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.
Building an audio identity
Most companies take one of two approaches to building an audio identity. The first is promotional audio branding, which aims to connect existing dots—to brand the sound, usually with a sonic logo or brand-identifier of some sort, everywhere a company communicates.
Good sound is good business
There is no “Come to audio” moment. Neither Steve Jobs nor Howard Schultz woke up one day and simply decided to change their businesses based on a newfound passion for sound. Innovation is never that simple. But both companies have shown that at least one clear path to people’s hearts, minds and wallets is through their earbuds. Whatever comes next for tomorrow’s category-makers may very well follow suit. (Did someone say iPhone?)
Not all big companies are interested in, or capable of, innovating on a world-class scale. But many do, at the very least, want to be closer to the cutting edge than their competitors. And just about all companies, brand groups and product groups are keen on the idea of better leveraging their current investments. In this case they’re already spending millions on their sonic communications, and a strategic approach to audio can provide the economic value that’s otherwise missing.
For example, if you’re advertising via traditional or experiential means, if you’re connecting with customers in events or retail spaces, or even if your company has a toll-free phone number, you’re already projecting an audio brand. Each touchpoint strengthens or weakens perceptions of your company.
Famous examples of promotional audio branding include NBC’s three-tone chimes, AOL’s “You’ve got mail,” or United Airlines’ adoption of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as its corporate theme.
This is the outside layer of the onion and thus the easiest to peel. Though promotional audio branding only scratches the surface, it’s the least complicated to define and implementation is a relative snap. Plus, it works in sneaky ways that visuals can’t – people don’t need to pay attention to notice it.
The second approach is actionable audio branding, which makes the most of psychoacoustics—linking sound to the brain—to affect our emotions and change our behaviors. Well-designed, behavior-based audio branding is a critical part of the experience that we have with everyday products and environments—from computers to cell phones, from ATMs to busy public spaces. If not carefully orchestrated, then unfettered sound becomes irrelevant clutter in the mind of consumers.
Muzak’s service, designed to increase customer spending in retail spaces, is more an act of experience design than simply spinning records. They’re influencing behaviors. Same with the London Underground train’s “Mind the gap” voice alert—first and foremost it’s a safety warning, but it’s also a regional catchphrase and a popular retail franchise.
Designers for the Ford Mustang sought to create a visceral high when they recently redesigned the legendary car. The new Mustang’s front grill was tailored to emulate Steve McQueen’s cool-as-ice stare in the film Bullitt (in which McQueen drove a ’68 Mustang). Nearly 40 years later, Ford digitized the Bullitt soundtrack and tuned the Mustang’s exhaust system to precisely match that of the sound of McQueen’s machine as heard in the film.
Technology brands have a vast opportunity to build their brand through the use of sound. Unfortunately, most fall flat. Windows Vista, for instance, features a thoughtful set of interface sounds, but none of them are linked to the brand or other Microsoft products. To their credit, however, it has avoided a mistake that many electronics companies don’t: the system isn’t overloaded with careless or intrusive bleeps and blips. (Rule number one: brilliant sound design can never compensate for an otherwise poor user experience.)
Although actionable audio branding is more challenging than promotional branding, the rewards can be substantial, as it can cover nearly all aspects of a customer’s experience with a company. If your goal is to improve brand perceptions where the rubber hits the road, then the returns are real and the work is measurable. The End