Under normal circumstances, reaching into a commercial refrigerator at a local deli and grabbing a can of soda shouldn’t require a lot of pondering. But that’s exactly what I was doing as I stared down the row of Coca-Cola bottles, each displaying a few words from well-known songs on their labels, as the line of fellow customers grew behind me. I was torn about which to choose, even though they were all affixed to the same drink and would promptly be recycled in just a few hours. It wasn’t the type of crisis I expected when I left for my lunch hour.
I wound up choosing “Can’t stop, won’t stop grooving” from Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” a song that always conjures up fond memories of good times and sweet dance moves. It wasn’t until some time later that I realized I played right into Coke’s hands—my customer experience was exactly what it intended. The marketing plan worked like a charm.
This may not be the first time Coca-Cola has experimented with music in its marketing, but it could be the beginning of reaching beyond melodies and harmonies toward something more intangible. The brand revealed that it was aiming to cross genre lines and allow customers to share moments and memories by printing popular lyrics on its labels.
“Music is a universal language,” Joe Belliotti, head of global music marketing for Coca-Cola North America, explained in a press release. “Lyrics can explain how we feel and what we want to say when we can’t find the words ourselves. The art of sharing music to express feelings for someone special goes back to creating mix tapes as a kid, which later evolved to mix CDs and now playlists…that behavior hasn’t changed.”
In its drive to capitalize on the desire we have to share things like favorite songs, Coca-Cola tapped into something else: Consumers today want more than uber-personalized content. In fact, many want to have a shared customer experience that allows them to connect with others and become part of a larger story.
A shared experience is one that brings people together—beyond interests or demographics. It allows individuals to establish an emotional connection with their surroundings, which can include other people, objects, events, or music. Bryan Kramer, one of the leading voices on the science of sharing, notes on his official website that shared experiences can dramatically enhance the individual experience as well, making the whole event or action more enjoyable and meaningful for both parties. That fosters positive feelings and memories that may have a major impact on future interactions.
“Shared experiences have the ability to fuse people together, sometimes people who wouldn’t have even made sense together outside of that context. Simply put, that’s powerful,” videographer Bob Horan Jr. writes on Medium.
These experiences aren’t limited to intimate dinners or massive events, however. Social media and the internet make it easy to connect with people all over the world on any topic, and users often try to do just that. As a result, a shared experience could include providing feedback on a community forum, live-Tweeting a television show, or streaming media from a concert.
“Meaning can be found in every event. How meaningful depends on the manner in which people are involved and engaged,” Horan writes. “No matter how small, an event experience has the power to engage people, let them escape the ordinary, and build relationships.”
Yet there are some caveats to a shared experience. For one, it doesn’t have to limited to people within your physical vicinity, or even people you know personally. Research published in Psychological Science agreed that sharing experiences makes them more pleasurable—even when the people participating are strangers. So looping in everyone from Twitter followers to fellow Snapchatters has the potential to improve an experience.
“When people think of shared experience, what usually comes to mind is being with close others, such as friends or family, and talking with them,” said Erica Boothby, one of the researchers involved in the project. “We don’t realize the extent to which we are influenced by people around us whom we don’t know and aren’t even communicating with.”
One of the most effective ways to encourage a shared experience is through music. While companies have been using everything from simple advertising jingles to breaking new artists in their campaigns for years, few have successfully used those melodies and harmonies to band their audience members together for one massive experience. They’re missing out: Since music is the universal language, it has the potential to bridge the gap between a brand and its customers, no matter where they’re located, how old they are, or what their interests may be.
“Music helps brands to form an emotional connection with their target audience in a unique way, in that it affects a wider audience than most other forms of artistic expression,” Matthew Sommer, COO of Brolik, told Forbes. “With so much competition for attention, advertisers can’t afford not to use every tool in their shed, especially one as emotive as music.”
The problem is that brands need to think outside the box when it comes to music. Having a soundtrack to a commercial just isn’t enough anymore. While companies may get a few Tweets regarding a new song, it’s not on the same level as fostering a shared experience, swirling up a fond memory, or encouraging users to forge a real connection with a brand and its marketing efforts.
