Marketing Research Snapshot: Why Some Songs Become Hits

by Diana Drake

What is your image of a Wharton School professor? Hours spent in front of collegiate classrooms teaching finance to Wall Street-bound students?

That’s only part of the story. While Wharton began as a finance school, it has grown in many ways. Wharton has 12 academic departments and 250 faculty members who specialize in all areas of business, from advertising and entrepreneurship, to wage inequality and zoning regulations.

What’s more, Wharton professors don’t spend all their time in the classroom. They instead conduct hours of research and produce knowledge for other faculty around the world to teach to their students. That knowledge also helps improve the way businesses operate and people live in society.

Combine that broad business focus (well beyond finance) and a passion for experimentation and observation, and you’re bound to get some unique and powerful business-related intel. Recent published research by Wharton’s Jonah Berger definitely qualifies.

Dr. Jonah Berger studies behavioral insights from text.

Dr. Berger, an associate professor of marketing, is an expert in studying and communicating how products, behaviors and ideas catch on. Questions he researches include: Why do some products catch on and become popular while others fail? Why do apps and services take off while others languish? And why do certain ads, messages, or ideas stick in memory, while others disappear the minute you hear them?

His latest paper, “Thinking of You: How Second-person Pronouns Shape Cultural Success,” reveals information that could help marketers craft more enticing messages in advertising and other customer outreach. It’s part of a larger study into how precise language affects consumer behavior, with implications for marketing, sales and customer service.

With the help of our sister publication Knowledge@Wharton, here are 7 insights from Dr. Berger’s research, which he conducted with Grant Packard, marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. Listen to the full podcast for more of their “wisdom from words.”

  1. Understanding Jonah Berger’s research begins with natural language processing, which means to extract insights about how people behave from textual data (the words). He explains it like this: “Everything we do — from this interview we’re recording, conversations we have with friends and family members, reviews we leave online, customer services calls, songs we listen to, articles we read — contains language. There’s a really exciting opportunity now to mine some of this data for behavioral insight to understand why songs or movies succeed, to understand why some customer service calls go better than others, and to use language to be more effective.”
  1. Berger and Packard’s research started with a simple question: Why do some songs become hits?
  1. Their hypothesis: The success of a lot of popular songs boils down to one simple word: the pronoun “you.” “Songs use this word often,” said Berger. “Think about Whitney Houston’s famous song, “I Will Always Love You.” Think about Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” What we saw in preliminary analysis was the word “you” seemed to be linked to success. Songs that said “you” more often…seemed to be more successful. We started wondering, why might that be?”
  1. The process of studying and experimenting helped Berger arrive at informed conclusions. “We started doing different analyses to try to figure it out. For example, we started with a data set of around 2,000 songs over three years,” said Berger. “We went to the Billboard charts, scraped what songs were popular in different years and controlled for a variety of things like radio airplay, genre, artists and the content. We found that songs with more “you” were more successful…then we also did some experiments. We asked a number of people in an experiment, ‘Think about a song that you’ve heard recently, and think about how much you like that song.’ Then we went ahead and grabbed the lyrics to those songs and counted the number of “you’s” that appeared…What’s neat about work like this is, we’re not sitting there manually counting the number of you’s. We’re using natural language processing, automated textual analysis, to count it for us. We use scripts that run through the data.”
  1. The research revealed that songs with the word “you” weren’t necessarily successful because they made us feel good inside, as if the singer was speaking directly to us. Instead, “when we hear a song like “I Will Always Love You”…we think about someone in our own life that we feel that way toward,” explained Berger. “I think this is quite interesting because this gets to the core of why we like cultural products…They help us see our own relationships, our own social connections, as deeper and different as they might be otherwise.”
  1. The word “you” can drive action, concluded Berger. If I’m a songwriter, the number of “you’s” may impact whether or not my song is successful. If I’m a music producer thinking about investing in a particular artist, this might be useful to understand. Beyond the music industry, I think this has a lot of interesting implications. There’s other work showing that the word “you” can increase attention…You often see a lot of second-person pronouns used in very successful online content because it encourages us to pay attention.”
  1. Led by academic research, the business world is catching on to the wisdom of words. “Many companies now are doing some version of what we call social listening — listening to the chatter on social media about products and brands and services, and mining that for insight,” noted Berger. “I think this [research] opens up a lot of avenues to study language and cultural items.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

How do professors — at Wharton and other colleges and universities — spend much of their time? What is research?

