How Can Brands Navigate Music Culture?

by Shai Hirschson



How can brands stay true to themselves while navigating music culture without trying too hard? In today’s cluttered landscape, we’re constantly on the search for relevance. We strive for individualism, uniqueness and acceptance.

There are a few key aspects to creating cultural relevance, and these come in the zeitgeist of phenomenons such as Apple’s acquisition of Beats, hip-hop music in itself, and the fact that brands find themselves being magnetised more and more to the need for cultural relevance in order to appropriately engage with their audience.

But let’s take a step back. What is cultural currency?

According to Highsnobiety’s whitepaper, it’s “a knowledge that creates a perception around a product that elevates it beyond reductive notions of cost and quality”. It’s the space that you find in the in-between, the relevance of the now with a legacy in culture and, most importantly, something you can’t buy.

Why? Because cultural currency is earned.

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How we tap into that through music for brands and brand partnerships is key to maintaining and growing authentic relationships and long-lasting consumer engagement.

With social media being the catalyst in democratising music and creation on a large scale, we see the explosive surge of new talent engaging with fans on a far more personal level than the icons of yesteryear. Social media has given fans and consumers a place to co-create, and become part of the creative process. This playing field is where brands need to yield this medium and begin to act like bands, creators and artists, engaging on the level of Gen Z to allow their consumers to feel closer and connect deeper.

Music is the fastest connector between what you know and how you feel, and that’s what makes it the most effective tool in achieving this. Brands, although slow to adopt this concept in the past, are finally cottoning on. It’s not surprising that, in the last couple of years, the audio branding world has seen an explosion of sound identities across brands and markets globally. The magic, though, has yet to be unleashed – and this is where cultural relevance and currency play a mammoth role.

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The Beginning

Since the beginning of time, music has been a substitute for culture, a means of expressing the unthinkable. Communication as a tool, but survival in its purest form. We started with tribal music, originated by a pure culture of a single tribe or origin. Later, through the journeys of mankind and the explorers, musical traces were imported from Africa, the Americas and Oceania.

This led to the cultural fusion of musical influences, giving birth to many of the genres we know today. And that’s what, alongside the global geographical map, has shaped who we are today. Through a good understanding of musical history and cultural expressions, we can navigate, create and express very particular ideas and trigger very specific reactions and emotions.

Music is communication on/of the subconscious, a way to talk to one another without words. Both music and sound help us to express and process emotional conditions and to understand the spiritual world more than any other medium. That’s why emotional expression in music is unparalleled; it offers an authentic relationship between the space it comes from and the audience that consumes it. This space is the culture of music.

Cultural Fusion

Over time, music has become a cultural tool for the expression of new ideas and concepts, and the preferred modality of self-expression of millions of people around the globe.

When punk came in the late 70s, it was a direct provocation of the hippie and rock movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The flowery, hedonistic expression of complex, narcissistic albums and songs was something the punk movement fought against, mostly with a minimal 3-chord song structure, seldom longer than 2:30 minutes.

When hip-hop came to the scene, it was a very similar sentiment: the black community was tired of being whitewashed by record companies, advertising and cultural distortion. The open, direct, often explicit language was a direct hit to the falseness of portrayal of black cultures – it needed to be rectified, and music did that job tremendously well.

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The Brand Space

As our world is developing faster and the communication of humans has intensified, so has our musical spectrums and the sub-genres that explode on the scene.

This requires a contemporary and constant up-to-date understanding of the musical space to navigate within. And the way brands and products can do that is plentiful, as it offers a myriad of possibilities and articulations. Yet, it’s not that simple: it also requires expertise, sensibility and, first and foremost, a willingness to open up to the cultural map that music is.

Artist collaborations are a particularly fruitful and common one-off, especially for brands who want an instant cultural landscape buy-in. Not as effective as you’d like it to be, if you ask me. Truly understanding your audience, and guiding that understanding to build deeper connections and long-lasting relationships with your consumers, is what will make the difference, eventually. Not just a buy-in.

Music and sound can shape and reshape a product, it can give life to something previously ‘silent’. It can provoke, evoke, sensitise and underline an idea, concept or cultural reference point, unlike any other aspect in the communication of a brand.

A song, a melody or a sound score, chosen correctly and deployed within the right sphere, time and context, can create cultural equity, unlike any other medium in communication. It will trigger an emotional response in specific group demographics, create meaningful discussion, and become something that is shared organically (and, sometimes, even virally).

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Need Some Inspo?

Here are 3 examples of what we at MassiveMusic Berlin have done to help agencies and brands tap into the cultural landscape:

1. Take the bold step and invest in the unconventional

For German hypermarket chain Kaufland, we were asked to create an authentic girl-power rap track to reach younger target groups with a bold and modern concept. We needed to sell the concept of the ‘professional cheap queen’ without the music being juvenile nor tongue-in-cheek. So we wore our shiniest bling bling gear and, together with Hamburg-based rap collective VibeKingz, we tried our best to create a killer rap anthem, borrowing elements from the 90s/00s hip-hop while still making it sound fresh and modern. Guess you would have never expected a hip-hop anthem for a supermarket?

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2. Bring forward creativity and craftsmanship

A similar yet different approach, also rooted in hip-hop, is the work we’ve done for got2b, Henkel’s hair product line, and their ‘No Dripping’ campaign. Our role was to bring to the table what the new generation would whip their hair to. We teamed up with 3 legends: director Kai Kurve, known for directing groundbreaking (music) videos, once again the Vibekingz collective, and Trippie C, a new artist with a multifaceted style characterised by dark 808, provocative lyrics and Spanish elements. Connecting with Gen Z in a way that captures attention through attractive visuals and a reflectively bold sound was the goal of this campaign.

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3. Support society while conveying the values you believe in

2020 also meant no stage for artists and performers to show their beauty. Their art remained unseen. For ‘UNSCENE: City of Dark’, we composed and produced a soundtrack by paying attention to every single shot, elevating the emotion that the script of the film intended to convey. The outcome: eerie music to attract the viewer into the art we cannot see. We got to delve into the minds of the creators, expressing their most inner ambitions, while, at the same time, screaming for attention to a society that seemed to have forgotten about them.

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Commitment to music and the culture around it is a valuable asset for a brand to unlock, as it can validate a brand or product as a part of true culture, not just a reference to it.

Brands are tapping into this more and more and should continue to do so, understanding and committing to the beautiful journey into sound, as it can transform their business, culture and understanding in our world.

If you want to transport your brand through not only sound and music but cultural equity, well, that’s the kick in the derrière you were waiting for.