Why Licensed Music Matters to Brands Like Hyundai and Chobani

Listen for Bruno Mars, Bob Marley and Joan Jett

Even though classic rockers like Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan have finally warmed to licensing their songs to brands, marketing chiefs remain picky about when and how to use music in ads.

Hyundai and Chobani, for example, turn to songs to accent and pull together the stories they tell in their commercials, but music ultimately plays a supporting rather than leading role.

Why? Because an ad concept based primarily on a certain song, by definition, is weak, according to marketing leaders. Also, music can be a distraction in ads with complicated visuals. So, even a big music embracer like Hyundai pulls back sometimes.

"The complexity of the story is inversely related to when you use a special piece of music," said Steve Shannon, vp of marketing at Hyundai Motor America, which has used songs from Bruno Mars, Bob Marley, Joan Jett, Quiet Riot and The Flaming Lips in its ads. "If there's a lot of visual going on, you've got to have people focus their energy on watching, and music is more likely to get in the way."

Ah, but when the message is simple, music adds color and energy, such as in this current "Family Racer" ad, which depicts a father taking his new Sonata for a spin in a parking lot while his young daughter apes his steering from her car seat in the back. The backing track is Joan Jett's "Wild Child."

Another relatively simple story supported by music was Hyundai's "Dad's Sixth Sense" ad in February's Super Bowl. In a spec version that lead creative agency Innocean USA developed for Hyundai, the placeholder music was George Harrison's version of Bob Dylan's "If Not For You." But Shannon blanched at the pricetag for that song and instead licensed the more contemporary (and less expensive) "Count on Me" from Bruno Mars.

"That's one of the best Hyundai spots we've ever done [based on] any possible testing we looked at and all the results from the Super Bowl," Shannon said. "Could I tell you what percentage of the impact was music? No, but that's another case where you can't imagine the spot now with lyrics different than what Bruno Mars" sang.

For Chobani, music served as a punch line in another Super Bowl ad, "Ransacked" from Droga5, in which a bear topples over fixtures in a country store in search of something natural to eat. He calms once he finds Chobani yogurt, which he places on the counter just as Bob Dylan sings "I Want You."

"I'm not a fan of music as the idea," said Peter McGuinness, Chobani's chief marketing and brand officer. "In our case, music was an accent piece, and it was a punctuation. It was a bit of punctuation to give it a nod and a wink."