Picture this. You’re sitting in your metal folding chair, the air buzzing with energy. Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blasts from the loudspeakers: “They just use your mind and they never give you credit. It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”
Elizabeth Warren walks onto the stage waving, and the crowd erupts. Some people cry. Some sing along with the song, which they might not have given a second thought to just a year or two prior but has now come to represent Warren.
Presidential candidates have to market themselves to relate to voters, and one of the ways they do that is through music and audio, from the soundtracks in their TV and social media spots to their walk-up songs at rallies and the curated playlists they share on apps like Spotify.
Candidates have at least one song they’re known by—ideally. The goal is to personalize their brand and show voters a more authentic side of themselves. If their music marketing efforts are successful, voters will be able to hear a certain song, or even a certain genre of music (see Bill de Blasio and ska), and think of that candidate.
“Music is a universal language that connects us all,” said Richard Smith, principal creative director at branding agency Sullivan. “It’s emotional, makes us feel good, lifts us up when we’re down or helps us vent when we want to express how we really feel but just can’t.”
Music decisions typically result in one of three outcomes for candidates: Voters make no connection between a candidate and a song, voters associate the candidate with the chosen song or the correlation between candidate and song doesn’t translate as intended. And there’s a fine line between a playlist that makes a statement and one that that focuses solely on making sure personality shines through.
“Music choice is not about personal taste or simply using your latest drive-time fave,” Smith said. “What it’s really about is using something that brings your political brand to life.”
While there are still eight Democrats and two Republicans left in the race, as of publication, for simplicity’s sake, we’re breaking down the song choices of the current 2020 frontrunners: President Trump, former Vice president Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg.
Candidates’ rally songs are meant to represent them as a brand. A walk-up song should illustrate the candidate’s message while also sharing a little of their personality.
“In an event like a rally, the music can fire up the crowd and make it a more emotional and memorable experience,” said Mikko Matikka, marketing and content manager at global audio branding service Audiodraft. “Choosing a suitable walk-in and walk-out song is a very tangible way of introducing the candidate’s agenda because those two moments are key to how people remember the experience in the long run.”
However, when it comes to using audio, a lot of candidates struggle to carve out a unique brand. For the most part, they lean on songs that showcase their personality and since none of the candidates are working specifically with an artist to craft a song that represents them as a whole, most of the songs end up falling flat as a marketing tool.
According to branding expert Ilan Geva, “Not a single presidential candidate has a sonic mark or an audio brand label. None of them come to mind if I think of any musician or music group, be it rock, military or patriotic music or any other audio brand.”