Brand Strategy Sonic Branding Marketing

People still love Mr Brightside 20 years later. Here’s its sonic secret

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By Melissa Morton, Research manager

June 5, 2024 | 6 min read

MassiveMusic’s Melissa Morton explains to advertisers how to craft an emotive earworm just like the famous Killers song.

Mr Brightside

‘It started out with a kiss...’ I know you can effortlessly finish these lyrics, and you’re not alone. As The Killers celebrate two decades since their debut album Hot Fuss, their most recognizable track, Mr Brightside, persists as an iconic anthem.

With a record-breaking seven-year stint in the UK top 100 and a staggering total of 5.57m combined in sales and streams, the track has now overtaken Oasis’ Wonderwall as the biggest song to never top the charts.

So what can Mr Brightside’s longevity teach us about a sound that stands the test of time?

Part of Mr Brightside’s enduring success lies in its simplicity.

Music psychologists suggest memorable tunes feature a range of pitches and predictable melodic shapes. Mr. Brightside’s opening epitomizes this—effortlessly singable, all on one note. The importance of singability and repetition is a fundamental principle in creating memorable sonic brands.

Singability emphasizes the ease with which melodies can be vocalized by an audience, integrating them into pop culture. Repetition reinforces melodies, cementing them in the listeners’ minds. Incorporating these simple ideas enhances the likelihood of sonic brands leaving a lasting impression.

A powerful sonic identity goes beyond simplicity – it must develop an emotional connection with consumers. Despite its straightforward melody, Mr Brightside weaves a narrative through its lyrics, evoking emotions.

While singability creates recognition, neuroscientists suggest that music featuring complexity or unpredictability triggers the brain’s reward centres. This doesn’t just have to be in lyrics. A musical surprise happens at the very end of Mr Brightside: instead of ending with the chord of the song’s home key, Db major, we hear a Gb major chord, making the harmony feel unfinished and leaving listeners craving more.

The solution for a memorable sound, therefore, is finding that nuance between a recognizable sonic identity, which also has emotional resonance.

In advertising, a prime example of this is TikTok’s iconic ‘Boom-bling’ sonic logo. In tests, a more complex version of the logo, which used an unresolved melody, resonated far more emotionally with consumers than a simpler alternative.

By infusing sonic identities with unexpected elements– unusual chords or timbres– brands can deepen emotional connections established in simple ideas.

Crafting a flawless sonic brand is just the beginning. How it’s deployed is vital.

Just Eat’s simple yet catchy sonic logo achieved attention through strategic activations with artists like Snoop Dogg and Christina Aguilera, resulting in a brand attribution rate of 94% in the UK.

Similarly, Mr Brightside’s resonance with British culture propelled its popularity. Although The Killers are an American band, they found success in the UK when indie label Lizard King picked up the track, and it seamlessly integrated into the fabric of 2000s student life, which is why the track carries a strong sense of nostalgia for many.

A robust sonic identity should seamlessly integrate into broader cultural contexts, weaving into the collective consciousness. The UEFA Women’s Champions League 2021 anthem captured a sense of history associated with the Champions League with an empowering and timeless message of strength and courage.

The lesson for brands is to create sonic identities that resonate not only on an individual level but also harmonize with the cultural context they inhabit. Utilizing partnerships that speak to wider cultural contexts can help them resonate more.

Mr Brightside has become so famous that Brandon Flowers believes it no longer even belongs to the band: “It just exists in the world.” But that can be risky when something becomes so ingrained in culture. Mr Brightside’s omnipresence has also made it a target for Twitter memes, making it on to BuzzFeed’s list of ‘Popular Songs People Absolutely Hate’.

This has happened in advertising too - just look at the Go Compare phenomenon. The brand’s sonic identity, with its loud operatic lyrics, became so infamous it led to singer Wynne Evans being labeled ‘the most irritating man in the UK.’

It’s not inherently bad to have this effect, after all, it clearly works for The Killers, and Go Compare is still using its sonic signature. If anything, the brand leaned into the ‘hate,’ with a 2012 campaign showing various British celebrities kicking footballs into his stomach or even shooting him with a bazooka.

Unless humor is the goal, brands need to be aware of the risks of becoming a ‘sonic meme’ and should be wary of the associations that people will make with the sounds.

So, how did it end up like this?

Even if we love to hate Mr Brightside, it’s still streamed a whopping 1.8m times a week on Spotify in the UK alone. Despite not reaching the number one spot, Mr Brightside has achieved remarkable longevity and cultural significance. Studying its melodic makeup teaches us how brands can supercharge their sonic signatures, achieving emotional resonance for years to come.

And while you’re here, you may as well give it another listen to see what I mean.

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