What is natural language processing and how does it apply to business?

Do you agree that your favorite songs (especially those that use “you”) help you see your own relationships and social connections as deeper and different? Do they inspire you to think about connections in your own life?

6 comments on “Marketing Research Snapshot: Why Some Songs Become Hits

  1. No matter who you are, you know your opinion matters right?
    According to the article, this sentence above is my key to becoming successful, as the use of “you” encourages readers “to pay attention”. But of course, it also represents my perspective: I believe that words and languages from everyone matters. Acknowledging the impact of language and culture leads to marketing successes, perceived from one of the suggested results from Dr Berger and Professor Packard’s research paper, “Thinking of You: How Second-person Pronouns Shape Cultural Success.”
    Marketing deals with creating consumer’s needs and wants of products, and the first step is to attract. When “you” was mentioned, the first advertisement with “you” that pops into my head was the “I Want You for US Army” poster. This is an enormously successful marketing advertisement, where imitations have always been created and the impact of the slogan “I Want You” has never been reduced. The success could be related to how the use of “you” and the pointing figure attracts the audience, wherein this comment, “you”, will be discussed.
    In the article’s research, songs are the product analyzed. Dr Berger starts with a hypothesis that the “success of a lot of popular songs boils down to one simple word: the pronoun ‘you.’” This research reveals that the lyric “you” gives the listener the impression that “the singer was speaking directly to us”. It creates the link between the song and the listener as they think about their own life whilst the music is playing, allowing the listener to relate to the lyrics, believe in it, and be attracted to it, resulting in hit songs.
    Talking about the most recent cultural success in music, the miracle of BTS should not be ignored. This Kpop band with 7 Korean members became unimaginably successful globally, and they didn’t even release a single full English song before they hit the States. I started to be curious about why? Is their success related to the use of “you” as well? The result is: Yes, and they prove exactly how language in cultural products matters, not the language (Korean or English) itself, but the way of expression and communication, the way of how it reflects ourselves.
    BTS gained their first win with their song “I Need U”, which “U” means “You”. Except for the song name, the chorus in the song has a repetition of the lyric “you”. This supports Dr Berger’s research on how “you” can lead to success. Looking more closely at their rise, BTS was releasing their second album series, the “Hwa Yang Yeon Hwa” (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life or HYYH) era, and it was one of their most famous album series. After researching the lyrics, I found a surprising result: every song in this series has the lyric “you” in it. I did not expect this result, and it allows me to understand the impact of using “you” in the language to create relationships with the audience.
    Additionally, the whole HYYH series illustrates stories that a teenager faces, from friendship, love, and rebellion. These experiences aren’t unique to Koreans but are the same for everyone. With the lyrics portraying the member’s story, listeners saw themselves in it, creating resonance. Just as Dr Berger identifies the core of cultural products, it “helps us see our own relationships, our own social connections, as deeper and different as they might be otherwise” therefore, this series became a massive success in Korea and started their international domination. The album’s success was a matter of course, according to Dr Berger’s research.
    They repeat their success at a higher level with their next series, “Love Yourself”, which talks mainly about self-love and self-reflection, again allowing listeners from all around the world to relate with the songs. The continued success of BTS proves how words and the connection of hearts are the keys to success.
    However, it is easy to mistake that by using “you” in your marketing campaigns, then you will succeed. With millions and billions of songs worldwide having the lyric “you”, is every one of them successful? NO! This is not the case! With my reinforced idea of connecting with the audience, the audience’s linkage to the advertisement is the actual reason for a successful marketing campaign. The use of “you” is just a shortcut to this pathway of success.
    According to the article, “the business world is catching on to the wisdom of words”. It shows how business companies realize the importance of studying language and culture to succeed. As mentioned above, studying language is not simply learning different languages, but how a particular word could pick up a specific emotion and represent the whole human society. It is the tool to allow readers to understand and relate. But talking about culture, globalization nowadays merges different cultures and will gradually unify geographical cultures, separating different cultures in another way.
    Social media could be one of the main reasons for the rapid global growth. The importance of understanding culture to understand and relate to people is also supported by how Dr Berger mentioned that firms have been doing “social listening” nowadays, which is “listening to the chatter on social media about products and brands and services, and mining that for insight”. This shows how opinion gathers to form trends and values, which leads to the formation of culture. Businesses have to catch the opinion trend to prepare to launch related marketing campaigns relating to the mass before that culture becomes mainstream, gaining the first-leader competitive advantage.
    All trends come and go, but the core of creating a hit product remains the same. From the “I Want You” Poster to the discovery of “you” being the reason behind the success, it all points to one thing: Regardless of what is the current trend, the real key of business success is to connect and make the customer relate to the marketing idea. The use of “You” is one way to create this connection at the immediate time the audience hears or sees, attracting them, stepping out the first step in creating want and need.
    Anything goes, but the connection between you and me remains.

