Julian's blog: The Sound of Brands

July 22nd, 2011
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All businesses are making sound; most just aren’t controlling it – and the effects of this random noise are lost sales, undermined brands and lost customers.
 
Well over a thousand billion dollars are spent worldwide every year on how brands look: the brand books describing visual identities can be as thick as telephone directories for the world’s most famous and complex brands. They are intended to cover every possible aspect of branding… so it’s strange that I have had the following conversation many times:
 
Me: “Do you have a brand book?”
Marketing director: “Yes, of course we have a brand book.”
Me: “How many pages are about sound?”
Marketing director: “Er, none.”
 
Sound is probably the last great unexplored country for the marketing profession. Sound branding is a virtually virgin territory, rich with resources, that’s been behind us the whole time. Of course, sound is not the only sense we’ve been ignoring. The other two primary senses (smell and taste) and the range of touch, or haptic, senses (pressure, texture, temperature, balance and so on) are important too. Using the traditional Aristotelian five-sense model (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste), marketing guru Martin Lindstrom proposes ‘5D branding’ in his book BRANDsense. His extensive research showed that less than 10 per cent of the world’s top brands have a sensory branding platform (though this is forecast to increase to 35 per cent within five years).
 
I fully support the 5D approach, and commend Martin’s book to every marketer. However, sight and hearing must be considered the twin major senses for two reasons. First, they can both carry specific messages: we can say exactly what we want in either vision or sound. Smell, touch and taste can convey a large number of moods, feelings and ambiences, but not many specific messages. Second, sight and hearing can both be broadcast, and they are therefore the only two mass communication senses. So far, nobody has found a way of broadcasting smells or tastes.
 
We know that sound has four profound effects on people: physiological, psychological, cognitive and behavioural. The right sound can increase retail sales by up to 38% – but sound that’s incongruent with visual messaging will undermine impact by over 80%. From this perspective it’s clear that the marketing profession has always given too much weight to sight compared to sound. This may be because the mass communication media were sight-only (press and posters) for much of marketing’s formative history. It may also be that marketing’s whole strategic paradigm has been focused on the brand as promise (‘image’, a purely visual word); brand experience, which natural occurs in all five senses, is a relatively young discipline.
 
But as we know today, every brand is both a promise and an experience. Sound can play a major a role in both these aspects, though how major depends on the specific product, brand, market, territory and customer base. At its most potent, sound can make or break a brand. It must always be considered.

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