Audio Branding: ‘Tis the Season

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Marketing campaigns often focus primarily on the sense of vision, whether they are purely visual elements like print ads and billboards, or even when they have associated sound, like television commercials or retail environments. I’ve written about olfactory marketing – appealing to the sense of smell – but what about sound?

How can marketers go beyond using audio to communicate benefits (or, even worse, speed read through the legalese of a disclaimer) and incorporate a powerful branding or other marketing message?

Most marketers don’t ignore the possibilities of sound when it’s an available option. They’ll use it productively for mood-setting music or a persuasive voiceover. It’s possible, though, to go beyond the obvious. First, let’s take a look at the potential impact of sound in a retail environment:

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 wine outsold 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. [From Building Brand Value Through the Strategic Use of Sound by Noel Franus.]

So, as is common here at Neuromarketing, it is clear that seemingly insignificant factors – even those of which the customer isn’t consciously aware – can have a profound impact on customer behavior.

Muzak has been exploiting this phenomenon for decades, though for much of that time they seemed to be primarily suppliers of bland “elevator music” – relatively neutral instrumentals with extreme frequencies filtered out. This was music designed primarily not to offend. Now, Muzak considers itself an “audio branding” firm, capable of crafting a musical background particularly suited to a firm’s overall branding and positioning strategy. Here’s an example of a Muzak case study, Hotel Vitale:

Joie de Vivre Hotels has built its brand upon the importance of appealing to all five senses at every opportunity. And nowhere is that more apparent than at Hotel Vitale. Located on the San Francisco bay, Hotel Vitale features open, light-filled spaces and stunning water views. In addition to water and light, elements like warm wood, sprigs of fresh lavender and natural stones complete Hotel Vitale’s “Luxury, Naturally” concept. This concept is enhanced by the Moodscapes music program, a contemplative mix of pleasing instrumentals — creating a serene oasis in the lobby and the soothing experience of a day spa throughout the hotel.

Does it actually work? One has to believe there’s a fair amount of guesswork when you are an “audio architect” trying to come up with just the right branding music for a firm or environment. Still, it seems likely that a diligent attempt, even if imperfect and difficult to prove effective, is better than ignoring the concept.

The holidays are singled out for special attention by Muzak. Since the short holiday season can account for a greatly disproportionate share of annual sales for many retailers, striking the right musical mix to keep shoppers engaged can be of key importance. According to Michael Morain of the Des Moines Register in Muzak creates soundtracks to shop by, the firm works on both secular and non-secular holiday music packages. They start the process in mid-summer, incorporating both traditional carols and newer remixes of old favorites. Undoubtedly, holiday sound tracks are less about branding and more about putting shoppers in a festive and generous mood. Still, audio selections should still be consistent with a brand’s image – Bing Crosby’s White Christmas might not work very well for a hip urban jeans shop.

United Airlines has taken a familiar composition, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and made it their own (to the dismay of some music lovers). The airline has cleverly used the theme in most of its ads, but has modified it in many ways to vary the sound and keep it relevant to the ad content. For example, for a television commercial promoting Asian destinations, the familiar Rhapsody theme was arranged in an appropriately Asian style. It appears in airports, too, at times. While nobody wants to sit for hours listening to bastardized Gershwin, it’s an interesting addition to passenger transit areas which are high traffic but where nobody stays for very long.

Beyond Music

Music may be a powerful mood-setter, but other auditory inputs can have a profound impact as well. We’ve heard about the Mercedes door-slam team – a group project to get the most appealing sound from a closing car door. One of the more impressive auditory branding efforts I’ve seen is from Nextel, the cell phone company that is now part of Sprint. They have always offered a unique walkie-talkie feature which lets fellow Nextel users initiate a conversation instantly by pushing one button. While most cell features let the user choose from a range of sounds or ringtones, Nextel did something smart: every Nextel phone emits a distinctive chirp when in walkie-talkie mode. This chirp is unique and instantly recognizable by any other Nextel user. They have incorporated the chirp into their TV commercials, and one hears it often in public. This powerful auditory branding message cost Nextel nothing other than the courage to keep the sound consistent across phone styles and generations, and to not let users easily change it. (It’s unfortunate that the Nextel brand itself is probably doomed as it is engulfed by Sprint – their Nextel Cup NASCAR branding was a waste if the Nextel brand disappears, but it was well-targeted to the demographics of the firm’s customers.)

What does your brand sound like?

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