Sound has tremendous impact on us, whether we consciously recognize it or not. It can pique our interest and it can drive us nuts.
I’ve become increasingly aware of sound, since becoming chief strategist of a strategic music company. It’s given me more appreciation for good sonic experiences, but on the downside I get more annoyed by sonic trash. Let’s just say that I’ve become somewhat fixated on how to make life better with sound.
There’s one great quote that I keep coming back to: “Music not only can change your mood it can alter the way you perceive the world.”
Lately I’ve been living this out in my daily life. I’m creating and seeking out experiences where sound and music sets the right vibe. During my over-crowded, typically-standing-on-the-train commute home, I slip into my own world and thoughts by listening to music—drowning out the cacophony of noise and lack of personal space around me. At work, I have the luxury of good speakers. Combine that with being in the office incredibly early, Spotify, and a jolt of caffeine, and I’m discovering different music every morning to inspire my best thinking.
I’ve also taken to a “love-it or leave-it” approach to everyday experiences. I’m always happy to hear the voice of my Google Maps app with all of her charm, directional accuracy and occasional adorable mispronunciation. I find that the HBO’s feature presentation opening music on HBO is a great palate cleanser to focus my anticipation on what I’m about to watch. I was pleasantly surprised by the stress-minimizing and helpful automated voice persona when I called Amtrak to reschedule a trip. And it’s always great to walk into a retail store where the overhead music makes me want to stay longer and buy more. These soundscapes improve my experiences and I feel more emotionally connected to the brands that make them possible.
On the other hand, I’ve reduced my time at Starbucks because they’ve universally raised the volume level, making it hard to think. There’s a new Mexican restaurant in my home town, where the food is delicious, but I had to ask which days the mariachi band is playing. Great music—but way too loud for the small space, making it hard for my family to talk across the table on those days. I turn off the volume when on the Facebook app because the sounds are more intrusive than pleasing. I shudder at the sound of my microwave badgering me that something is done. And if you want a good laugh, check YouTube for videos about the ill-fated Sun Chips bag, that for all of its good intentions was replaced after 18 months with a corresponding 11% drop in sales.
Rising Above the Noise
For decades, brands have been striving to create an emotional connection with audiences. What if more marketers and experience designers tapped into the power of sound? Sonic identity is an opportunity to make people’s lives better. All it takes is a commitment and a plan to make people happier.
It’s why the importance of sonic identity as an experience differentiator is not just a phase. In fact, momentum toward a focus on sound is getting stronger, especially as live and digital experiences are becoming more central to holistic brand experiences. In a prior article I wrote about the impact on brand identity as we’ve moved from a Communications-Focused world to an Experience-Focused world. Using the visual below, I put forth that sonic identity becomes more essential because it goes beyond visual which is a one-way identification tool. Sonic identity is an experience tool because it enables a two-way information exchange and it conveys personality and inflection.
Since sound is the shortcut to emotional connection, it’s important to ensure that the visceral response it elicits is what you were striving for. Here are three things to consider when designing sound for an experience.
1. Be Purposeful: Bringing sound into an experience starts with a plan. You must determine what you’re trying to achieve, where will it be most useful and how should it should sound to be brand-appropriate and culturally relevant. From experience audit to sonic strategy brief, there’s a lot to consider so that the right sound and music shows up in the right way.
2. Deepen Meaning and Emotional Connection: A well-crafted sonic identity is designed to convey information and help people feel more emotionally drawn to the experience. Like a good movie score, the sound tells half the story. It is the emotional thread that sets the scene, builds anticipation and punctuates key moments. Without sound, a lot of the storytelling and emotion-driving opportunity is lost.
3. Take Out Sonic Trash: The goal is not to flood the experience with sound. In fact, sound will have more impact when it is sparse. You want just the right sounds and/or music to guide the experience, to set the right mood and to provide useful information. Just think about making people happy and take out the sonic trash.
