BRANDING_FM-poster-WORDPRESSYou walk into a jewelry store. What music would you expect to be playing? Same question, but now for a pie or DIY store. How does a bra or drinking a latte macchiato translate to music? 

Maybe you are pondering this for the very first time. But out there exists a whole industry around creating and imposing identities for brands and stores through music. It is used extensively by retail chains to give personality to their brand, to differentiate themselves from the competition and in trying to influence your behavior.

BRANDING_FM-schema-WORDPRESSUnder the moniker BRANDING FM I’m doing extensive field research, harassing marketing departments and delving into the theory of underlying mechanics – both cognitive music science and of the sales mumbo-jumbo kind. And I’m having a blast. I love music. Not only making it myself, but also how music affects the world. How specific sounds can trigger specific associations, how you can make people talk in a different cadence when subtly changing the background music, but also how a song will get a pair of jeans to give you the impression it will increase your chances at job interviews or at having intercourse.
// FYI: during ovulation women prefer more complex music
I devised a classification system in which I distilled the 6 most archetypal musical flavours in branding identity and how they relate to each other. And a bit further down you’ll find Retail Roulette, a playlist employing this system to turn every environment into a schizophrenic guessing game. // Or jump directly to it

The 3 outside categories

BRANDING_FM-quotes_KLEIN04Silence is golden – Retailers without in-store music are to be found at the low-budget and high end of the spectrum. Either stores like Kruidvat and Aldi that benefit from being seen as low-priced, because no music means no money spent on music branding strategies and licencing fees. Or exclusive brands that are too ‘classy’ or ‘authentic’ to be perceived as trying to influence behavior. Certain designer brands and jewelers for example.
     // Funny enough the Schaap & Citroen jewel store proudly plays deep house.

My Thang – When stores play music of their choice they fall into this category. This can be using CD’s, mp3’s or using Spotify. Some stores just don’t care, but mostly these are smaller non-chain shops that benefit from having a headstrong, independent or underground image. Like hipster barbershops or smaller record stores. They play whatever they seem fit. Keeping track of music played and copyright fee administration will be quite the hassle.
Some stores want to bypass copyright organisations out of principle. Their options include royalty free music, creative commons licensed music or unregistered bands.
     // HAP is a nice local Fair & Vegan Food boutique. They just started their shop and contacted me on how to have a music strategy that keeps with their principles, is fair to musicians, yet would involve music that is pleasant and in line with their business. Again, this too is an immense time consuming task, not helped by some very murky legislation and guilty-until-proven-otherwise fining tactics of copyright collectives. And officially Spotify may not be used in a business context. HAP got me thinking. To be continued on this one..

Radio Ga Ga – Stores like Wibra and Zeeman just put on the radio. Sky Radio in particular, or other channels lacking talking radio DJ’s. Entries in this category want to radiate an air of no nonsense and we-are-the-same-as-you. Yet radio has a tendency to broadcast commercials and radio station jingles.
     // So in a sense retailers pay remuneration to copyright collectives to fill their stores with the sound of potential competitors. – EDIT 10 march ’25: The personnel of Wibra stores are actually free to put on any radio station they want. The Wibra near you could have classical music playing.

The categories of Branding FM

Most retail chains use playlists tailored more or less to their needs. Made internally, outsourced, or subscribing to a business music streaming service. The first 2 encompass the BRANDING FM archetypes, and are used in Retail Roulette. The last category can be a wildly meandering ride into maddening mediocrity or surging schizophrenia. This results in a rant so I’ll save it for the end of this article.

BRANDING_FM-quotes_KLEIN02Internal – Big chains leaning on image and ‘feel’ mostly have a marketing department with internal music branding strategy. H&M and Victoria’s Secret take great pride in this and publish playlists on Spotify promoting their ‘flavour’. Starbucks even used to release records. De Tuinen have it easy: every store receives a monthly SD-card to freshen up the new age jukebox.
     // The last 2 years H&M’s music identity drastically shifted towards EDM-pop. This shows a transition from a more progressive young-at-heart store to a more broadly appealing place to which you can bring your girlfriend to choose what you should wear. Also: I consider Oren Lavie’s Her Morning Elegance to be the ultimate Starbucks song.

