Sounds Like Money

/ written by Jackson Bentley

Welcome back to Earshot, a recurring, music-oriented treatment of brands.

Dark browns and cozy greens. The aromatic smell of overpriced coffee and the muted taps on laptops and sotto voce conversations. The bark of a barista cutting through the background clank-and-hiss of machinery:

“Steve, Venti Iced Hazelnut Macchiato.”

The odd newspaper ruffles and the toaster oven cheerfully dings, confirming that someone in the room likes their blueberry scone warmed up. All these sights and sounds are part of the recipe baked into the Starbucks’ brand experience, but there’s an element that’s often overlooked.

What is it?

Beneath the rumbling of the espresso machines and employee banter?

Concentrate now…focus up…it’s…the…music soundtrack.

Yep, across retail operations, syrupy airwaves form part of the sensory tapestry crafted to influence your every purchase.

In fact, from the soft alternative rock of Starbucks to the chic pop of JC Penney, music is carefully curated by businesses to enhance your shopping experience and encourage you to buy. Ed Sheeran to soothe your trip to CVS for cold medicine. Bruno Mars to complement any shopping spree. Some R. Kelly for the hotel lobby. It may seem like standardized, 24/7 Billboard 100 wallpaper, but the truth is that many businesses employ “consumer engagement” companies like PlayNetwork and MoodMedia, to create and tweak “consumer playlists” designed to perfectly complement their retail environments.

Think of it as a personal mixtape just for you, but instead of being wooed by your high school sweetheart, it’s a massive Fortune 500 company, and instead of just you it’s…well, everyone.

PlayNetwork, for example, launched in 1996 as a curator of custom in-store music, but has since developed into a provider of full-scope brand strategy consulting, visual production, and immersive retail environment development. They work with Starbucks, GAP, and a whole slew of other retailers across the world. MoodMedia also boasts an impressive list of clients including Nike, Chipotle, Target, and Hollister, for whom they help curate practically everything in a store save the product, bringing together sight, sound, and even scent for a subtly effective multi-sensory onslaught.

When their job is done properly, you don’t even know they exist. Nonetheless, their work has an impact at the cash register. It’s simple evolutionary biology, what you feel is informed by what you see, but also by what you hear, smell, taste…and in the world of marketing, feelings matter.

So when you’re out and about, listen up and tune in. Music is one of the most powerful factors in evoking emotion and shifting perception—and your buying behavior is fertile ground for sonic manipulation. Happy listening!