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A mint with a hole and rock 'n' roll

Roger Trapp finds out why a branded CD is a `cool' tool
ON THE face of it Cool Grooves is a compilation record much like any other. But look closer and this selection of soul and rhythm and blues tracks from the likes of All Saints, Aretha Franklin and Mark Morrison turns out to be backed by Polo, the "mint with a hole".

An obvious enough idea, when you think about it. After all, few products resemble a record, or CD, quite so much as a Polo. But, in fact, far from being the first brand-sponsored CD of this sort Cool Grooves is just the latest in a line stretching back to the early 1990s.

It is the brainchild of the Music & Media Partnership - a company set up to help brands, broadcasters, events companies and others use music as a means of communication - which claims to have pioneered "the concept of the brand-related compilation".

Having started with a sales promotion record for Holsten Pils lager and the official record of the 1991 Rugby World Cup, the west London organisation has gone on to produce collections of hits sponsored by organisations as diverse as Fruit of the Loom T-shirts, Haagen-Dazs ice-cream and Coca- Cola, as well as to produce the official music for the last two football World Cups and various other high-profile events.

Although purists might rail against the exploitation of their favourite songs for commercial purposes, Rick Blaskey, managing director of the Music & Media Partnership and executive producer for many of these projects, is unabashed. He points out that it was the Italia 90 World Cup that brought the Three Tenors to public prominence and adds that many other musicians and composers have benefited.

Moreover, his organisation and the brands and record labels with which it works are only taking a stage further what has long been the case in advertising. The use of evocative music in commercials for such companies as Levi's, Volkswagen, Peugeot and, most recently, Renault has linked certain tracks closely with particular commercials. Re-releasing the material tends to give a belated bonus to the artists responsible, it is pointed out.

But if this looks like a simple way of satisfying lots of different interests, the Music & Media Partnership is at pains to point out that the reality is somewhat more complex. Simon Miller, the account director for the Polo project, says that a large part of the job is to liaise between the record company and the brand.

Not the least of the problems is that the two tend to work to very different time scales. "The record company can be finalising the production of the CD right up to release, trying to get the best tracks," he explains. "But the marketing campaign depends on what's on the album, so we can't even do the commercial until a few days before we are on air." For brands, which are used to sorting out their campaigns well in advance, that is frightening, he adds.

Also frightening is the money involved in this sort of venture. Now the big record labels have become involved, television-advertised records like the Polo compilation bear little resemblance to the cheap collections marketed by such companies as K-Tel a few years back.

But although the public gains by being offered better-produced records, the costs have risen sharply.

Mr Miller says that a company aiming to make the charts - the Polo record released late last month has just risen from 13 to 12 in the compilation table - needs to spend about pounds 250,000 on television advertising, as well as large amounts on artists' advances.

It is, as he says, a big investment. Which is where the brand comes in. By contributing to those costs it can help the record company meet the expenditure that increasingly needs to be made before there is a payback in sales.

In return the brand hopes to gain credibility in a target market through association with a certain type of music.

In this case, the image is all "cool" in terms of a style of music (and life) and the taste of the mints.

Karen Meekings, director of television marketing and repertoire at PolyGram TV (the company responsible for the Cool Grooves CD), agrees that it has been a fruitful alliance, with "the album's sleeve and television commercial subtly reflecting the brand whilst achieving a credible music product".

To Mr Miller, subtlety is essential. The concept does not work if the brand is pushed into people's faces, he says. Equally, he sets great store by the credibility of the music and the package.

Although Mr Miller accepts that certain artists insist their music cannot be used to promote products - especially tobacco and alcohol - he says there are plenty of others who are happy to go along with what is sure to be an increasingly common practice of making the most of music's ability to move people.