Brands must be both seen and heard. The ways in which a brand’s audio assets are developed can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of that brand’s communications. Ruth Wyatt investigates.
Sound is an intensely visceral sense, second only to smell in terms of its immediate effect on your emotions. The film industry recognises that it delivers 70% of the emotional impact of a movie and, as audio branding expert Steve Keller says, “If you watch a horror movie with the sound turned down, you won’t be nearly so scared.” Psychoacoustics, the scientific study of the perception of sound and the psychological and physiological responses with which it is associated, is well established, but brands’ exploitation of the power of sound appears to be still in its infancy.
Julian Treasure, chairman of The Sound Academy and a big noise in the world of sound, says, “Ask a marketer if they have a brand book and they will answer ‘of course;’ ask them how many pages are devoted to sound guidelines and the answer is usually ‘none.’ The brand architecture, values and visual aspects of the brand will be run through in huge detail, but not the audio aspect.”
That said, Treasure asserts that audio branding is gaining importance and stature. “It is only quite recently that sound has been recognised as an important, nay essential, brand asset, and it has become a serious industry around the world.” According to research by the Audio Branding Academy, there are over 140 sonic specialists across the globe and the sector is growing by 33% per year.
The use of sound within the marketer’s armoury is not new, but its deployment as a strategic, considered and integrated weapon is, relatively speaking. There have been many great examples from the past: Frosties’ “They’re grrrrreat,” Rice Krispies’ snap, crackle and pop and “Ho ho ho Green Giant” to name but three memorable associations. However, these are more happenstance of great slogans and catchy jingles than an intentional assault on an emotive sense.
Some brands have embraced audio signatures to great effect in more recent times. Intel is the most obvious example. Its five-note sonic logo is inseparable from the brand – you can’t think Intel without hearing it in
your head – and far more distinctive than its visual identity. McDonald’s too has become inextricably linked to its five note – ba-da-da-da-da – signature, also known as a sound mnemonic. In both cases massive investment in airtime and consistency have been crucial to success. Keller, who is CEO of iV Audio Branding, argues that consistency of brand sound is just as important as consistency of brand livery. “Brands keep their visual identities consistent, their colours, their typeface and so on. They’re not changing logos with every campaign. That would be crazy, right? But brands do jump from one sound track to another. They need to start thinking about sound in the same way. Inconsistency is frustrating and confusing for consumers,” he explains. “Think about it like your voice. If your voice was different every time you called someone on the phone, they wouldn’t be able to recognise you; they’d become suspicious that something was wrong.” Harnessing the power of audio as a strategic brand asset goes beyond advertising soundtracks and sonic signatures.
There are eight ways in which a brand can express itself in sound. Voice is literally the brand’s voice: what would it sound like if you spoke to it – male/female, young/old, cheeky/formal/languid/dynamic etc. Music refers to the association between a brand and a piece of music be it pre-existent or bespoke (BA ‘owns’ Delibes’ Flower Duet to the extent that there was a hue and cry from its customers when it swapped the classical lilt for Leaving on a Jet Plane, composed by a man who died in a plane crash). Branded audio relates to relevant content – think Nike personal trainers to accompany your run, podcasts and branded soundtrack downloads.
Product sound is literally the sound a product makes, such as the note that plays when you switch on a Mac or the satisfying ker-thunk of closing a car door. Treasure says noise is a myth co-created by consumers and car manufacturers, “A car door is a hollow lump of metal. To achieve that sound you have to stuff in an enormous amount of padding. There’s no reason for it to sound like that beyond meeting people’s expectations,” he says.
A car door is a hollow lump of metal. To achieve that sound you have to stuff in an enormous amount of padding. There’s no reason for it to sound like that beyond meeting people’s expectations
Sound plays an extremely important role in the automotive sector as evidenced by BMW’s M5 model, which features an exceptionally quiet engine. Too quiet in fact for its customer base. BMW developed technology to channel a reproduction of the engine noise through the speakers to give a more intense and ‘authentic’ driving experience. Porsche 911 engine sounds also engender almost obsessive affection amongst enthusiasts and are available to download as MP3 files.
Soundscapes also relate to spaces, usually retail, and telephone sound covers everything from on-hold music and announcements to call handling and customer service.
“You may not need to use all these expressions, but you do need to think about them and when you have the definition of the brand values enshrined in these guidelines, you can prevent random, accidental and counterproductive sound and instead match sound values to brand values,” Treasure attests. The benefits of so doing are enormous. The impact of adding appropriate, valuable and distinctive sound that is true to your brand’s core values and to your customer touchpoints is greater than the sum of the parts. As Sixieme Son founder Michael Boumendil, who was in the vanguard of sound design in the mid-’90s, says “One and one is not two, or three, or four – it is 12.”
Ladies and gentlemen please welcome superadditivity to the stage. According to research by experimental psychologist professor Charles Spence, who is head of the University of Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory, the addition of congruent sound to a visual message increases the effectiveness of that communication by 1,107%. One plus one literally equals 12 when you unify the visual and aural senses. The addition of incongruent sound decreases effectiveness by 86%, which means that penalties associated with getting it wrong are severe.
The marriage of great sound and vision creates value and deepens the relationship between the brand and its consumers, Boumendil says, “You can convey so much through sound – personality, premiumness, confidence – it creates a positive influence that doesn’t just effect how people feel and how they think, but how they behave.” Indeed sound affects human’s psychologically, physiologically, cognitively and behaviourally. In the same way that visual branding is not just colours and patterns, sound is more than music and noise; both are tools that enrich brands, he adds. “Good audio – better audio – is arrived at through a process that starts with a deep understanding of the brand vision and values. It leads to a strategy and that strategy is ultimately embodied in sound.”
PH Media director of music and voice Dan Lafferty talks about the sound palette in much the same way a graphic designer talks about colour and hue. “If your colour palette is lots of blues and greens to convey wholesomeness and serenity, you can replicate that in sound using organic major chords, which illicit the same emotional response,” he says. “You are applying adjectives to the brand through sound.” Bigger companies can be made to appear smaller and friendlier while SMEs can be made to feel larger and more credible; you can convey dynamism, passion, trustworthiness and the whole gamut of attributes for every sort of business, he says, and importantly make them distinct and distinctive.
The challenge for sonic specialists is to break through from nice to have to essential to any good rebranding exercise and brand husbandry. Although more marketers are tuning in to the importance of good audio, it is often addressed late in the process relative to visual and verbal branding. The specialists argue that brand strategy must be at the heart of what they do and they must be at heart of branding to deliver the maximum impact.