Brands and bands don't always strike the right note

LONDON - The music industry is facing huge challenges and is more open to brand partnerships than ever before, but brands need to beware of simply jumping on the bandwagon.

Music partnerships have often been the default strategy for those brands looking to create an emotional connection to consumers.

It is certainly true that in a market becoming ever-more fragmented, music is a channel with a unique ability to reach a broad church of consumers. Brands have often leaned on musicians to add credibility, glamour or authenticity to their products, and the list of collaborations is long and varied. However, as these collaborations proliferate and record labels look for more varied ways to repair their bottom line, could the relationships between brands and bands turn sour?

There is no need to look far to find examples of tie-ups that have hit the headlines for the wrong reason. Chewing-gum brand Wrigley was recently compelled to suspend an ad campaign featuring US singer Chris Brown after he allegedly assaulted his pop-star girlfriend Rihanna. In the UK, insurer Swiftcover has been ridiculed for using ageing rocker Iggy Pop in a £25m ad campaign, even though the company will not cover musicians.

Despite such hiccups, there is no doubt that the number of opportunities for brands to move in on the music scene continues to increase. With CD sales falling, record companies have smaller budgets to promote acts and diminishing funds to seek out and develop talent. Brands are therefore stepping into the breach.

'Brands have bigger budgets than labels and can support artists and help them get in front of the right audiences,' says Daniel Cross, head of music marketing agency Recordplay. However, he warns brands against becoming dazzled by the fame of certain performers. 'Artists such as Missy Elliott have done so much work with brands, the public forget who they are endorsing,' he adds. 'It's confusing for consumers if one minute you are endorsing Pepsi, and the next fronting a campaign for fashion brand Candies.'

Nonetheless, brand owners are getting more savvy about their involvement with music. 'They are employing agencies like us to help them figure out what they want to accomplish,' says Cross. 'Rather than just pasting the artist's face onto an ad, tie-ups need to be seen more as a collaboration. If done meaningfully and carefully and to the benefit of the artist, it can work, but is there any point to just picking a musician for an ad and giving away CDs?'

One way around the pitfalls of linking up with a single performer is to take a more wide-ranging approach, such as supporting a live event or backing multiple acts. However, there are so many of these sponsor-ships that it can be difficult for consumers to distinguish exactly which brands are involved. In any case, many consumers are sceptical of a brand's involvement in 'discovering' talent.

One of the latest examples of this overall trend is Topman CTRL. Developed by the high-street clothes retailer with music agency Frukt, the project showcases an artist or band each month - on Topman's website, as well as on Facebook, Bebo and Twitter - and gives them creative control of a dedicated page on Myspace. The artists also choose the acts to play at live gigs backed by CTRL.

Topman marketing director Jason Griffiths says CTRL is the culmination of the chain's involvement with music over the past five years, which has included deals with magazine NME and Xfm radio. 'Music has been a key strategic influencer for us; we tapped into it early, and now others are jumping on the band-wagon,' he says.

Topman allocates a big portion of its marketing budget to music sponsorship based on the premise that there is a close fit between fashion and bands. 'It is important that we have mass-market bands... and [innovative] music; we want to tap into the next big thing,' adds Griffiths. He is  mindful of the dangers of a brand pinning its colours to a single artist. 'It is something we are conscious of, which is why we have never hung our brand on any artist or band in particular,' he says. 'Topman is democratic and accessible, it is always changing; it would show a lack of dynamism and innovation to work with a single act. That's the beauty of CTRL.'

Dominic Caisley, managing partner at branded content agency Stream London, believes it is dangerous for brands to start acting like record labels. 'I'm sceptical of a brand getting into bed with one band,' he says. According to Caisley, however, things have changed fundamentally over the past decade and musicians are far more willing to consider striking deals with brands. 'It is rare for an artist to say no to an ad. When I started 15 years ago, a lot of artists didn't feel they needed the exposure from brands because Radio 1 had 9m listeners,' he says. 'Now it has 2m listeners and you reach more consumers in a break during Coronation Street. Many artists are into creating a bespoke piece of music, but there has to be a good brand fit. Never ask an artist to do a song about dog food.'

The search for brand tie-ups has spawned a plethora of specialist agencies to handle the deals. According to Jack Horner, creative director at agency Frukt, brand managers need an independent voice when selecting music partnerships. 'Everyone has an opinion on music and it is difficult to get marketers to dissociate their own favourites and leave their personal view of music at the door,' he says. 'That's why the Rolling Stones usually partner financial institutions. It's the chairman's choice.'

The increasingly crowded area of music partnerships has presented a challenge to major labels, which in theory should be at the forefront of such work. Sony Music has set up SBX, a music marketing agency that works independently from the label but can also tap into its resources. 'We have created this to add value to Sony's artists,' says Marcel Engh, managing director of SBX. 'We are moving from being a record label selling CDs in HMV to a business that offers artists more value and develops more complex strategies.'

Record labels have lost control of many of the money-making opportunities once available to them, says David Atkinson, managing partner at integrated marketing agency Space. The two areas of growth potential are music downloads and live performances, and promoters and digital brands are leading with innovation in these areas, he says. 'Whether it's gaming, with Guitar Hero and Rock Band reigniting consumers' discovery of artists, songs and even entire genres, or Myspace providing an audience for artists who may otherwise rarely have got out of a local circuit, new media are responding to the break-down of the old model,' says Atkinson. 'New media have created a fresh model.'

One of the best examples of the new-business models emerging in the industry is Ciroc Vodka. The Diageo brand made a 50:50 profit-sharing deal with musician and entrepren-eur P Diddy. Because Ciroc has made the rapper its brand manager, he has effectively become a walking media channel for the vodka; and the profit-sharing deal involved gives him a genuine interest in its success.

Another innovation in the linking of bands and music is clikthrough.com. The music video website features an interactive video by band The Script. While the film is playing, viewers can click on clothes worn by the musicians and link through to the brand's website.

It seems, however, that almost everything is up for grabs in the labels' search for fresh ways of funding music, and brands could effectively end up taking a controlling stake in the sounds of the future. Whether these will be sounds consumers want to hear is another matter altogether.

Bacardi case study

One innovation in partnerships between brands and bands is Bacardi's deal with Groove Armada, created by Euro RSCG KLP. This involves the group performing live concerts as part of Bacardi's B-Live experiential marketing programme. An exclusive EP was also made available for free download from the B-Live website.

Bacardi brand director Jeff McDonald says the music industry is seeking new business models. 'This is an evolution of the standard artist-endorsement model,' he adds. However, some question the effectiveness of the association.

One observer says: 'Is this a model that defines the future of brands and music? We know people want Groove Armada, but we don't know whether they want Bacardi at the same time. What is the benefit of this tie-up to Bacardi?'

Sarah Tinsley, Bacardi's global experiential brand manager, says the brand wanted to do something different with its links to Groove Armada, which is why it made the EP free to access from its website - it was downloaded 43,000 times.

'This campaign has delivered return on investment,' adds Tinsley. 'We have had a large amount of press interest and coverage, and a considerable number of downloads, while online buzz has gone through the roof. This is news around the brand. No longer is a monologue effective; brands have to engage in a more meaningful way with consumers.'

Natasha Kizzle, head of entertainment at Euro RSCG KLP, believes partnerships such as this could be the way forward for the music industry, as long as consumers see a genuine connection.

 

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