Coca-Cola already proved it’s possible to use music to connect with customers in new and exciting ways, using a long history stemming from American Bandstand to mix CDs to streaming radio stations to inspire its efforts. But it isn’t the only brand hitting the ground running with shared experiences. Brands have recently begun producing playlists and podcasts to engage customers.
Some brands have made a splash by adding their own twist on this practice. Game of Thrones and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both teamed up with Spotify to post character-aligned playlists that users could be matched with following an interactive quiz. The effort was met with plenty of press coverage and enthusiasm from customers, with thousands following their matched playlists and sharing their results on social media.
Apple Music isn’t far behind in trying to leverage music for a better shared experience. In 2015, the company launched Beats 1, a 24-hour streaming radio service. Everyone listening around the world hears the same music, listens to the same interviews, and can even contribute to selecting the songs. While the concept of a radio station may not be new, this is one of the first times in the internet era that a brand has bucked the trend of personalized experiences—which Apple is quite capable of doing through iTunes and its Apple Music playlists—and focused on the shared experience instead.
As Mike Elgan wrote on Computerworld, “When I listen to Beats 1, I can assume that some percentage of my colleagues in the tech press are listening to the same thing I am. One of my kids might be listening. And I know that at this very moment, a non-trivial number of people in India, Mongolia, Egypt, Fiji, Sweden and dozens of other countries are listening to the same song at the same time. And that knowledge changes the experience of listening.”
Of course, this shared experience is both enabled and enhanced by the internet. Users can head to social media to share their opinions on Beats 1, converse with other listeners, and more. And they are: Apple Music acquired 11 million paid subscribers in less than a year, while at the same time attracting some of the biggest names in music to participate in the product’s endeavors.
It’s not just about listening to music with others—although that’s a large part of a shared experience, and may serve as a jumping off point for related efforts. Brands are also using music as a means to get customers engaged and attract new patrons. Take Snapchat: The popular app boasts more than 100 million daily users, and dozens of brands have started using the program as a means for video advertising. And they’ve taken notice of users’ desire for shared experiences in the process.
The perfect example is Coachella, a California music festival taking place over two consecutive weekends in mid-April. While thousands of people enjoyed the concert in person, millions were able to experience it through Snapchat. According to the Los Angeles Times, at least 40 million people tuned in to parts of the show via the app. Many in attendance made this possible by submitting their own snippets of the shows to the event’s “Story,” a public compilation of media that was carefully curated by Snapchat employees throughout the festival. Users also applied geofilters to their pictures and videos, which Coachella and Snapchat encouraged by setting up a number of filters for different stages and locations at the festival—even the parking lot had its own overlay, complete with a psychedelic bus cartoon.
These may be small touches, but they made a big difference for Snapchat users who wanted to contribute to or take part in the Coachella experience. Mediakix noted that more of these grassroots event experiences are likely, since Snapchat has already increased the number of live events it highlights. The brand has also started monetizing the process with short ads integrated into these public Stories, and companies have begun sponsoring live events in the hopes of gaining more exposure. As long as the audience continues to tune in—and they are by the millions—this shared experience initiative will grow.
Although the idea of leveraging a shared customer experience may still be in its infancy, savvy brands are already taking advantage of the concept—they have to if they want to keep up with their customers. The inroads they’re making with playlists, Snapchat videos, radio stations and more are causing people to stop and take notice in a much more organic way than traditional advertising, and they’re sticking around once they realize they like what they see and feel.
Music is just one medium these companies are using to form an emotional bond to and among those consumers. As the universal language, it’s among the best ways to get started on the relatively new path of shared customer experiences.
“Today, a product or service is powerful because of how it connects people to something—or someone—else,” Josh Allan Dykstra of Fast Company notes. Successful organizations will emphasize their community and provide outlets for engagement to foster these connections, helping customers feel better about their brand choices and improving their opinion of the brand in question.
Shared customer experiences have too much potential to be ignored. But it doesn’t take a million-dollar campaign to get this initiative launched: Even the smallest experiences can be impactful, particularly if they are both shared and shareable. If content marketers can think outside the box when it comes to using music, they could find themselves with a host of loyal and engaged customers.