Recently, I was thinking about the prefer-not-to-live-without brand experiences in my life. Some have great sound and some are silent but rest assured, none have bad sound. I’m talking about my Swiss army knife of daily enablers: my iPhone, the Starbucks app, Spotify, Evernote, The Weather Channel app, Uber, Google Maps, TiVo, Amazon and my Garmin GPS running watch. They all have one thing in common that has been the gold standard of experience design for several years. They are intuitive.
Intuitive. It’s become an overused word at this point, don’t you think? Intuitive has gone from aspirational in experience design to a price of entry. It’s true, everything needs to be more intuitive. But now, the more intuitive things become, the more our brains yearn for it. In fact, according to Kit Yarrow, author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind, our short attention spans are craving more intuitive forms of communication because we just don’t have the patience for anything less.
So, once everything is intuitive, what’s next? How will experiences be distinct? I suggest that there is a new plateau to reach in experience design. Next-Level Intuitive.
Next-Level Intuitive is creating more instinctive interactions
and brand-differentiating experiences with sound.
Our lives are now hyper-connected with an increasing amount of tapping, swiping, automated voices and interface-less digital experiences infiltrating our daily routines. Brands work to hard create these distinct experiences, but over time all are all starting to blend together as tactile differences and space for visual identification minimizes. In our Experience-Focused world, sound can be a primary experience differentiator.
Good sound makes life better. It’s the shortcut to emotion. It instantly moves through our brains to impact how we feel and elicit instinctive reactions. Marketers and experience designers have a big opportunity to tap into the power of sound to create Next-Level Intuitive experiences—experiences that people feel connected to and that make their lives better. In my view, a well-designed experience without specific consideration for seamlessly integrating sound is not a well-designed experience.
Another way to think about this is the way it was written in The Sonic Boom by Joel Beckerman, author, and founder/lead composer of Man Made Music: “Sound, I believe, is the next frontier in business, storytelling and movements. It’s an untapped layer of opportunity… But sound hasn’t been harnessed at scale—as a tool for human connection. The people who realize this will benefit tremendously.”
Photo: Mickey Alexander
Kevin Perlmutter is SVP, Chief Strategist at Man Made Music.
If you would like to share your perspective, please comment or start a conversation on Twitter @kevinperlmutter or in email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I can’t play a note. I can’t keep a beat. While after-work karaoke was fun at my last job, it’s a bad career move for me now where I’m chief strategist of a music company, surrounded by amazing musicians.
When I joined Interbrand in 2007 from a career at ad agencies, it was because I recognized that an industrywide shift was underway and knew advertising wasn’t the only answer clients needed. I wanted to learn new skills and be a part of the next frontier of brand engagement. Beyond my wildest expectations, I learned and innovated across a wide range of skill sets – from company vision to brand strategy, from portfolio architecture to employee engagement, and from visual and verbal identity to customer experience.
So why then, did I walk away after seven years to join Man Made Music – a much smaller company that focuses only on sonic identity?
Fact is, I was inspired by my early discussions with Joel Beckerman, Man Made Music’s Founder and Lead Composer. He said, “Sonic is the next frontier of brand identity”. I was intrigued and I took some time to investigate.
I read in the Harvard Business Review, “There’s one powerful branding tool that has been generally overlooked or perhaps undervalued by most marketers: sound… cognitive studies show that relevant sounds and musical cues can truly influence people in ways marketers want.”
I explored research studies that demonstrate how the right use of music can increase linger time and sales in a retail store, and how certain genres of music will increase purchases of certain types of products. And other studies proving that the right use of music will increase people’s tolerance of a call center and reduce perceived wait time. Further, how music can be used to commercial benefit by projecting corporate style and values, or to corporate detriment with the wrong music.
I learned about the science of sound. The way it bypasses the rational part of your brain, and how it is more instinctive. The Universal Sense, by Seth Horowitz, PhD says “in less than fifty milliseconds—still six times faster than the blink of an eye—you’ve already identified the sound and where it’s coming from. In the actual time it takes for you to blink, sonic input gets directed through your auditory cortex to other parts of your brain that control memories and emotions.”
