Muzak on Key

When it comes to name recognition, Muzak has one of the strongest brands in the world. Unfortunately, for years it has been outdated and often evoked a negative public response. Muzak's new identity program has begun to change that perception. The impact is clearly evident in the new spirit of pride within the company and a growing clientele in Muzak's target markets

Say the name "Muzak" and chances are the term "elevator music" comes to mind. That image is a holdover from the 1920s when General George Squier used military-messaging technology (i.e., power lines) to pipe soothing music into a new contraption called the elevator to calm nervous riders. The resounding success of that early venture became hard to live down. Even though Muzak had long since gone on to develop the world's largest digital music library with songs by original artists, the public perception of elevator music stuck.

It was a liability that Muzak's sales force and franchisees worked hard to overcome. As often as not, they distanced themselves from the brand. At a sales meeting four years ago, Kenny Kahn, Muzak's vice president of marketing, asked Muzak's sales people to lay their business cards on the table. No two were alike. "We had 200 offices and 3,000 employees and 450 versions of our business card," Kahn recalls. "If we had 1,000 Muzak trucks, they all looked different. We were so insecure about our own identity that our business cards and trucks often looked more like our vendors' identities than our own. The names Bose and DishNetwork appeared more prominently than Muzak.".

By 1997, benign neglect of the Muzak brand had begun to take its toll. Kahn admits, "The parent company was losing serious cash. It had insufficient cash flow, increased debt, negative growth and an unbelievably horrible corporate culture. Then there was the franchise organization, which was wealthy. It was desperately afraid of change and had lost all faith in the parent company and felt they couldn't count on us to deliver a brand or pretty much anything else." On the plus side, Kahn adds, "Muzak had a new senior management team that was hell bent on change."

Its mandate to Kahn was to revitalize the brand, and he made the rounds of top ad agencies. Greeted warmly at first, Kahn noted their enthusiasm cooled when he told them his modest budget. One person who didn't flinch was designer Kit Hinrichs, a partner of Pentagram. "When he said he'd love to help us rebuild our identity, I had to ask him why," Kahn recalls. "I'll never forget his answer. He kind of smiled and said, `Well, if I fail, no one will ever know. But if I succeed, Muzak will tell the world.'"

Hinrichs' recollection was that he saw a company receptive to change. "We came in at the crossroads," he says. "Muzak's new management had done a lot of ground work before they engaged us. While Muzak was still making money, they saw a ceiling they couldn't rise above because of the way they were perceived. They knew they needed to turn that around to attract more premium accounts."

Pentagram's visual audit of Muzak materials and nationwide interviews confirmed everything Kahn had said. Pentagram associate Brian Jacobs, the lead designer on the project, says, "Muzak was so fragmented in the way it communicated that its brand looked different in every city and region and even between franchisees and company sales offices."

A first step was to develop a unifying symbol for Muzak that could go on everything from business cards to trade show booths, videos and sales materials. Pentagram explored dozens of directions, including wordmarks, symbols and a complete name change (which Muzak ruled out). In the end, a silver-and-black M in a circle prevailed. "Shifting from featuring the name Muzak to a strong symbol took the emphasis off the wordmark and said, `Here's a different company that happens to be Muzak,'" Jacobs explains. "The simplicity of the logo worked well on all kinds of diverse applications and wouldn't conflict with current graphic trends that might be used on marketing materials. Also, choosing silver and black as Muzak's signature colors gave the logo an elegant simplicity. The colors were bold yet neutral so you weren't forced to plan your design around them.".

Another significant change was to depict Muzak's business as an art instead of a science. For years, Muzak's brand message focused on showing a correlation between physiological/psychological responses and music first in elevators and then in the workplace. In the 1960s, Muzak coined the term "stimulus progression" to show how piping the right music into an office setting helped to enhance employee productivity. Even though the company had begun offering foreground music (FM-1) programmed with current original artist hits in 1984, its promotional materials continued to talk in a scientific tone, supported by serious-looking charts and graphs. What the materials failed to convey was the emotional and creative power of music and how Muzak's "audio architects" can skillfully capture the mood and energy of a brand, albeit a company, spa, restaurant or retail outlet, much like graphic designers are able to capture a company's visual identity through imagery. In fact, Muzak describes its expertise as "audio imaging.".

