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Pandora’s “most ambitious” ad campaign ever may not be enough to get you to change the stream

The one-time undisputed leader of music streaming is now fighting to maintain its place.

Pandora’s “most ambitious” ad campaign ever may not be enough to get you to change the stream

A woman has turned her kitchen into the world’s coolest nightclub. She flexes, twists, and contorts herself seamlessly to the rhythmic waves of “Dance Monkey” by Tones and I. It’s mesmerizing.

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Until the lights come on.

Then she’s back to being a mom thrashing about the kitchen while her teenage daughter smirks while filming her for what’ll undoubtedly be an incredibly popular TikTok post.

It’s a fun spot, part of a marketing campaign launching today, that Pandora, the music streaming service behind the ad, calls its most ambitious ever.

The purpose of it is threefold. First, it wants to make an emotional connection to music lovers in a way that conveys both a passion for music and Pandora’s belief that it can serve up the perfect song at the perfect moment. Second, the campaign exists to promote its redesigned mobile platform that features new tools to enhance discovery. Third—and this is where it gets more complicated—it’s to address what Pandora’s VP of brand marketing Brad Minor calls a perception gap that exists among users between what they think Pandora does and what it actually can do.

“People want to be able to listen to what they want when they want, with that on-demand control,” says Minor, who joined the company from JP Morgan Chase & Co. last year. “We’ve had that. The challenge is our listeners don’t necessarily know we have that now, and that’s our fault. [We] need to make sure it’s telling you how Pandora has updated since you first came to know and love us some 15 years ago.”

Unfortunately for Pandora, this perception gap still exists almost three years after it first rolled out its on-demand features.

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The new ads do a great job illustrating the disconnect that can exist between how we perceive ourselves in the world and how others see us. In the global music streaming market, Pandora sees itself as the undisputed leader in the U.S., one that’s built up brand loyalty and consumer satisfaction since it debuted publicly in 2005.

Yet from the outside, that status is teetering, given the ascendance—in usage as well as the financial and cultural oomph—of Spotify and Apple Music (not to mention YouTube and Amazon Music). Apple is launching its own music awards. Spotify users listened to Post Malone tracks 6.5 billion times in 2019. Meanwhile, SiriusXM acquired Pandora in September 2018 for $3.5 billion, or one-seventh of Spotify’s market cap.

Globally, Spotify and Apple Music now account for about 55% of the music streaming market. An eMarketer report from earlier this year predicted that Spotify would surpass Pandora’s U.S. listener base by 2021. In 2012, a year after Spotify’s U.S. launch, Pandora had 67 million users, compared to Spotify’s five million. Emarketer forecasting analyst Chris Bendtsen said Pandora was losing users because of tough competition enticing people to switch. “Apple Music has been successful in converting its iPhone user base, Amazon Music has grown with smart speaker adoption, and Spotify’s partnerships have expanded its presence across all devices,” said Bendtsen.

Still, as this new Pandora campaign and its product upgrades suggest, Pandora isn’t giving up without a fight, and the brand knows that one of the primary battlefields is content. It’s why it’s signing exclusive content deals with Taylor Swift, Drake, and SoulCycle. But if its previous efforts to get people to see Pandora as a competitive equal with features like Apple and Spotify haven’t worked in the past three years, why should it now? Fairly or not, the perception gap the company is fighting is real, and not too many brands have come back from similar setbacks. Just ask BlackBerry. Or Palm. Or at least reputationally, Facebook.

The original social network used to be the coolest place on the internet, killing off the likes of MySpace on its way to world domination on the back of social media’s initial novelty. But even before all the privacy, fake news, and regulation issues, Facebook had lost its cool. It became where your grandma hangs out. And there’s no coming back from that.

Pandora’s fight is to stay relevant and innovative enough—and make sure people know it—so its brand doesn’t fade into background music. This campaign, while good, just may not be loud enough.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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