Audio Branding: Target Tunes Up Its In-Store Experience


Target Carly Rae Jepsen

Target is focused on creating a unique, relevant and enjoyable in-store customer experience to hold on to its brick-and-mortar clientele as more shoppers migrate to online and mobile shopping — including its own customers on and its mobile app. So it’s little wonder that the chain now is experimenting with something it’s never done generally in its stores: play background music in its first entree into audio or sonic branding.

While by no means the only store to play background music to (even subconsciously) help shoppers relax and linger longer in a store (and more willingly part with their money), it’s a new area for Target, even though its commercials are known for lively music—witness the remake of “It Takes Two” by Carly Rae Jepsen and Lil Yachty for the Grammys telecast—and it has partnered with artists such as Taylor Swift on exclusive releases.

It’s betting that programming background music in 180 of its stores by the end of this year will become an effective part of its in-store experience in those location, which represent about 10 percent of Target’s total of 1,800 stores across the US. In fact, 65 Target stores are already playing DJ for its shoppers.

Target traditionally eschewed in-store music as distraction from keeping customers focused on the task at hand: shopping and browsing, reports the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. But according to a spokesperson, the chain now is introducing a music playlist “that is upbeat, positive and has a playful personality.”

“Everybody is looking for a way to make the customer experience more enjoyable because it’s becoming less and less about the products and more about the experience,” Matt Hazelton, an investment analyst in Minneapolis, told the publication.

Soundscaping, when used appropriately, has proven results in dramatically increased sales, stronger customer dynamics, and improved satisfaction results. Studies have shown that music has a profound impact on consumer behavior and shopping habits, Joel Beckerman, a sonic branding expert and founder of New York-based Man Made Music, told brandchannel. 

As NPR has noted, it’s good for retail brands and artists in addition to creating an emotional intangible benefit for customers: “A good retail playlist can bring home the culture of a business and psychologically affect a customer in a way that doesn’t feel pushy. And it’s positive for the featured artists. In today’s flooded climate, where new songs are published at a crazy rate on the Internet, having your song play in a Victoria’s Secret, for instance, can help cut through the noise.”

On the down side, it can be off-brand or jarring, especially if it veers into the dreaded, soulless Muzak associated with shopping malls and dentist offices. As the Guardian warns,

Don’t be lulled into thinking you can put on any old tracks: “Your music choice is a statement and it needs to show who you are as a business, individual and company. If you get it right, people don’t even realise it’s happening but they’ll get the culture. It’s the psychology of business and retail.” But not all retail spaces get it right. Shopping malls and hotel foyers normally have dreadful music.”

Even mainstream retailers like Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx stores play backgroundmusic, so it’s not revolutionary for Target to liven its in-store audioscape. If anything, it’s finally catching up with the persona it projects in its advertising and exclusive music partnerships.

Target, in its marketing, has always sought to align itself with innovative musical experiences. Take music’s biggest night—the Grammys—which was the inspiration for the Carly Rae Jepsen/Lil Yachty collaboration. Last year the Grammys inspired Target’s historic music first: producing a live four-minute real-time music video (at a reported cost of $12 million) for Gwen Stefani during the Grammy Awards telecast. The feat followed the previous year’s Imagine Dragons Grammys commercial performance as advertising and the year before that, the Justin Timberlake promo campaign.

There are plenty of successful retail brands for whom on-brand background music is a staple. (In fact, remember when stores used to routinely sell CD soundtracks of the type of music you’d hear in their stores, from Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware’s jazzy mixes to the world music played in Putumayo stores from its own label?)

To name just a few, Whole Foods Markets often plays tracks from the Eighties, which pleases its huge baby boomer clientele. Gap, Old Navy and other Gap Inc. stores play music, as do Urban Outfitters and other retailers where teens and the young at heart might be found.

Gap, in fact, was known for its many music-driven TV commercials over the years, and it’s been returning to form. A few standouts show how music can reflect a brand’s DNA:


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