The Art of Matching Music to Christmas Campaigns

November 15, 2016 / Features

By Jess Nicks

How to find the perfect soundtrack to your brand’s expensive end-of-year blowout.

The highly anticipated John Lewis Christmas advert has sprung onto our screens bringing with it a sigh of relief (from me anyway!). 2016 has definitely not been the year to end with an overly cozy, sentimental ode to all that is right with the world. John Lewis have cleverly anticipated the mood of the nation and woven this into the style of their ad, and indeed, their choice of music. Using their tried-and-tested method of covering songs with relevant female vocals, the clever folks at adam&eveDDB have also added some comedy into the mix.

Director Dougal Wilson’s work for John Lewis and adam&eveDDB has set the benchmark by combining great storytelling with emotive music, and this year’s £7 million John Lewis campaign is no different.

The advert features an uplifting version of Randy Crawford’s 1980 hit One Day I’ll Fly Away.  Recorded by up-and-coming electronica trio Vaults, along with a 66-piece orchestra, it features the soaring vocals of singer Blythe Pepino. Vaults, if you haven’t already had the pleasure, are an exceptionally brilliant band who featured in the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack. This cover sees Pepino’s voice really take on the wings of the lyrics. With minimal production and instrumentation the words really embed themselves in your brain.

Recent years have seen a widespread use of female vocalists performing cover versions, usually of songs by male-fronted rock bands. It’s a formula John Lewis has largely stuck with since 2009 when it used a cover of Guns N’ Roses Sweet Child of Mine, sung by Swedish singer songwriter Victoria Bergsman, aka Taken By Trees. Soft female vocals work well for Christmas ads as they lend an intimate feel to a story and help to build an emotional connection between the brand and consumer.

A key early consideration when exploring the use of music in a Christmas campaign is deciding whether to go ‘on trend’ or ‘on brand’.

Creatives need to choose whether to jump on the latest bandwagon or stick with what the brand is known for. For those deciding to follow a trend, it has to be done brilliantly, otherwise there is a danger the ad will appear derivative and blend into the background of a blizzard of seasonal ads.

A growing number of brands and agencies are steering clear of the well-worn trend for mellifluous female vocalists and minimalist cover versions of poplar classics. Lo-Fang’s rendition of You’re The One That I Want for Chanel was so unexpected and hugely effective. More recently, Yves Saint Laurent’s Mon Paris ad heard Lee-La Baum from Montreal rockers The Damn Truth belt out a take on U2’s Love Is Blindness.

Among the retailers to take a very different approach to John Lewis in recent years is House of Fraser, which has used punchy soundtracks coupled with energetic creatives. Its Your Christmas, Your Rules campaign in 2015 harnessed a bold remake of Lesley Gore’s 1963 feminist anthem You Don’t Own Me, by Aussie teen star Grace Sewell. The campaign more than did its job, boosting the retailer’s sales during the Christmas period by 5.3% year-on-year.

There has also been a real shift away from traditional Christmas songs, with brands and agencies being more creative with the music they sync. Play it safe by using anything too traditional and festive and you’re in danger of your ad being forgotten among a sea of more attention-grabbing soundtracks.

At Audio Network, and our boutique bespoke music agency Workshop, we ensure music is the driving force behind campaigns for clients including BBC, Grey London, HBO, Disney and Lucky Generals.

A significant campaign we worked on was Mulberry’s APA award-winning campaign #WinChristmas, created by adam&eveDDB. Directed by Andy McLeod through Rattling Stick, the lighthearted advert plays on the competitive spirit stirred up within families when exchanging presents. A girl receives everything from a painting to a unicorn but it’s not until she opens a Mulberry bag that she’s really bowled over.

It’s an irreverent ad so we steered clear of traditional music and instead our composer David Tobin produced a really low key piece of cool, smooth jazz that perfectly complements the tongue-in-cheek feel of the ad.

For anyone like me, whose job it is to search for or commission the perfect sync for a campaign, getting involved early is vital. Music licensing companies have the creative experience needed to help brands with strategy from the offset and steer them away from an obvious or underwhelming choice of music. Starting early enables us to thoroughly explore the best ways of putting music to content, whether that’s recording tracks to brief or exploring unique cover versions.

As well as getting involved at the start of the process, clear and frequent communication between creatives, producers and sync teams is vitally important. Trying to interpret a description of music accurately is not always easy as it’s particularly subjective.

If the creative team is set on using their favourite song rather than the piece of music that befits the campaign, the results can often disappoint. It is important to keep an open mind and remain open to suggestions.
Music changes perception of a brand and those that consider the soundtrack of an ad with as much care and attention as the imagery will see results. A musical memory is unshakable, thus making it the most powerful element of all.


Jess Nicks is a Music Consultant at WorkshopAudio Network's in-house creative music agency.

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