Dr. Jens Thiemer is the Head of Marketing at Mercedes-Benz Cars. Before rejoining Daimler AG in 2013, he was an equity partner at CNC Communications & Network Consulting AG, where he was in charge of the firm's international rebranding and marketing communications. Before that, Jens worked for almost a decade in various management positions for what is now Daimler AG.
Reese: May I ask you about your personal relationship with music? Do you play a musical instrument?
Thiemer: I started playing the piano when I was 5 years old, and I continued to do so throughout my high school days. However, I’m probably not the greatest pianist the world has ever seen. (Laughs).
Reese: If we talk about this in relation to your work: How important is audio in brand communication?
Thiemer: Audio is an essential component, one of substantial importance. After, all, it is scientifically proven that after our sense of smell, our sense of hearing is the strongest in regards to the effect it has on our memory and our emotions, which is a fundamental insight for marketers, of course. In my opinion, it would be irresponsible not to implement audio in a very conscious and concerted way. It’s a topic you should really occupy yourself with, and we’re doing just that. For me personally, music is a part of our campaign work that I pay particular attention to.
Reese: So you’re saying that marketing officials should apply the same amount of discipline to their audio brand communication as they do to their visual brand communication?
Thiemer: Yes, absolutely.
Reese: My interview partners in the first edition of this project agreed on two things: Firstly, the decision-making process concerning music in branding is arbitrary and very difficult to measure. And secondly, audio is generally addressed only at a very late stage during the creative process – in a tactical, not a strategic way. This is despite the fact that most of my interviewees say that music makes 50-70% of a film. Could you talk a little bit about the decision-making process concerning music within Mercedes’ branding strategies?
Thiemer: We’re well aware of the power of music. And that counts for everyone involved in the process – including our agency partners worldwide. When we’re developing a campaign idea, music plays a substantial role in that process. Over the last few years, we’ve done our best to include it at a very early stage within the briefing phase, where we discuss in which general musical direction the campaign is headed. This applies mostly to campaigns that are of a particular importance, however, for example the ones that involve our partnership with the German national soccer team. These are campaigns that don’t have the usual product focus in the briefing but rather aim at triggering great emotions that are superordinate to the brand perception. The entire process is definitely a team effort: My team and myself voice a clear vision in the briefing and in the shoulder views, and our agency partners give us further input. It’s all about finding the right piece of music – no matter if pre-existing or scored – with the highest possible degree of brand and product fit.
A very good example for that is the track “Upside Down” that we chose for our “Chicken” spot, which received quite a bit of traction. In that instance, we had a number of discussions about whether we could afford the track, whether it was worth it, how long the licensing was going to run for, and so on. Another example is the Mercedes “Mixed Tape”, an initiative we launched in the late ‘90s: We regularly release compilations of songs by newcomer artists. It’s a subscription-based model that can be easily implemented into the in-car sound system. A third example are collaborations we have engaged in with better known artists, for example with Christina Aguilera and the A-Class in 2004. She actually wrote an exclusive song for the launch called “Hello”. Lionel Richie wrote the song “The One” for the launch of the SL R230-series.
Reese: Lionel Richie composed a song for your campaign?
Thiemer: Yes, together with the artist Juliette in 2001. Additionally, we have released some unpublished songs of the artists – so the case with Aguilera, and also very recently with Ryan Tedder and the B-Class.
Reese: Do you follow an audio style guide at Mercedes – just like you probably follow a visual brand book?
Thiemer: We currently don’t have any audio style guide in place, not in the narrower sense anyway. We have had audio on our agenda for quite some time now, but we don’t have a holistic audio concept in place. There was an attempt a few years ago to develop and implement an audio logo, but it didn’t prevail in the end.
Reese: Do you believe brands should follow certain audio rules?
Thiemer: Not necessarily. Currently, I find it more feasible to pick music for campaigns on a case-by-case basis. But there are other components to the Mercedes audio brand that are more consistent: Our voice-overs, for example. In the US, we have been working with Jon Hamm, and quite successfully so. His voice is strong and charismatic - most people know it from the show “Mad Men.” Jon does most of our English voiceovers worldwide. For the German market, we went through a voiceover casting process together with our agency partners last year. If you stick to just one voiceover artist for all of your audio brand communication, it can be a tough decision, as you really need to find someone who can deliver a broad range of moods and emotions.
Reese: Do you test the voiceovers in any way? Is there an A/B test, testing during the castings, etc.?
Thiemer: That kind of testing is in place, yes.
Reese: Going back to more well-known artists like Christina Aguilera. In instances like these, brands aim for a shared equity position, which I like to call “credibility transfer.” You’re basically hoping that some of the artist’s stardom will rub off on your brand. Do you measure this particular effect in any way?
