A hook is what makes pop-music pop. It’s that riff or chorus that gets stuck in your head, and makes you want to listen to the song over-and-over again. Try it out. Think of Michael Jackson’s song Thriller. What comes to mind immediately?
♫ Thriller, thriller night
You’re fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller tonight ♪
I apologize if I just inserted an earworm into your head. An earworm is a hook. It’s a piece of music that you hear in your head even when it’s not being played. The hook is what makes the song sticky and memorable.
Hooks came into prominence in the 50’s with the emergence of pop-music and vinyl records. Vinyl changed the music scene, because it provided a sturdy distribution vehicle for musicians to distribute their songs. The challenge for musicians and record companies was to come up with music that audiences would listen to over-and-over again.
When you listen to jazz or classical music it is usually written for live audiences. The music follows an arch, and is designed to be experienced in person. But pop-music is designed to be consumed in bite size chunks in your home on vinyl (or now in MP3s). The songs are between three and seven minutes long, and have repetitive tunes that are easy to remember. And it’s those repetitive aspects that are the essence of hooks. They’re the parts of the song that brings the listener back again-and-again.
Advertisers understood the power of the hook early on, and created many famous jingles like Alka-Seltzer’s,
♫ Plop, Plop,
Oh what a relief it is! ♪
♫ What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs
and makes a slinkity sound?
A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing!
Everyone knows it’s Slinky ♪
But the hook is a much bigger concept. It goes well beyond music and jingles. All great characters, stories and brands have hooks – elements that are repetitive, catchy and memorable. In the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Kevin Clash talked about finding the one-thing that would make Elmo a remarkable character. He explained that Miss Piggy is a truck driver trying to be a woman, Fozzie Bear is a vaudeville comedian, and after a lot of digging he found Elmo’s one thing. Elmo is love – he’s all about kissing and hugging.
Mitch Joel talked about Being Elmo and the idea of hooks in his post, Find Your One Thing. He said, “If you do a quick survey of the most successful people you know, it’s clear how direct and in-touch they are with their own thing. It’s no different for brands. You can have all of the values and brand expressions in the world, but if you can’t sum it up into one, unique, thing, it’s going to be hard to truly do groundbreaking things.”
It’s the hooks. Hooks make pop-songs pop. They make jingles nostalgic. They make characters come to life. And they make brands stand out and be remarkable.
A hook is crafted. It’s distilled, packaged and refined over time. Brands like Starbucks, Nike and Apple weren’t built overnight. They were invested in, tweaked and massaged until the hooks rang out as clear as day.
What aspects of your brand can be refined and polished into simple, repeatable hooks? Ones that catch, and become earworms. It’s not easy to find or create a hook, but when you do magic happens.