Then I thought about how technology is changing the world and people. In reading Kit Yarrow’s Decoding the New Consumer Mind the following caught my attention, “our brains have adapted to a new digital world, and we’re neurologically different as a result.” This is fundamentally causing people to think faster, multi-task better, have less tolerance for ambiguity, less patience and shorter attention spans. The lesson for brand leaders and creators is that, “consumers increasingly rely on faster more symbolic forms of communication.”
Sound Makes or Breaks the Experience
I started to think about this new information in the context of my Interbrand identity and customer experience work, and also related it to personal experiences.
For example, I had recently visited a chain drugstore that stands for healthy living. I remember entering the vestibule and immediately a piercing door chime reverberated in the small space. There was overhead music that seemed like the wrong genre for 7:30 a.m. I arrived at the bank of self-serve checkout machines to hear that each one had an automated voice that was more mechanical than human, and each was saying the same thing, but, unfortunately, not at the same time. As I left the store, setting off that piercing noise, again, my head was spinning and I felt less healthy than when I entered.
That drug store brand has a well-executed brand vision. They align themselves with healthy living and that’s reflected in how they look, what they say, and the products they sell and don’t sell. It’s clear, however, they had not thought about sound, and the experience was ruined as a result. What if they played overhead music that reflected their brand and the time of day? What if they had a door chime that was welcoming? What if they had automated voices in the self-serve checkout area that were not only less mechanical, but electronically choreographed and provided directionally-focused sound? And what if the identity-rooted sound of this brand was present and familiar across all locations and digital interactions?
Sound is competing for our attention all of the time. We’ve become numb to a lot of the noise and some of it causes anxiety and displeasure. My mind wanders to the incredibly annoying sound my microwave makes repeatedly when something is done. On the flip side, I use music every day to complement or change my mood, and I pick playlists that are meant to accelerate getting me to how I want to feel.
Time to Face the Music
Then it hit me. For as long as anyone can remember, we’ve been talking about creating an emotional connection with our audiences. Finally, we’ve moved from a communication-focused world to an experience-focused world, and with the right music and sound, we now have a tremendous opportunity to strengthen that connection.
Despite all of the research about how sound impacts us, and massive changes in our behavior brought on by technology, many of us are still relying on the same brand identity pillars – visual and verbal – that have been in place for decades.
The big ah-ha for me was that the strategic use of music and sound is missing from most brand experiences, especially in spaces and on devices where brands have new challenges to connect and engage successfully.
Sound is the Shortcut to Emotional Connection
The fact is, sonic identity is no longer just a “nice to have”, and after joining Man Made, I developed this simple graphic to explain why.
A sonic identity, like a visual identity, brings brand attribution and a sense of personality. Sonic, however, is more emotive, instinctive and interactive than visual. In experiences, tempo and instruments are more powerful than fonts and color. The right music can forge greater connection at live events or in spaces, and it can efficiently convey a brand’s story and its values. The right set of sounds can also humanize digital interactions. Sound can be more responsive than static iconography during key experience moments and can be used to facilitate two-way dialogue that is both functional and emotional. A sonic identity can ensure that comforting human qualities like inflection and tone are not lost. And sound can travel where visuals can’t go.
Taking on The Next Frontier of Brand Identity
I joined Man Made Music because I’m most inspired when I’m challenged to innovate, to simplify complexity and to introduce my clients to more effective ideas and approaches.
I thought of the power that brands can tap into when they use sound and music strategically to evoke emotion, create meaningful connections with people and guide them through experiences. I recognized how much more important music and sound are as brand experiences become more multi-platform and omni-channel, how technology is enabling brands to show up in new ways and new places, and how our brains are more in need of intuitive ways to engage and connect.
Most of all, I thought about how this is new information for many brand leaders, how the doors of this opportunity are just starting to open, and how much I enjoy being a guide through new frontiers.
All of that has me facing the music.
If you would like to share your perspective, I’d love to hear from you.
1. Decoding the New Consumer Mind
2. HBR “What does your brand sound like”
3. PRS The Value of Music Music and On-Hold Waiting Time
4. PRS Benefits of Using Music for Your Business
5. The Universal Sense
6. Music Alters Visual Perception Research
Steve Martin did a bit in his early stand-up routines where he talked about buying a new stereo system to play his vinyl albums. He bought a two-speaker system, but it didn’t sound good, so he upgraded to a quadraphonic four-speaker system, then to a dodecaphonic twelve-speaker system, then a milliphonic system with one-thousand speakers, then a googlephonic system – “the highest number of speakers before infinity.” Still terrible, so he says, “maybe it’s the needle”.1
There’s a lesson in there about going down traditional paths to solve a problem, but overlooking other, not-so-obvious solutions.
At the ANA’s 2014 Masters of Marketing Conference, industry leaders focused on a core set of brand challenges. Brands must be authentic and convey a clear purpose. Relevance to Millennial and Hispanic audiences is crucial. Mobile-first has become a primary way to engage with people. Innovation and experience transformation is rooted in human-centric design.
Back to Steve Martin, perhaps there’s one solution that many are overlooking. That is, the sound of their brand. When developed strategically, a brand’s sonic identity can be one of the most powerful and effective ways for a brand to communicate and engage.
Wild and crazy? Not so fast… According to the Harvard Business Review, “There’s one powerful branding tool that has been generally overlooked or perhaps undervalued by most marketers: sound. The strategic use of sound can play an important role in positively differentiating a product or service, enhancing recall, creating preference, building trust, and even increasing sales… cognitive studies show that relevant sounds and musical cues can truly influence people in ways marketers want.”2
Sound and music is visceral – it gets you in the gut, sparks emotions, motivates and conveys meaning. Music can change your mood in an instant. Research has shown that “brands with music that fit their identity are 96% more likely to be recalled than those with non-fit music or no music at all, and respondents are 24% more likely to buy a product with music that they recall, like and understand.”3
Sound and music is experiential – it sets the tone, provides context, give you cues on what to feel and helps you navigate. One study explored the impact of changes to the music score of a movie scene, and found that it causes people to have a different perception of what’s happening, the characters’ backstory and different predictions about what will happen next.4 The same can be applied to the impact of sound and music on how well a brand is understood or perceived.
Sound and music is efficient – it bypasses the rational part of the brain and reaches us at the most instinctual level, and you react even when you are not fully paying attention. Scientifically, reaction time to what you hear is faster than reaction time to any other sense.5 The right sounds can be the fastest and often least-expensive way to instantaneously heighten engagement.
In other words, a brand’s identity is incomplete without incorporating the strategic use of sound and music. While many have a strategically defined brand identity that includes usage principles for core visual and verbal components, the sonic identity is not yet dimensionalized or well managed. It’s potentially damaging, and certainly a missed opportunity.
Here are 5 specific opportunities where a sonic identity can be used to address some of today’s top brand challenges:
1. Conveying Purpose and Values
People gravitate toward brands that stand for something, ones that have a role and contribution in the world, that go beyond what they’re selling, and rally employees to exceed the expectations of customers. A strategically designed piece of music can be the anthem and emotional engine to convey your brand’s purpose and values, the types of products you design or the genre of entertainment you showcase. Music can set the tone, the pace and the energy behind what you stand for.
2. Communicating Across Cultures
When used strategically and thoughtfully, music can be an incredible cross-cultural language. It has the ability to bridge borders and unite demographics under a shared psychographic. Whether the goal is bringing disparate employees together around one mission or extending appeal to multicultural and generationally diverse audiences, music can be the answer. By using the right set of instruments, mix of genres, or enlisting the influence of certain artists, your brand can authentically and efficiently connect with multiple groups of people simultaneously.
3. Connecting Disparate Touchpoints
The strategic use of music and sound can score the brand experience seamlessly across all touchpoints. It has the ability to consistently convey meaning and personality in both physical and digital environments. It can help your brand be noticed even when there is no room for visual or verbal storytelling, and over time, a sonic logo/identity can reach similar levels of attribution as your visual logo/identity, enabling presence where you were once invisible.
4. Supercharging Sponsorships and Spaces
Gone are the days of spending millions of dollars on a sponsorship with just a logo on the building to show for it. Brands are now looking for new ways to be seen and add value by improving the experiences they are a part of. Whether it’s a stadium sponsorship, retail store or another immersive environment, appropriately weaving in your proprietary music and sounds will increase attribution and heighten emotional engagement, as well as improve ROI.
5. Humanizing Digital Interactions
Digital is fast becoming the way many brands communicate with customers. For all of its usefulness and efficiency, digital has the challenge of being devoid of personality and ultimately leads to an undifferentiated and seemingly uncaring experience. The strategic use of music and sound can dramatically improve a digital interaction by placing a brand’s unique identity and personality front-and-center to provide clear navigation with proprietary sounds that are simultaneously functional and emotional.
A brand’s sonic identity can go a long way to address many of today’s top brand challenges. It begins with a strategic foundation. Ultimately it’s not about creating sound, it’s about creating powerful emotional impact that transforms brand experiences.
1. Steve Martin “Googlephonics”
2. Harvard Business Review “What does your brand sound like?”
3. Dr. Adrian North and Dr. Hargreaves at Leicester University
4. Aniruddh Patel, Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University
5. B.J. Kemp, Developmental Psychology Vol. 8
You know instinctively when it happens. You hear a sound or music that evokes a memory, makes you feel good, gets your heart racing or transports your mind to another place. These are Boom Moments.
A classic example referenced by Joel Beckerman in his book The Sonic Boom is the Chili’s Sizzling Fajita. As Joel describes the scene, the first one comes out of the kitchen and makes its way across the dining room to someone’s table, everyone’s senses are awakened. The smell and the sound of the sizzle create a mouthwatering gotta-have-it sensation. Despite every other option you were considering, your desires were just taken over by the sizzling fajita. A Boom Moment has occurred.
My personal favorite Boom Moment experience goes way back to the mid-80s and Risky Business. Joel (Tom Cruise) is driving and Barry (Bronson Pinchot) is in the passenger seat of the Porsche 928, cruising around town late at night. They stop at a red light. Another car pulls along side. The taunting from the second car begins “A couple of boys in daddy’s car… you wanna race…?” The music is pulsing throughout. The light turns green. The second car takes off. You can barely hear the engine sputter forward and there’s not enough power to make the spinning tires sound anything but weak. The 928 doesn’t move. Barry slowly turns his head toward Joel and says “Hit it.” Immediately you hear that sound. The 928 takes off, wheels spin, the engine roars, and they easily pass the other car, despite its head start. Cut to the 928 doing backwards donuts in an empty parking lot, making the engine-revving sound that I’ve been in love with ever since.
Truth is, I’d never actually driven a Porsche, but the desire to hear and control that sound was still on my mind nearly 20 years later. So, it was time. My options and budget had me exploring a new Honda or an old Porsche. The choice was clear, and this time there would be no substitute. Cut to a dark February evening. I’m at a dealership after hours, alone in the repair bay in the back of the building. Standing. Waiting. Hoping that when the sales guy and my auto mechanic friend get back from a test drive of the 1986 911, that the car checks out so I can finalize the deal.
After a few moments, not even expecting my anxiousness to turn into exhilaration, I start to hear it. Woooon, wont woooon, wont wooooo. That visceral Porsche sound coming down the road, around the bend, toward the back of the dealership and into the garage. The Boom Moment has returned and this time I’m driving it home!
Risky Business is known for Tom Cruise dancing to “Old Time Rock & Roll,” revitalizing Ray-Ban’s and, I’m sure, selling Porsches. All I know is that it emblazed my passion and desire for a car, an experience and a sound that keeps my heart racing to this day.
Porsche has managed to use sound to score the driving experience and forges a deep emotional connection with aficionados and wannabes.
You can check out more Porsche sounds on their website. Just beware, because it just may change how you want to drive forever.
That’s my favorite Boom Moment. What’s yours?