Starting out as an intern at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1981, Erra successively became Advertising Chief, Client Manager, Deputy General Manager and, finally, General Director of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, from 1990-1995. Co-founding BETC in 1995, Erra is the “E“ of in the agency title (Babinet Erra Tong Cuong). An expert in branding and communication building, she is famous for working on inspiring new ways of communication for brands such as Danone, Evian, and Air France. Her “Roller Babies“ campaign for Evian (played to the song Rapper‘s Delight) made the Guinness Book of Records for being viewed over 75 million times. Aside from her role in advertising, Erra is a human rights activist, and committed member of Human Rights Watch and UNICEF. 


Reese: How important is music in building a brand?

Erra: It’s difficult to imagine a great ad film without an equally great soundtrack these days. Just think of Evian or Lacoste – the need to find a music that makes you aware of the very soul of a film seems more important than ever before. There were times when brands used to be attached to one singular piece of music. Nowadays music is certainly engraved in the spirit of a brand, but it also translates the mood and the atmosphere of a film, and transports its message.

Music supports and amplifies the effect of the visuals within the brand communication.

It supports and amplifies the effect of the visuals within the brand communication. As for Evian, the music they use won gold records. Every piece of music of the Evian brand communication is really impactful for every moment of the brand narrative. The musical universe of a brand is becoming more sophisticated: It’s not just about the music anymore. It’s more about a tonality that defines a brand and can be adapted for all kinds of audio assets.

Reese: How important is music for you personally and for your work?

Erra: For me personally, it’s particularly important. At work, however, it’s not about my personal taste in music. I’m not an expert. We have musicians at our agency, very knowledgeable people with an exceptional taste in music. We have even created an entity called BETC Pop, which specializes in music creation and selection. It’s an incredible artist pool with a rich and diverse music culture, and it can boast some great successes: Chemical Brothers for Air France in 1999 and the comeback of Flume with “Disclosure” for Lacoste.

Reese: Do you think that the right selection of music can change consumer behavior?

Erra: Music can make an ad film stand out, it can make it memorable… or not. If the film isn’t great, the music cannot save it. It can only lift and amplify the impact if the idea itself is creative, great, strong.

Music can make an ad film stand out, it can make it memorable…

Reese: Should a brand be recognizable by sound only?

Erra: No. A brand is primarily about meaning. It can’t be reduced to formal codes, be it audio or be it visuals. It’s about what it embodies, the promise it carries and the role it plays in our lives – all of that is fundamental. The brand meaning is the essence, not the way in which it expresses itself, its way of communicating with us.

Reese: Should brands follow audio style guides, just as they follow visual style guides? 

Erra: The spirit of both video and audio have to be respected equally. But you shouldn’t restrict yourself creatively by establishing too many rules. The moment a brand forgets that its primary purpose is to serve people, it loses its right to exist, it loses its soul. Rules can never replace the brand essence. I also think that a brand should never restrict itself to one singular piece of music. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the creation (wording, layout, sound, music) isn’t key to the development of the brand message. One of our former clients, “Hollywood”, a French chewing gum brand, had a long history of following strict brand guidelines, and it had been sticking to this piece of music called “fraîcheur de vivre,“ which everyone (in France) knew. In the meantime, the brand had failed to meet new customer expectations, and all its codes (visuals, sound, etc.) had become ineffective. In fact, the brand almost disappeared because of that. It only recovered once it let go of those rules and offered a new brand experience to its customers.

Reese: Can you tell me about a particular experience in your career where music was involved? How did that experience influence your work?

Erra: Our agency tends to have a really good intuition when it comes to music – for example when we used Queen’s “We Will Rock You” for Evian. The music talks about a rebellion of grown-ups who refuse to give up their youth. In what better way could you express youthfulness of the mind than with this song? The day after the film was launched, all the school kids in France – few of whom are English speakers – were shouting “We Will Rock You”. In a similar way, we very recently worked on a synchronization of a film for the fragrance “La nuit de l’homme” by Yves Saint-Laurent. The piece of music we used was by Thomas Azier, an artist we’ve been following for a while and who has cooperated a lot with the French musician Woodkid. It was like magic, it worked immediately. Same with Lacoste – by resuming Flume’s “Disclosure” for the brand, my creative associate Rémi Babinet, together with Bertille Toledano, President of BETC Paris, made a crucial decision that left everyone stunned.

