Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Smaller Rival Takes Aim at Pandora

BEN SISARIO/The New York Times

ONE of advertising’s great (or at least most amusing) traditions is the challenger attack ad, in which a field’s No. 2 (or No. 3) player tries to distinguish itself by taking aim at the leader. When artfully done it can have a great effect, as in Avis’s long-running “We try harder”campaign against Hertz, or Samsung’s recent ads mocking the obedience of iPhone fans.

The latest example is in digital music services, with Pandora as the Goliath and its much smaller competitor Slacker in the role of David with the 30-second sling.

In an online-only spot that will start running Wednesday, a young woman at a coffee shop vexes everyone in earshot when she opens a blue “Pandora’s box” — labeled “P,” like Pandora’s app icon — and unleashes a singularly annoying song.

“It plays that over and over again,” the woman complains to a friend, who blames Pandora’s “small music library” for the repetition. With Slacker helpfully loaded on her phone, the friend points out that Slacker has 10 times as many songs, and other features, too.

Like Pandora, Slacker offers free, ad-supported Internet radio and has two tiers of premium service. Listeners can eliminate ads for a $4 monthly subscription, and $10 a month also adds features that — like Spotify and other “on-demand” services — let users play any song they choose.

Since its founding in 2006, however, Slacker has struggled to stand out. With four million monthly users, 560,000 of them paying, its audience is a fraction of Pandora’s, which is more than 65 million a month; Clear Channel Communications has nearly 50 million online listeners through its station sites and iHeartRadio app.

To promote itself among such formidable competition — and to introduce a revamped version of its site — Slacker wants to show that it tries harder.

“We had to be very honest with where we were in the marketplace,” said Craig Rechenmacher, Slacker’s chief marketing officer. “We had to be disruptive in the marketplace, and we needed something that targets our competitors and the holes in their service.”

Slacker will spend $5.5 million on media placements this year, Mr. Rechenmacher said. In addition to the video spot, by Liquid Advertising, the campaign will include display ads by the agency Questus, and they will run on music and pop-culture sites like YouTube, Vevo, Brooklyn Vegan and College Humor.

The ads show off what Slacker says is its human touch, with playlists created by music experts and stations featuring D.J.’s and commentators. Pandora caters to listeners’ tastes through a secret algorithm that analyzes each song’s musical “genome.” (Others, likeSongza, have grown quickly through expert programming, but Pandora is the field’s leader by far.)

“When we did research on our core users, what they love the most, what came back was the idea that it felt like somebody was home,” said Jack Isquith, Slacker’s senior vice president of strategic development. “There was someone who loves music at the controls.”

The campaign is also evidence of a slow change in the marketing of digital music services, many of which have avoided advertising in favor of online word-of-mouth (and, of course, lots of free music). Pandora, for example, is often featured in commercials by its partners, like car companies, but has made none of its own.

“It costs a lot of money to build a brand if you didn’t hit it luckily through viral channels, like Pandora did,” said David Hyman, the former chief executive of the music service Mog, which was sold last year to Beats Electronics.

The biggest force in promoting digital music over the years, music executives say, was Apple’s iTunes and iPod commercials. Rhapsody, too, has run dozens of television ads, including a memorable one with Jay-Z in 2009.

For the most part the recent wave of streaming services has not been heavily advertised, but that is changing as the field grows more competitive. Last year, Rdio, a subscription service, did a multimillion-dollar campaign that included billboards in Times Square. Spotify, which has grown quickly but has not fully penetrated the mainstream market, recently hired its first agency of record, Droga5 — the former agency of Rhapsody.

For its campaign, Slacker wanted to focus on how digital services serve consumers. In the coffee shop video, the patrons align with the demographics of the service — 18 to 44 years old, and slightly more females than males, said Will Akerlof, the chief executive of Liquid Advertising — and visibly express their reactions to the music playing.

To find a sufficiently irritating soundtrack, the agency looked at a 2007 Rolling Stone magazine feature, “The 20 Most Annoying Songs,” Mr. Akerlof said, and recorded a techno-pop version of the folk song “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” in the style of Rednex’s version from the mid-1990s (No. 13 on the list).

That lighthearted approach, with a focus on the consumer, has been missing from many digital-music ads, Mr. Isquith said.

“The approaches of many of the people in the space has been, ‘Hey, we’re standing next to big stars,’ or, ‘Hey, we’ve got the slickest, most cutting-edge tech product,’ but that’s not why people use it,” he said.

“Our ads,” Mr. Isquith added, “are meant to say that this is a great listener experience that will delight you.”

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