Pentagram sought to portray Muzak as an organization of young, hip and knowledgeable audio architects who use music to reinforce their clients' own identities. To ensure that would-be clients took notice, Pentagram created an oversized corporate capabilities brochure featuring bold colors, graphic typography, and brief evocative text that emphatically began "Muzak is emotion."

The brochure set off a firestorm within the company. "Everyone was looking for the bullet points," says Kahn. Since marketing materials are billed back to the franchise organizations and sales force, modest print pieces and Power Point presentations were more often the norm. The new capabilities book was panned as lavish, unwanted and unnecessary. Backed by senior management, Kahn recalls, "We said, look we're about art and what we're designing for clients is about art. This piece was not created for you, it was created for your clients. The day the client has a problem with this, then we will have an issue.".

Though unconvinced, franchisees and sales people began to take the brochure out. Kahn says, "We quickly started getting calls. Someone reported he had been stood up for an appointment, but left the brochure behind. By the time he got back to the office, there was a message from the person saying, `I want to see you.' Somebody had signed an 18-store furniture chain from leaving the brochure behind and giving a presentation with our new story. The next day somebody else signed a national firm with 37 locations. Such accounts are big business for us. We were hoping for the mom-and-pop stores when, in reality, regional and national companies were signing on. When something like that happens in a sales organization, word spreads fast.

Not only are sales personnel finding it easier to book appointments, they are finding it easier to make the presentations and follow-through. In addition to the capabilities brochure, Pentagram has developed a multi- media software sales presentation, segment-specific brochures and teaser postcards. The contemporary look of the pieces has garnered new respect from clients. It also has had the same effect on current and new employees. "We found ourselves attracting very bright, talented young people who in the past wouldn't come to work for Muzak. Now they are lining up to work here," Kahn says.

"Today you could not find a more revitalized company than Muzak," he adds. "Financially, three years ago we were losing cash, no cash flow, stunted growth. Today we have grown by 16 percent three years in a row. Cash flow is terrific. The company is valued at $750 million, up from $100 million in 1997."

Restored confidence in its future encouraged Muzak to move its corporate headquarters from Seattle to Fort Mill, SC, in 2000. Pentagram's architectural partner James Biber in New York was brought on to design a new headquarters building for the company Muzak had become. Muzak was drawn to a new 100,000-square-feet industrial warehouse space outside of Charlotte, which seemed less traditional than a high-rise office and more in line with its new artistic identity. "Jim helped us figure out what sort of culture we wanted to create and was able to bring concepts from around the world into the design," says Kahn. Biber sensed the space's potential for exuding an urban energy. "In every presentation, we tried to show aerial views of Italian cities for the notion that the space defined within these cities creates a forum for social interaction," explains Biber. "A work space is as much a social place as a functional place. People don't just go there to earn money; they go to an office for social interaction and for a sense of community. Italian cities work beautifully because there are all these specific defined public spaces and also a network of more private ways."

Reflecting on how an Italian piazza (town square) serves as a crossroad, gathering place and intimate heart of a city, Biber configured the interior with a piazza at its center and bridges joining open areas. There are 22 conference rooms, desks on wheels and no private offices not even for CEO Bill Boyd.

Throughout the building, the visual language of the brand is presented in subtle and impactful ways. The circle, which is a key part of Muzak's new identity, is integrated into the architecture. "The building is incredibly unique," exclaims Kahn. "Our clients arrive here and realize that we're figuring out something here and it is really special."

The dynamic energy and innovative design of the place have made a visit to Muzak headquarters a destination in itself for clients. "Companies in trend-setting industries come away with the feeling that Muzak is cooler than they are," comments Hinrichs. "This gives them the confidence to entrust their audio identity to Muzak.

"Even so, public perception won't change overnight," cautions Hinrichs. "That will take place as Muzak becomes known for giving voice to major brands. But Muzak understands that a brand is not just a logo; it is everything you do. You have to manage it and its evolution or the brand becomes stale or fragmented. Kenny saw from the beginning that his job as marketing VP was creating the tools of the brand and then managing the way they are used."

While Kahn agrees that changing public perception will take time, he notices major differences already. "Although the world still thinks of us as the elevator music company," he says, "we're able to get the right appointments, with the right retailers, the right restaurant chains and the people in our business who we want to do business with."

What has changed, he says, is "we have a new way of talking about the company. The product has a face. It has meant everything in the world internally to our culture. Pentagram gave us a visual foundation that lets us actively and creatively show people what music can do for them. Design has not only been great for Muzak's business; design has given Muzak its soul."