Close your eyes and imagine you’re in Abercrombie and Fitch. Nightmarish, I know, but bear with me. Semi-nude models; tiny, torn clothes; headache-inducing perfumes and blaring music — It’s the “Abercrombie experience.” Business professors love to focus on differentiation, how creating a brand-unique experience is key to success in the retail industry. Every company has an image to sell, an idea to express and a story to tell, and music can help build that experience.

The obvious goal of any company is to create an experience that gets the customer into the store, keeps him there and keeps him happy; a happy customer is a spendthrift one. R&D departments in the retail world know a lot of bizarre details about the lives of their average customers, but having all the data doesn’t mean you know what to do with it. So lately, marketing companies have been springing up to take that data and put it to good use.

Muzak is one such company. In the business of musical brand marketing, it employs “audio architects.” The company designs playlists for all types of establishments, from Caribou Coffee to Quiznos, J.Crew to Saks, Microsoft to UPS. These architects create music collections that fit the image of their clients’ brands.

The company got its start as the creator of “elevator music.” Literally. Ever since the ’30s, when its tunes calmed nervous elevator users, Muzak has been strategically sculpting musical compilations for companies looking to better their business. Today, Muzak has cornered the market of corporate playlisting, boasting their clients’ increased sales as a demonstration of the power music holds over consumers.

So how does a sound architect go about building a brand’s audio image? The power lies in the subtle effect of background music. A company’s playlist will cater toward the projected musical tastes of the customers it intends to attract. J.Crew’s playlist, for instance, will be exceedingly different from Abercrombie’s. The point is that an image can be represented through sound. Take a martini glass, for example. I imagine a martini to sound like Frank Sinatra. An umbrella, on the other hand, would sound more like a Moby ballad.

Beyond brand image, the playlist is tailored to the time of day. It progresses in energy throughout the day, targeting specific rounds of customers. Research has shown these time-structured playlists actually impact sales: One study reported that malls using Muzak increased sales 51-percent in customers ages 25 years or younger, 11-percent ages 25-50 and 26-percent ages 50 and up. Another study showed that customers spent more time browsing the supermarket when slower music was played, while service-related companies (i.e. postal service or health care) that played upbeat music scored higher on customer service surveys.

There’s no doubt music can be remarkably persuasive. It pulls on people’s emotions in ways not many other things do, and it both informs and enhances other facets of culture. Have you ever watched a movie with the audio off? Tried to work out to a ballad? I’d like to throw a party, play nothing but Dashboard Confessional and see what happens. Music tells us how to feel in different situations, and the shopping mall is no exception. If the music in a store makes us feel good, then we feel good about the store and are more likely to buy things, remember the store and become a repeat customer. Music can essentially build a bridge to brand loyalty.

If we’re not listening to music in stores, restaurants or lobbies, then we’re plugged into our iPods. This barrage affects us, though to what extent is unclear. Do you really want those Ray-Bans and leggings, or is it just that song by The Ting Tings? Are you really thirsty for coffee or tea, or is it just that Norah Jones ballad? There was, of course, a time when music wasn’t so pervasive, and it’s hard to say how this “soundtracking” of America has affected us individually. But in a day and age where Muzak strategically streams music through stores, cafes and even drive-thrus, its presence in our culture should not be overlooked. So the next time you wander into your favorite fashion locale, open your ears and think about the Muzak you’re listening to.

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