Wired for sound

Sonic identity: What we hear when experiencing a brand is key to forming a positive opinion of it, according to research, and many brands are now using sound to their advantage.

Selfridges worked with Condiment Junkie to bring in a sonic element to its Christmas window displays

Seven out of 10 marketing managers spend 5 per cent or less of their marketing budget on music and six out of 10 marketing managers have not identified how their brand sounds, according to Sounds Like Branding, a book published by the chief executive of Heartbeat, an international global music branding agency. Are marketers missing a trick?

Studies show that of all the senses, our hearing is the one linked most strongly with our emotions, and emotion is the key factor in forming clear, long-lasting memories, according to Sound Advice, a white paper on the importance and benefits of a sonic identity, produced by sonic branding and experiential sound design company Condiment Junkie.

Although a sound agency may well say that, there is no doubt that what consumers hear when they are experiencing a brand is important.

One brand that recognises the value of sound is Selfridges (pictured). “Sound is incredibly important to Selfridges as a business and the playlists used in each department are very considered,” explains Selfridges’ creative concept manager Sarah McCullough. “Sound is a real area for development with retailers: it’s something that can enhance the experience.”

Selfridges worked with Condiment Junkie to introduce a sonic element to its Christmas windows for the first time. “In terms of footfall, the Christmas windows are incredibly important, they’re probably seen by more people than any other window scheme,” says McCullough.

Re-imagining traditional Christmas songs using the sound of a music box, it placed a discreet device on the inside of the window that when attached to a surface, turns the entire surface into a speaker. This allowed people to approach the window and use their finger to spin a disc, like a modern version of winding up a music box.

“There was that lovely pay off for customers if they were to interact with the window, of hearing the music start,” she says. “We’re always looking for innovative ways to bring new experiences to our customers and this certainly did that.”

As it becomes difficult and more expensive for brands to differentiate themselves visually, brands such as Selfridges and Diageo (see Q+A) are increasingly turning to sound, as well as other senses, to better engage with their consumers.

One sector that takes the power of sound extremely seriously is automotive. “For decades, the big car companies have been spending lots of money thinking about exactly how their car doors should sound when you close them – suitably strong and secure – how exactly the dashboard should sound when a potential purchaser comes into the car showroom and taps on it, and what the engine should sound like for the driver,” explains Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University.

Spence has conducted extensive research into ‘cross-model correspondences and synaesthetic marketing’ – or the effect that stimulation of one sense has on another. “Often when you ask consumers why they chose this or that product, the answers they give verbally don’t seem to bear much relation to what’s actually driving their behaviour when you do the analysis. We try to develop more robust, objective measures – how the sound of a product, its package, the place in which it was bought, the place in which consumers are using or eating it has on their behaviour, their liking and their response,” he explains.

One area of exploration for Spence is virtual clothing and augmented reality in retail. “You’re in front of a store window or in-store and the item or colour you want isn’t there. You can click on a screen and it’s as if you’re looking in the mirror wearing the clothing. Those augmented clothing applications are just visual at the moment.”

So he investigated whether adding sounds to these applications increases a person’s engagement and crucially, the willingness of people to buy such an item of clothing with augmented sounds, as well as visuals.

The decision of which music to play is too important to be left to the manager’s preferred iPod selection

The experiment found that people interacted with the system for 30 per cent longer with sound and were also willing to pay more for the item that they experienced in the presence of realistic sounds than in silence.

Another area Spence highlights is restaurants. His crossmodel research lab in Oxford ran an experiment with The Fat Duck in Bray which revealed that people’s perception of the intensity of the bitterness and sweetness present in a toffee was modified significantly by varying the pitch of a soundtrack that was playing over headphones.

“A growing number of bars and restaurants will start to realise that the decision of which music they play is too important to be left to the manager’s preferred iPod selection,” says Spence.

“In the future, we will increasingly see technology being used to allow for the personalised delivery of music and/or soundscapes to individual tables, or even to an individual diner or drinker.”