BRANDING_FM-quotes_KLEIN01External – In this category companies outsource the making of music playlists to external specialized businesses. For a fee stores periodically receive SD-cards or cd-r’s, or have a centralized music stream so in every store plays exactly the same. These playlists can go from very remiss to extremely intricate.
For most chains the music at least is dependent on season and if that chain is having a sale or not. Bijenkorf uses curiously edgy music. Hunkemöller could be selling the same bra as Victoria’s Secret, but while Hunkemöller uses music from the Starbucks archetype, Victoria’s Secret is all geared towards empowerment with an American sounding Single Ladies music palette. And Coolcat for example – with the target group being youngsters up to 18 years old – uses playlist that anticipate the time of day, adapting the flow of the music to school and party schedules.
     // A central streaming system could have it’s disadvantages. The Opposites does not only play in Dutch Coolcat stores, but also in the French ones. I wasn’t there when it happened but I can imagine French shoppers fearing a Nazi viking invasion. If it would be the other way around: the general French taste in music would turn every Dutch Coolcat into a coffeeshop.

BRANDING_FM-retailrouletteTHUMB2BRANDING FM presents:
Retail Roulette!

A playlist rotating between the 6 archetypes of BRANDING FM’s classification, with chunks of approx. 12 minutes each. Very useful to turn 1 environment into 6 or create a schizophrenic party. Can you guess them all?

Ps: Retail Roulette premiered at Cafe Bel in the entry hall of Rotterdam Contemporary during Art Rotterdam 2015, colouring it’s entrance in alternating sonic contexts. Funny enough, Rotterdam Contemporary itself got some bad reviews, calling it drab or pedestrian. Could this subconsciously be because of Retail Roulette’s influence and the point in time when the reviewers entered? Because we all know, art people are unaware and defenseless when it comes to looking with their ears (wink smiley).

As promised, the last category resulting in a rant.

BRANDING_FM-quotes_KLEIN03• Streaming subscription – A choice becoming more and more popular with retailers. It is cheap. You receive a box. With a knob. This knob mostly gives you three options: pop, chart and lounge. If you pay a bit more you can buy an extra setting. Like Vitamin Store did when they started with their juice bar formula, now being stuck with rather inappropriate music. And if you pay more than a bit more you can get a setting ‘just for you’.
It is cheap because you don’t have to pay to copyright collectives anymore. As a middle sized retail chain this could save up to E17.000,-. This could very well be a good thing. Yet this is possible by using the cheapest and/or most generic music around. Resulting in very inconsistent in-store music, or music so mediocre it will actually stand out because of it. ANWB-stores stopped using it, and Hema also suddenly steered away from maddening muzak with their new shop formula. To make it worse, these streaming services sometimes get their music roster through publishing agencies that buy up royalty free or creative commons licenced music in bulk, abusing the good (maybe naive) intentions or deliberate reasons of musicians.
// I’ll try to come up with an explanation why it is popular anyway. The music market, distribution and music consumption is rapidly changing, and so I notice the role of music transforming too. The way people listen to music is changing, and music is changing along with it. On one side it is present everywhere and more easily available then ever before, so is been taken more for granted. Yet on the other hand people consume music with less patience, so new music accommodates this by becoming more generic. In my experience people are becoming – dare I say it – dumber music wise. So retailers choose for the least expensive solution that will get them whatever music in the shop without too much hassle.
     Becoming musically dumber isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just makes us less aware of-, and more susceptible to the intricate subconscious workings of music. Which could make music use even more effective and make in-store music employment an even more refined (and/or nasty) art. Yet these streaming services don’t even hone in on this. Being bold: I find it is lazy and degrading. Degrading to retailers, their customers and music producers. End of rant.