Guest Post: Why Honda's $50 Million Play for Music Content Isn't Working

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Lucy Hale performs on the Honda Stage at the iHeartRadio Theater on July 31, 2014 in Burbank, California. 

The company's expensive play isn't adding up.

We all know that music marketing spending is growing exponentially. Like mobile, digital or social, it has the power to improve the bottom line, to unite people, and to put brands in a position of providing actual real-life value.

So… what just happened with Honda?

In an effort to connect with youthful car buyers, Honda announced in June that they were spending $50 million on the Honda Stage program. Partnering with Live Nation, Clear Channel, Vevo, Revolt and YouTube, Honda redirected TV dollars to focus on creating a music-centric content destination allowing them to serve ads that have emotional tie-ins to the displayed content. Honda's goal was two billion views in the first year. 

Honda Pouring Over $50M Ad Dollars Into New Music Platform

On paper, everything looks right here. Partnership with leading music properties? Check. Association with relevant artists? Check. Shift from traditional ads to branded, relevant content? Check.

You can picture all the nodding heads in the pitch room. You can probably even imagine your head nodding along with them. But two months in, they're not even at 1% of their goal, per published reports.

There will be any number of theories about what went wrong, but mine is that Honda violated the lesson we learn in every teen movie: Be yourself. They went for big and popular, spending on a huge party -- and no one came. And in the course of things, they lost sight of who they are. And being true to who you are is the most important part of connecting with music fans the right way. 

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There's a discovery process involved in success, and the key to making music work for you is understanding what role you can genuinely play in the world of music.

In the case of Honda, they lacked purpose or identity. A million bells and whistles can't define, "Why Honda?" The question up front should have been: "What are we going to do in music that will be received as truly, uniquely Honda?"

It's a fundamental question that needs to be answered by all brands. Before you spend millions to have Lady Gaga perform on Mars or Justin Timberlake surprise an unsuspecting fan, know where you fit in the space. Ask, "What's my musical purpose?"

There are basic steps toward finding your answer.

1. Identify Positioning -- How do you want people to see your brand in music? Can you honestly be the key influencer, telling people what to listen to? If you're Beats by Dre, yes. Pillsbury, not so much. What credibility does your brand have to do that? Can you amplify an existing music behavior, like concert-going or fan-to-star interaction? Before making tactical decisions on talent, execution and promotion, define the value you can provide and how you really want to be perceived.

2. Define Authenticity -- Music is a big, confusing place for a brand. When brands select talent, whatever the tactic, they need to choose artists authentic to their brand. Does speed metal really seem true to the Coca-Cola brand? No, but maybe for Jägermeister. The hard part comes when brands need to turn their back on entire genres of popular music. As EDM continues to rise in popularity, brands want to get invited to that party -- but at what cost? Will your association be accepted by the ravers? Despite regular consumption of your product by the neon-wearing beat lovers, playing in the EDM space may just not be true to your brand.

Defining authenticity is usually more art than science, but the topic should be revisited regularly. Authenticity exists on a spectrum, not a black-and-white scale. What words represent "authentic" for your brand? "Style. Technology. Youth. Social consciousness." Then ask: how do your considered artists live up to those brand ideals?

3. Verify Value -- It often takes a sizeable piggy bank to play in music, and the cost of doing business continues to rise. As concert promoters and record labels continue to increase their efforts around brand partnership, and as mega brands like A-B and Pepsi continue to spend $200M+ a year, the price of entry is steep. To manage expenses, brands should devote serious thought to the role they can play within the industry. Creating value exchange needs to be a priority to keep costs down.

As recorded music sales continue to fall (YTD down 14%) record labels have fewer dollars to spend on individual artists. How can your brand replace some of that lost value? Understanding label priorities and the needs of individual artists is huge. True value is recognized when brands identify industry needs where they can fill a void.

Brand activation in music can be incredibly fruitful, but to maximize returns, you have to decide what you want, know who you are, and understand what you should expect.

Once that's complete… maybe then get Gaga fitted for her spacesuit.

Glenn Minerley is the vice president and group director of music and entertainment at Momentum Worldwide. He is @Minerley on Twitter.

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