    • Great comment Tiffy! Your claim here about the importance of making customers relate to the marketing product is completely on point! I love how you used examples from BTS to reiterate the author’s perspective on how the word “you” is a great way for people to relate to the song, thus making it popular among listeners.

      However, I don’t think that using the word “you’’ in hopes of popularity is a shortcut to success. Just like the author mentions in the article, “You often see a lot of second-person pronouns used in very successful online content because it encourages us to pay attention.â€, the connection between customers and the marketing idea is no doubt, the key factor in a successful content, but how can this connection be made? People from diverse cultural backgrounds may have a different way of relating or connecting to a content. Some might relate to songs with more open expression of feelings, while others might enjoy lyrics that use scenery or environment to connate emotions. But behind all these differences, the author has provided us with data supporting evidence telling us a repeated pattern behind popular songs — the word “you”. Thus, when music companies choose to use this word in hope of popularity, I think the benefits of this decision can be that people from these diverse background will be able to relate to this similarity. In doing this, they are trying to grasp the common ground between people with different cultural backgrounds, using the word you so that no matter where the listeners are from, they are all able to find an inner connection to the lyrics.

      I applaud your perspective on the use of the word you, I am also impressed with your analysis of the success of BTS and all the effort you put in to prove the author’s point using this example. Through these analysis, song writers, companies and listeners will have a better grasp of the market’s interests, stimulating more high quality music in the future.

    • Hi Tiffy! Thanks for the kind message at the start, it really connected with me for some reason…

      Anyways, I love the way you used a plethora of examples of how the word “you” can create an impact on the consumer (even if it was giving off BTS stan vibes). I honestly think that the “I Want You” poster was so effective on our generation that it’s known universally. Like it was just ingrained in our minds one day. All these examples are a thought-provoking and relatable way of expressing your ideas and interests. It helped me, and many others reading this article apply it to the real world, where consumer marketing is growing larger than ever.

      As for your main points, one thing I completely agree with is that the fantastic word “you” essentially “creates the link between the song and the listener as they think about their own life.” It really does make it easier for people to believe in songs, and sometimes even feel like they’re living in the lyrics. Hopefully most of us can relate to looking out the window in the rain on a long drive home, like the main character of a movie listening to a sad song, unknowingly being influenced by the existence of the word: “you.”

      I want to add that after some math and doing the same process as you, these findings are actually statistically backed for songs that I listen to myself. Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” has 48 “you”s, and it’s his most successful song on Spotify, with 1,688,000,000 streams. Coincidentally, it’s also the song with the most “you”s by Justin. Maybe the spiteful lyrics looking back on a past relationship is able to be related on a very high level (couldn’t be me, though). And once again, this supports Dr.Berger’s research on how “you” can lead to success in music. I noticed that you also had a song titled “Love Yourself” by BTS as one of your examples on the success of the use of “you.” Maybe even having the word in the title could play a role!

      After finding that surprising relationship, I went down a rabbit hole and found that BTS has more crazy correlations with Justin Bieber in terms of the use of “you.” In his 2015 album release, “Purpose,” every song he released also had the word: “you” in it. Coincidentally, this was also his #1 best selling album with the most plays. With BTS being the #1 most successful Asian boy band, and Justin Bieber being the #1 most successful Canadian singer, maybe it was fate that I stumbled upon your comment praising your favourite group, and me wanting to ramble on about my favourite singer. Both of them may have realized the importance of studying language and culture to succeed, and I most definitely learned about the wisdom of words.

      One thing I would add on top of your response is how impressed I was by the outstanding technology we’ve developed to be able to use natural language processing, automated textual analysis, to count the number of “you”s in thousands of songs. There must have been hours into developing the scripts that run through the data to automatically count and process all that information. This, on top of the psychological and behavioural discoveries in the article, really places emphasis on the technological advancements we’ve made and the crucial findings we’ve discovered because of it.