Spence explains that in recent years an increasing number of brands have started to explore the possibilities associated with matching sounds to their brands. In 2011, Starbucks, for example, commissioned a piece of music with the launch of its packaged coffee brand Starbucks Via.

“The most important thing is understanding the values of your brand and those you want to portray and most importantly the audience that you’re aiming at. These should determine the sounds that you create to represent your brand,” says Arnon Woolfson, head of content, rights and IP at marketing communications agency Anomaly.

However, as more brands take to the airwaves, Condiment Junkie’s paper urges that careful thought must be given to what a brand sounds like, warning against ‘audio backfire’.

A more obvious way that brands use sound is via radio advertising. Last month, the Radio Advertising Bureau released its latest research, revealing the most effective creative features in ads. The research, which measures consumer feedback on over 600 radio advertising campaigns from the RAB’s radioGAUGE, as well as data collected using a brain scanner, finds that, on average, people exposed to radio advertising are 40 per cent more likely to consider purchasing an advertised brand compared to non-listeners.

Integrating music from a brand’s TV ad into their radio ads significantly increases levels of focus and engagement within the brain, according to the study, and the frequency of using consistent sonic branding is 44 per cent higher in the most effective ads compared to the least effective ads.

And it seems brands are taking radio more seriously. For example, biggest spender BSkyB splashed out £18.2m on it in the year to March 2013, up from £9.9m for the previous 12 months.

Studies in the digital sphere also point to the positive effects of audio on engagement. NPR is a media organisation that serves as a national syndicator to a network of almost 1,000 radio stations in the US.

Research done by NPR into its iPhone, iPad and Android apps found that users who requested audio – a station stream, a national newscast, or NPR Music content – viewed twice as many pages as those who only read the apps’ content.

On average, audio streamers racked up 4.2 page views per visit versus 2.4 for text-only users. The ratio held up for iPad users, too. Listeners viewed 8.1 pages per visit, versus 3.9 among readers. Radio has been shown to provide a ROI of £1.48 for every pound spent on the medium, which is second only to TV, according to a study by Ebiquity on behalf of Thinkbox, which explored average ROI by medium across the last three years.

So when it comes to how your brand sounds, it pays to listen.


Nik Keane
Malts global brand director

Marketing Week (MW): Why did you decide to launch a sensory event, the Singleton Sensorium?

Nik Keane (NK): So much research is now being carried out into the senses. Many chefs such as Heston Blumenthal are using these techniques to enhance elements of their dishes. Bar owners instinctively know that the way the bar looks, and what music they play will have an impact on customer experiences.

The Singleton Sensorium was the world’s first experiment into the effect of environment on the taste of whisky. Based on other studies into coffee and wine, the team wanted to see if the environment we surround ourselves in can affect how we taste. The agency Condiment Junkie had the idea of creating a multi-sensory space that could make the perfect drinking environment.

We believe the results of the study will have lasting implications on the way bars and restaurants are designed in the future.

MW: How did you use sound and what effect did it have on attendees, combined with scent, colour, decor and textures?

NK: Initial results have found a change of environment can enhance the experience of whisky – its taste and how much participants enjoy it – by up to 20 per cent. Over 440 members of the public participated.

Each room challenged the senses in different ways; the first room was designed to accentuate the green, grassy nose of The Singleton, and included a real turf floor, sounds of lawnmowers and birds tweeting. The second room, the red room, aimed to bring out the taste of the sweet dark berries and dried fruit flavour notes in the whisky, using curved shapes and the sounds of bells ringing. The final room was created to represent the unique finish of the whisky. Sounds included double-bass notes, creaking wood and a wood crackling fire. The scent of cedar wood in the air, and a tree growing in the room, highlighted the lingering taste of age and wood in The Singleton whisky.

MW: Is sound as important as visual imagery when it comes to brands?

NK: Sound is important and many brands could benefit from greater consideration of its role. The conversation isn’t whether sound is more or less important than the visual world, it is about how the senses can work together for a greater impact in total.



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