase from the previous year.
The use of licensed music in ads has traditionally been big business. For example, Microsoft paid the Rolling Stones a staggering $3m to use their hit Start Me Up for the Windows launch in August of 1995. When targeting Gen Z, does this conventional approach work? How can brands capture the attention of the TikTok- and trend-obsessed younger generation?
Many brands have attempted to connect with Gen Z by taking advantage of cultural trends, utilising popular songs in commercials and across shortform video platforms. While this idea may sound promising, Gen Z connects with enormous quantities of music daily, making this approach less than ideal for a variety of reasons.
For starters, Gen Z can read right through this obvious advertisement manipulation. In recent research, amp found that Gen Z felt that using popular licensed music did not make a brand sound more authentic (Fig. 1, below).
For a generation that values authenticity across all aspects of life, this is a clear no-go for brands trying to resonate with Gen Z. Not only are brands failing to reach this audience with popular music, but they are also spending more money doing so. This added cost of licensed tracks does not show a monetary or perceptual return on investment.
If not via the licensed music route, how are brands meant to sonically connect with the younger generation? In the same research study referenced above, amp found that Gen Z is most likely to interact (like, share, follow, etc) with brands that use viral sounds (Fig. 2, below).
Viral sounds can be generic, popular or original. Generic and popular viral sounds cannot be directly connected to a specific brand because they are, by definition, not brand-specific. However, original sounds are up for grabs and often lead to a greater desire to interact with the brand. As Figure 2 demonstrates, original music is more likely to elicit interaction by Gen Z than regular or sped-up popular music.
This data paints a clear picture of what brands can do to connect with Gen Z. First, they must create and use original music that represents their brand value. Once this creation and implementation process has been completed, brands should give these sonic assets directly to Gen Z. Remixed, remade and personalised sonic content is key to potential virality across digital channels.
Gen Z themselves are the only ones that can make a sound go viral; however, they can only facilitate this experience if brands have owned sonic assets to give them. This is not to say every sonic asset will become viral, but using non-branded viral sounds for brand-related content guarantees no brand connection – and even potential brand confusion.
Additionally, the effectiveness of a viral branded sound is not to be underestimated. In the newest edition of Amplify, we here at amp focused on Gen Z. We ran an additional study and found that brands that have branded viral sounds are significantly more recognised by Gen Z than those without (Fig. 3, below). These fascinating results were not solely focused on recognition; Gen Z also did a significantly better job recalling the brands from memory just by hearing the viral sounds.
This is all to say that although popular music has a place, it will never represent a brand the way an owned sonic asset will. According to a recent Ad Age article
, “sharing engages Gen Zers in shaping what the brand means to them, while the brand itself grows into something new”.
Popular music does not, and cannot, provide the same type of engagement and manipulation that a branded asset (like a sonic logo or startup sound) can. This is due to the fact that popular music already has a solidified spot in pop culture outside of any brand involvement. Gen Z wants to interact with brands by fulfilling the role of curator and promoter, helping to amplify the sounds of brands through a unique partnership.
To learn more, read our Amplify Gen Z issue here
By Rex Hirschhorn and Hannah Cahill, research and insight consultants, amp