      Ultimately, I really enjoyed reading your comment on this intriguing article and I thank you for inspiring me to find a personal application of its findings. Hopefully both our artists continue to succeed and use their marketing skills to rock both sides of the world, so both “you” and I can love their music even more.
      Anything goes, but I hope the musical connection between you and me remains

    • Hey Tiffy! How you related BTS to the article in your comment was really interesting! When you presented the data—that every track in their most popular album contained “you” in the lyrics—my jaw dropped. This puts emphasis directly on what the article discussed, and I applaud you for this contemporary example that I’m sure many would find relatable. It’s evident in so many ways that the music industry has discovered the key to advertising songs, but I also want to highlight the general statement that you made: “Regardless of what is the current trend, the real key of business success is to connect and make the customer relate to the marketing idea.” I completely agree with this. Recently, I’ve noticed how the Chinese social media “RED,” a blog-filled shopping platform, tends to advertise. No more flashy colors, trendy dances, and large fonts à la TikTok; this time, it’s all about “you”—you and your deepest insecurities, normalized by the sickening beauty standards here in urban China.

      “Do you know why you’re not as pale as me?” A question, twelve-point font and black, caught my eye along with the paper-white girl who was posing behind the text while I idly scrolled through my phone. The words weren’t colorful, and neither were they extremely big, but the simple sentence still piqued my interest, and I watched the rest of the advertisement unfold. Another sentence soon popped up: “I learn all my skincare routines on RED.” This time, the social media platform’s name is underlined in red, and the text disappeared soon after. Finally, a third sentence emerged: “If you want to be like me and have pale, glossy skin, download RED and take a look!” Behind the text, the new images appear labeled “before” with the caption, “Are you still distressed about your tanned skin and huge pores?” and another photo labeled “after,” captioned “You with milk-white bouncy skin!” As my eyes shifted between the photos, the video began to replay. In a daze, I watched the advertisement again, becoming more intrigued by the second. When it ended for the second time, I dimmed my screen. In the moment, I was shocked and revolted by how the company was targeting this advertisement at one of women’s personal insecurities—the Chinese prized beauty standard of extremely pale skin. However, after I read this article and your comment, Tiffy, I’ve recognized RED’s more subtle marketing strategy—“you.”

      As cunning as it is, this tactic must’ve worked. In 2022, RED has surpassed 100 million monthly users, over 60% of them identifying as female. Moreover, research has shown that the four key search terms on RED are “makeup,” “skincare,” “outfits,” and “diet recipes.” Something that I find particularly interesting is how its slogan changed from “Finding good stuff overseas” in 2014 to “Marking your beautiful things” last year. RED has obviously caught up on the sneaky ways to successfully advertise, that is, by making people feel insecure and that they “need” this social media to survive. I can’t imagine how many people have been brutally “called out” by an advertisement like this. Again, because of the normalized bizarre beauty standards, they wouldn’t feel exposed at all. Instead, a likely response is “Wow, how did they know that I thought I was too tanned? How considerate!” followed by a trip to the App Store on their phones. As I thought about it some more, I realized that skincare doesn’t even make one’s natural skin tone paler. In fact, the food recipes and diet tips RED offers to “help” women achieve China’s ever-present beauty trend of unhealthy thin-ness are in the same vein. It’s ridiculous to grab someone’s attention by repeatedly stressing “you” in taglines, exaggerate or even lie about what their application has to offer, then leave people’s insecurities hanging outside, raw and naked. It’s also infuriating and disappointing that no-one seems to realize the process here when the unreasonable benchmarks for attractiveness are engraved into everyone’s minds. Can this be stopped? Is there any space to take a step back? Or will all companies soon grasp this trick, and instead of moving backward, everyone worldwide is squashed by this promotion method that speaks so blatantly at the individual user?

      The focus on “you” is clearly entrenched in music, as you pointed out through your example of BTS. This was a relatively harmless method to arouse the listeners’ awareness and make them either think about themselves or “someone in [their] own life,” like Dr. Berger states in the article. The connections we make with song lyrics can be powerful, and many find comfort, beauty, and inspiration in music. The situation with RED, however, is something entirely different, even borderline immoral. How could someone be thinking about anything other than themself when they view these advertisements that openly target Chinese women’s perceived beauty shortfalls? It’s obviously directed towards you, you, and only you.