Thiemer: Well, we do conduct general campaign measurement. In 2015, our big campaign for the new Mercedes SUV range was broadcast, and it featured a very dominant, pervasive soundtrack. Our testing showed that the music in particular helped push the recognizability and emotional log-in of the campaign. We achieved a similar effect with the launch of the C-Class, where from early on we decided to use a track that was already quite popular at the time: the song “Changes” by Faul & Wad Ad. We found out that the campaign worked particularly well because of the music. These are just two examples proving to which extent the right audio choices can boost branding and marketing efforts.
Reese: That probably already answers another question of mine. Do you believe music can change consumer behavior?
Thiemer: Absolutely, without a question. But to get back to the topic of audio style guides: We don’t have a traditional audio style guide in place, or music concepts in the way that Lufthansa, Air Berlin, or Telekom use them – in a 360°-approach. But we do follow a very defined “attitude style guide”, if you will. It applies to the entire Mercedes brand and its purpose is to define our style concept of “modern luxury.” One aspect of that style concept is also audio.
Reese: That’s what I would call “audio branding 2.0.” You see, a common misconception is that audio branding is all about audio logos. Apple, for instance, follows a very strict audio style guide without actually using an audio logo. For a brand, it is much more important to be consistent in its general audio communication with target audiences – from UX sound to the choice of music for commercials. It all has to be of the same emotional fabric.
Thiemer: Which is quite a challenge, by the way. How do I define that emotional fabric? Can I establish any KPIs for that? Do I rely on an expert panel? What kind of measurements should be put in place? I can’t think of any other field as complex in terms of measurement.
Reese: Another interesting question would be what the future of audio branding will look or sound like. What will be my audio touch points in 20 years? Nobody can answer me that question. But the amount of a brand’s audio touch points will definitely increase exponentially over the next few years. At the same time, brands will have to be able to communicate their philosophy in increasingly shorter time spans. For me, a brand has accomplished audio branding 2.0 when just by listening a few seconds, with eyes closed, you know: That’s Mercedes.
Thiemer: That would be a very desirable target. Within the automobile industry, we have a whole range of audio touch points. Our product – the car – offers a multitude of touch points in itself. And we have done a lot of work perfecting our brand characteristics in that field, from the way the engine sounds to the user interface, or even the opening and closing of the doors. There will be a range of other sonic aspects for us to cover in the future: Electric vehicles will become more and more prominent. They’re obviously a lot quieter than cars with combustion engines. So we’ll have to start thinking about what these electric cars should sound like. Or if you think about the new autonomous driving technology: Once passengers won’t have to focus on the road as much, there will be a new need for in-car entertainment, where, in turn, brand placement will play a huge role. How can I further integrate the brand Mercedes in my in-car audio? The possibilities really are endless. Reducing it all to a mere audio logo would be close-minded, naturally. The more so as the top creatives we’re working with tend to be fierce advocates of creative freedom and don’t take restrictions very well. You’ll also have to think about viability. Timing-wise, how urgent is a holistic sound identity for my brand? How do you solve the conflict “global consistency” versus “cultural differences” when it comes to music? It’s a very complex field.
Reese: Solid branding requires a range of standards to ensure you’re not going back to square one every time. At the same time, you’ll need a high degree of flexibility and cultural sensitivity. No agency likes to be handcuffed creatively.
Thiemer: Our claim “modern luxury” is already quite narrowly defined. Thankfully, there’s a growing worldwide consensus on what luxury actually means, which is particularly the case among younger target audiences. It ensures we’re confident of our style and are implementing it with global consistency.
Reese: The audio behavior of 80% of the Fortune 100 companies is still entirely arbitrary. We live in a visual world where audio is too often neglected – despite the fact that our sense of hearing is so powerful. We can still recite a song after 40 years. Our sonic memory is phenomenal. Do you have any advice for other CMOs who want to approach the topic strategically?
Thiemer: For me personally, Intel is still one of the best audio brands worldwide. The Intel audio brand has achieved an unprecedented recall factor – it’s simple, yet brilliant. Mercedes has a long way to go in that respect, so I don’t think I’m in the best position to be giving advice to others. But we’re on a good path and we’re well aware of the importance of audio. The next crucial step will be to transform our knowledge into action. And although we’ve already accomplished some audio goals - and I mentioned a few examples – ultimately, if I were to give any advice at all, it would be to become more self-disciplined and to do more research on the topic.
There’s a success recipe in communications and it’s all about handwriting: A brand has to have a unique handwriting, and it isn’t something that can be achieved by a democratic decision, or by conducting a lot research. It should be the responsibility of a small team of creatives, the CMO, and perhaps a handful of trusted experts. We are currently in the middle of lifting that Mercedes handwriting to a new standard of excellence – it had become a little blurred over the last few years. And again, the handwriting should not only include visual elements, but also sonic elements. I think we should even start thinking more about olfactory components. Brands should offer multisensory experiences. Anything that can trigger impulses, sensual reflexes, should become part of our toolkit of brand communication and is the most effective and legitimate form of manipulation.