Just as the iconic sounds of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” instantly energizes a crowd, or the songs of Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” album are distinctly able to calm a bustling room, music in quick-service restaurants sets the stage for customers’ dining experience. Current pop hits match  McDonald’s busy atmosphere, the upbeat Starbucks soundtrack perks you up with your morning coffee and the KFC bucket bop keeps you grooving while waiting in line.

To be fair, most restaurants play music to simply create ambience, but when done without proper forethought, brands miss out on opportunities to truly connect with consumers. In a world where Spotify playlists shape our daily rhythms, the right track in a quick-service restaurant can be a key differentiator for a restaurant’s brand identity, inspiring consumers to spend more—dollars and time, but more on that later—and ultimately enjoy themselves. Fast casual or not, dining is always an experience, and sound is unfortunately underutilized, despite its capabilities to not only create connection with patrons, but also create the perfect atmosphere for certain times of day or engagement you want customers to remember. It can also help brands maintain consistency within their brand strategy, connecting assets across platforms and marketing efforts. 

This naturally raises the question, how can quick-service restaurants pick the perfect tracks so their music mix hits the mark?

To really dig into the “how,” it’s important for brands to realize that music in the quick-service industry isn’t just background noise—it’s a powerful tool of influence. The right music can elevate an experience, create recall and ultimately drive customer loyalty. A study by Broadcast Music Inc. and National Research Group found that when customers enjoy the music in an establishment, they tend to hang out longer and spend more. In fact, 80 percent of folks in the study said they’d stick around if the playlist was “just right.”

So what does that mean? Namely, that quick-service restaurants must think in terms of a music strategy and how it can impact their bottom line. 

Fast tunes can quicken the pace of eating, fitting the fast service model, while slower tunes might encourage customers to take their time and stay awhile. Loud music makes an establishment seem hip and trendy while softer music encourages conversation, and perhaps a bit of lingering. Music’s pitch can even affect how customers perceive the taste of food. A study on psychophysics found that lower-pitch sounds and music can enhance the flavor of savory dishes, while higher-pitch music can enhance the flavor of sweet foods. 

It’s no secret that brands typically employ music to connect with cultural trends. For example, McDonald’s teamed up with K-pop group BTS to offer themed meals, while Starbucks curated playlists with indie artists, in turn reflecting its contemporary brand.

It can even be beneficial to focus on timing when choosing music. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that enjoyable music helps distract waiting customers, reducing their perceived wait time and decreasing stress levels or feelings of impatience. By playing upbeat music during the breakfast boom or pleasant music during the lunch rush, you can actually keep things calmer and avoid sighs and huffs. 

All to say that when a brand successfully curates a sonic or musical experience in brand-appropriate ways such as a bespoke playlist or in-store experience, customers will remember it. They may not recognize the artist, but they’ll recall the tone, the pace, the overall feeling—and that’s a great thing.

This kind of positive brand affinity creates long term potential for customers to remain loyal and engaged with your brand. A BMI report suggests that more than half (53 percent) of millennials say music is “very influential when deciding on a bar or sit-down restaurant.” By offering customers a pleasing sonic experience unique to your brand, you have a better chance of keeping them in your establishment and creating lasting loyalty. Just like visual language, sonic language is key to creating harmonious, consistent brand messaging—and that’s something every brand needs. 

Eric David Johnson, p/k/a DJ Bunny Ears, is a music & branding specialist, music producer, music supervisor, record producer, director, musician, filmmaker, writer, artist, photographer & DJ. Rooted as an independent artist, he is a multi-award-winning music creative, having spent over 24 years in the advertising industry. Prior to his role as Executive Creative Director of MassiveMusic a Songtradr Company – North America, Eric began his career with ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, followed by executive roles with Young & Rubicam New York, DDB Chicago, Randall Poster’s music supervision firm, Search Party Music and McCann.

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