Reese: Is audio brand design part of your conversation with a client when you’re talking about brand communication?

Erra: Yes. After all, it’s a structural element that contributes to the success of a brand’s communication.

Reese: What are the challenges in finding a brand’s voice? 

Erra: You have to know exactly what the brand stands for. You have to know its spirit. In our briefings, we include all the elements that we have established for a brand on a strategic level. Once the spirit of the brand is clearly defined, it usually yields some really interesting ideas for the brand’s musical identity. There comes a point where you have to be specific about the desired emotion, but it really is a brief like any other brief. Before launching a music search for a brand, I generally give some input that we take to BETC Pop, and they come back to us with music suggestions. After discussing those with the Creative Director, we decide on the direction in which it should go, but the folks of BETC Pop generally hit the nail on the head in the first go.

Reese: How do you pick the music for a brand or a campaign?

Erra: There’s no general rule. You have to be very connected to the musical universe out there, and to the artists themselves. It’s about being up to speed on what’s new, on emerging talent, on who or what has the potential to be considered a substantial part of this universe, and then explore new paths with that knowledge. It’s a question of passion and dedication. And when faced with a choice, it really comes down to your instinct: Is this going to trigger an emotion?

Reese: How do you evaluate music? Do you test music that you use in a piece of brand communication?

Erra: We avoid it. If we do assess the relevance of music, we do it as a whole. The music itself is rarely evaluated separately. Music choices require sensibility and courage at the same time: You have to bet on a talent, especially on rising artists, and unpublished material. Once you’ve picked a piece of music, you hope that it’ll become a success. It’s a little like when an artist plays a new song on stage during a concert. At first it isn’t always received too well, as the people come to the gig to hear the songs they know. The choice of new music requires some risk-taking. You have to have the right intuition and courage at the same time.

Reese: How do you decide how much money you’re willing to spend on music?

Erra: It all depends on our client’s overall budget. If we feel that a piece of music that‘s a little more expensive can boost the efficiency of a film, we try and push for it, believing that the client won’t regret his investment.

Reese: Is there a certain brand you admire particularly for its use of audio in its communication? 

Erra: Certainly Evian, if you look at the list of its music choices since 1999: Marilyn Monroe for “Les bébés nageurs”, The Beach Boys for “Le ballet des seniors”, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” in a remix by Kcpk for “Voices”, Dan The Automators’ remix of “Rappers Delight” (a Sugarhill Gang cover) for “Baby rollers”, Uffie & DJ Mehdi with “Wordy Rappinghood” (Tom Tom Club cover) for “Baby inside”, and Yuksek’s “Here comes the Hotstepper” (an Ini Kamoze cover) for “Baby&me”.

Reese: Do you see a change in how important music is becoming in brand communication?

Erra: The importance of music is growing because of the rise of the internet. It helps spread music and create hype around it. The internet multiplies our ability to draw attention to our work, to gain followers, and in that respect, music works an extraordinary lever for affection. That’s why music has become a constituent of the piece of communication that we’re putting out there – more than ever before.

Reese: Where do you see the challenges and opportunities when working with music in a branded social network environment?

Erra: The challenge lies in what we just talked about: How do we create a buzz, then a phenomenon, a hype? Artists and influencers of music are becoming increasingly involved in social networks, and it’s important to make use of that sensibly. We have to be very conscious of what triggers people’s interest and also be aware of what curbs it.

Reese: What will the future of audio branding look like?

Erra: Never think that audio is more important than substance. But audio will play an increasingly important role, for example in places where brands connect to consumers in the real world, like in retail.

Reese: How does it feel to have a really good idea?

Erra: A great idea in communications is an idea that has the ability to move people and make an impression on them so deeply that it changes them. There are a lot of remarkable ideas that won’t move anyone. It’s what makes our business so tricky: It aims at changing behavior, and that’s difficult to predict with certainty. I don’t always recognize a “for sure” martingale, but sometimes I feel that an idea is likely to make things happen. And then you have to fight very hard to protect it. 

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