Behind the Music

Call it borrowed authenticity or just plain good marketing, but brands are reaching out to indie bands, and both are coming out ahead

The Head and the Heart plays for a variety of agency executives at Comma Music in Chicago. Photo: Daniel Boczarski/ Getty Images for Adweek


This is going to be big,” Todd Porter recalls thinking last September, when the music supervisor at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco first heard “We Are Young” by indie pop outfit Fun. “It just had the quality of something that will cut through and grab people’s attention.”

Fast-forward six months, and the track is the band’s first breakout hit. In mid-February it landed at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it leapt from No. 63 after it was featured during the Super Bowl as the soundtrack for Chevy Sonic’s “Stunt Anthem” ad—a spot that’s almost as much a music video as it is a car commercial. As of last week, it spent its second week at No. 1, the first rock band in more than a decade with a Hot 100 debut to top the chart.

While musicians and brands have long had a symbiotic relationship, the use of indie groups in advertising seems to be fast on the rise. Call it a marriage of convenience. Marketers in search of millennial currency, their growing need for digital content and a music industry still in chaos have helped create a scenario in which two once polar opposites are now happily attracted. And it’s not just for flashier categories like auto and fashion. Indie artists (read: obscure bands connected or not to major labels) are now peddling life’s less-sexy products, like hardware, detergent and health insurance.

Mega corporations using under-the-radar acts in TV spots is not a new phenomenon. During the 2000s, Apple, for one, cultivated a countercultural image when it became practically synonymous with breaking new artists, such as Feist with her “1234.” But that was the exception, not the rule.

“It used to be pretty rare to hear an indie band on an ad,” says Gabe McDonough, vp, music director at Leo Burnett in Chicago. “It’s not that rare anymore. Somebody’s got to pay the bills.…In 2012, brands are one of the few entities in human culture that are willing to pony up.”

“Artists now have a mentality where they want to put their music in front of the broadest, biggest audience possible,” adds Jon Cohen, co-CEO of music marketing house Cornerstone, whose clients include Converse and Mountain Dew. “Advertising [is now] about how to ingrain your brand into the culture of your target consumer.”

Music can speak to any number of audiences. But 18-34s have long been a branding sweet spot, and today’s youth seem to have a special affinity for song. Eighty percent of millennials regularly search, download and listen to music over the Internet, according to a 2009 Deloitte survey , versus 60 percent of all consumers. Millennials also associate more strongly with the value of “discovery” than Gen X and earlier, according to 2010 research from consumer research firm Iconoculture. In other words, introducing this demo to new bands can seem like a particularly good way for brands to endear themselves.

So, when Lowe’s looked to BBDO to recast the retail giant as younger and more innovative, the agency launched a campaign this past fall featuring commercials crafted like music videos around songs from indie artists. As boomers age out, “the whole gold mine in [the home-improvement] category is the millennials,” says Wil Boudreau, the BBDO ecd for the campaign.

The first spot, which introduced Lowe’s new tagline, “Never Stop Improving,” featured a young couple dancing around as they remodel their home to “Don’t Stop” by Kiwi chanteuse Gin Wigmore. Three more ads have played up thematically matched tracks from other indie artists, and three more are slated for this spring. With text at the end of each spot identifying the song and performer, the brand is going further than most in helping its audience find new music.

“It’s like when your friend recommends a good album,” says Boudreau.

Even brands associated with household drudgery are attempting hipster-like makeovers by association. Among them is Procter & Gamble-owned laundry detergent Cheer, which through Leo Burnett Toronto created a brightly hued YouTube music video last summer for Australian dance band Strange Talk’s catchy single, “Climbing Walls.” The detergent’s redesigned logo, a pixilated rainbow teardrop, was included in the video and, during a promotional campaign, doubled as one of numerous “Easter eggs” that, when clicked, led to Cheer’s Facebook page. There, people could redeem soap samples and enter raffles for items like the dancer’s iridescent clothing.

“We were going after a generation of color-loving people and [knew] that fashion and music were at the forefront of everything they do,” says Sam Cerullo, a group creative director at Leo Burnett Toronto.

In 2010, Rumblefish, a music licensing and technology company that specializes in indie music, built a special website for Kaiser’s marketing team featuring a selection of tracks that can be included in videos created for the healthcare organization’s messaging.

“The challenge for bigger brands is that they have more people than ever making these videos and communications, and it’s much harder to keep everything consistent and to make sure people aren’t going out and using the Beatles,” says Paul Anthony, founder of Rumblefish. The company also partnered this January with crowd-sourcing site Zooppa to provide easy access to licensed songs for user-generated ads.

Rumblefish’s model, which offers tracks precleared for commercial use, can also spare bigger brands the headaches of prolonged negotiations. “They can license an indie band for one of these videos really quickly,” notes Anthony. “It doesn’t take them months of negotiations.”

Health insurer Cigna and Hill Holiday also went the indie route last fall, licensing Joy Zipper’s song “1” for an ad. “You want to drop a Rihanna song on your spot, you’re talking god knows how much money,” says Lance Jensen, CCO at Hill Holiday. “You want to drop a great indie song on it, it’s affordable. … That’s not to be underestimated.”

Continue to next page →