  2. You play your favorite song Love Story. You love Taylor Swift even if her lyrics are all about her latest boyfriend breakup. You know, you must confess. You are a Swiftie! Like Berger explains, you love how Swift’s words help you understand your relationships and social connections better. As you process this natural language of love, you realize you have heard the word “you” 16 times and six more times if you count “your” or “you’ll.”

    If you like how lyrics stimulate your language processing, you will like playing the piano. For me, piano music allows me to use its unique language to reach others and to connect with them. When I play a piano piece, I like to try to figure out what the composer is doing in order to hook me into his or her world. I want to know why certain notes sit in certain positions or why this part is louder or softer. Understanding how composers communicate with their audiences enables me to better share my music passion when I play for others.

    While my social connections improve when I play the piano, I’ll admit that I also dabble in writing songs. I use techniques I have learned from piano and apply them to my lyrics. I pay attention to soft or harsh sounding vowels. I notice that many writers prefer the long sounding vowels as opposed to the short ones, especially when they want us to hold a note and feel the emotional impact longer. Are you feeling the euphoria yet?

    Writing lyrics may be fun for you and me, but professional lyricists have to consider the business and financial implications. For instance, if you write a song for Spotify that only keeps your fans listening for 30 seconds, you will not get paid. According to Samsung, the attention span of music fans has dropped from 12 to eight seconds over the past 22 years. Due to these trends, pop songs will become shorter and shorter. Musicians will have to jump to a catchy chorus right away in order to keep you listening.

    You, you, you – you heard it right. You have eight seconds to make T-Swift proud. And if you are wondering why you keep hearing “you,” it’s not you, it’s me, 28 times! Are you paying attention now?

  3. Catchy tunes and lyrics aside, music is subjective. Every individual has different tastes in music. But, what about the hit songs that are universally loved by everyone? What about the songs that break through the boundaries of different genres and unite everyone into a sudden group karaoke session?

    With so many factors that play into the question of “Why do some songs become hits?”, Berger surprisingly concludes that it is all because of “you.” (literally and metaphorically)

    The essential proponent of creating a memorable hit song is the commonly overlooked second-person pronoun: you. There is a reason the pronoun “you” is in every single love song. There is a reason why songs about love, heartbreak, and pain all skyrocket to the top of the charts and repeatedly show up on people’s personal playlists. And The very reason that dictates a song’s success is the importance of establishing an emotional connection through music, which Berger emphasizes as being essential.

    Delusional, parasocial, and acknowledgment are all words that embody the emotional connection brought by the pronoun “you”. Despite the seemingly negative connotation of the diction, to me, each word perfectly encapsulates all the emotions a hit song evokes. Songs about heartbreak, love, and pain all serve as an outlet to release pent-up emotions, bringing out a vulnerable side that has long been hidden behind false facades of composure. I am certain that you have at least once related to a song, whether it be about love, heartbreak, or just a happy moment in life.

    Global powerhouses such as Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez have already proven the undeniable power of the word “you.” Looking at Ariana Grande’s 2019 single “Thank U, Next” which took the world by storm, the word “you” was repeated 38 times compared to the song’s length of 3 minutes and 27 seconds. Even more impressive is Selena Gomez’s 2011 “Love you like a Love Song” where “you” is not only repeated 40 times, but the word “you” is even in the title itself. Both “Thank U, Next” and “Love you like a Love Song” served as the cultural resets of their time, gaining the artists new waves of members to their dedicated fanbases: Arianators and Selenators. It all culminates into a constant cycle of positive feedback as the now dedicated fanbase will continue to listen to and support their artist, further launching them into more and more success.

    As Berger addressed, the reason why the pronoun “you” is so impactful is that “They help us see our own relationships, our own social connections, as deeper and different as they might be otherwise.” Especially with love songs, listeners relate all the lyrics to their own relationships. Relationships are a universal experience that easily connects everyone through lovey-dovey moments and the many uncertainties and trust issues that develop between two individuals. No matter who the individual is, using a pronoun as ambiguous as “you” allows room for interpretation. There’s a reason why “Thank U, Next” dominated the whole music industry in 2019. And that is because It breaks through the romanticization of perfect relationships that are usually shown all over social media. Not only are celebrities painted as perfect individuals but they are also expected to have perfect lives and perfect relationships. However, Ariana’s “Thank U, Next completely shatters that stereotype and proves how she’s just a normal person experiencing problems that everyone else is too. Ariana too doesn’t have a perfect life where she meets the love of her life right away.

    Next time you listen again to your favorite song, make sure to listen out for any “you’s.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *