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Building Brand Value Through the Strategic Use of Sound

by Noel FranusApril 26, 2007

Most organizations have relied almost exclusively on the sense of sight to communicate who they are, what they do and why they matter. Pirates have their unmistakable skull-and-bones flag. Nearly all religions have their own unique symbol. And today, practically every brand on earth has its own visualidentity. Other senses are rarely part of the equation.

Yet sound has unquestionable potential in creating impressions. Consider the sonic snippets in your life—imagine Chariots of Fire or Rocky without music, a PC commercial without that Intel Inside bongggg, or a Harley-Davidson hog without its expertly calibrated tone. Sound triggers recall and reactions. And much like good visual or industrialdesign, it also has the ability to convey value and strengthen brand reputations.

Forward-thinking brands are catching on. In this first of a two-part series based on my co-presentation at the “Gain” conference last October, we introduce the practice of audio branding and identity – the intentional use of music, sound and voice to create a connection between people and organizations. And in parttwo, we will dig deeper with a real-world, case-study look at the recently created audio identity for Sun Microsystems and its ubiquitous Java brand.

Our everyday response to sound

Sound has an immediate, direct link to both the rational and emotional parts of our brain. The sound of a screaming baby will raise your hackles in no time. On the other hand, the sound of a gentle stream orwindswept field is more of a feeling—one that’s calm and soothing, perhaps even therapeutic.

None of this is news until you consider the cumulative effect. We’re exposed to hundreds (sometimes thousands) of sounds each day. Our brains sift through all of them, selecting those that deserve a response—usually those that are linked to a benefit or are vital to our survival. Many direct our feelings,thoughts, actions and speech. Sound acts as a filter through which we experience and understand our world.

For those of us in the business of designing brands—the practice of engineering perceptions—our opportunity is to link brands and benefits through the intentional use of music, sound, voice and silence.

Strategic audio in retail and beyond

Many retailers already leverage music as aselling tool. In 1998, Adrian North, David Hargreaves and Jennifer McKendrick ran a test in a British wine shop to determine the role of background music in purchase decisions. For a number of days they piped in French and German music, alternating between the two. The results: on French-music days, the French wine outsold the German wine by a ratio of four to one. On German-music days, German wineoutsold the French by a ratio of three to one.

The same team also discovered that customers are likely to tolerate long waiting times (both on the phone and in the real world), if and when the hold/background music is enjoyable and fits our expectations.i

Muzak anchors its business on retail sound. Decades ago, the North Carolina company served up gentle tones to quell the fears of peopleriding elevators in early skyscrapers (hence the term “elevator music”). Now Muzak is a leading supplier of licensed music in retail spaces, and brand is their primary value-add. The firm’s “audio architects” design playlists to achieve two effects: first, the music mix must match a retailer’s brand personality; and second, the songs, segues and cumulative feel must provide a specific, intentionalenergy level for the environment. (Peppy people stick around and spend more.)

Music can also work wonders in advertising: McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” audio logo is recognizable by a whopping 93 percent of the people exposed to it.ii It’s also the cornerstone of a global campaign that has seen a significant increase in sales since the campaign’s inception. “We’re not advertising more,” says...
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