W&V – Life under Corona is giving acoustic branding a powerful boost

We trust our eyes – and yet follow our ears. In times of voice-activated shopping, a jingle is not enough. Brands need an unmistakable audio identity. In his guest article for W&V our Executive Creative Director Norbert Möller states: Life under Corona is giving acoustic branding a powerful boost

People tend to think of themselves as heavily reliant on visual cues. When we close or eyes or try to get around in the dark, we quickly start staggering aimlessly, and often succumb to fear and panic. If we plug our ears, we may feel acoustically sealed off, but at least we feel safe. As designers, we even have scientific evidence of people's preference for the sense of sight. We know, for example, that the intuitive impact of colors and shapes influences people's decision-making process long before their rational mind gets involved.

And yet, sounds have even more impact on our subconscious than optical stimuli. We react to sounds at least ten times faster than we react to something we perceive only from the corner of our eye. Particularly unpleasant noises evoke immediate reactions, triggering stress and an increased heart rate. The feeling of being unable to control our acoustic environment leads to dissatisfaction and unconscious defensive reactions.

A sound logo is an important component – but just a first step

Why am I telling you all this? A few weeks ago I was invited to speak about sound branding at the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, along with a colleague from another agency. Many people – and many brands – equate a sound logo with a catchy jingle that sticks in your head. While that kind of sound logo is an important component of acoustic branding, it is not universally applicable and can't be played too often without becoming annoying – which is exactly the opposite of the desired effect.

A well-known sound logo is the five-note "da-da-da-di-da" of Deutsche Telekom, which has been very effective for the past 20 years. But regardless of how good it is, it's still just a single brand element embedded in an extensive sonic strategy. After all, the Telekom brand has innumerable ways to use sound to communicate with people, including ambient sound at events, trade fairs and stores. Then there are apps, video content, ringtones, recorded routing options, status reports on hold...

The channels can be virtual or real-world. The contact duration can be brief or extended. It might be a feedback signal during a digital interaction or an endless loop. And let's not forget voice interfaces, chats and video calls. Many brands have a similar variety of acoustical touchpoints – and all of them face the challenge of developing a comprehensive sonic branding strategy. Brands that do so consistently get a head start in an increasingly crowded acoustical landscape.

Life under Corona is giving acoustic branding a powerful boost

Now is the perfect time to tackle the topic of sound branding. There are several reasons for this, the most important being new technological developments. We are living in an increasingly networked world, full of smart devices, smart homes and smart cars. In this new environment, people recognize brands by the sounds of their features. The quality of voice interfaces has also made a huge leap forward, so many people prefer to operate their technology using voice commands instead of juggling four different remote control devices. Improved transmission rates make it possible to access premium audio content such as digital radio, podcasts and streaming services. As the threshhold for using acoustic elements has fallen, the technology is becoming more and more popular. Mastercard, for example, expects brands to generate about 40 billion dollars in revenue from voice-operated shopping services in the year 2022.

All of this is being accelerated by people's experiences during the coronavirus pandemic. Consumers have developed a routine in using digital tools, and their interaction with brands now takes place mostly in the virtual world – from Internet shops and video streaming to remote conferences and online trade fairs. When you experience these environments with earbuds or noise-cancelling headphones, it's very visceral and all-encompassing. Audio messages go, quite literally, right into our heads. And there's a third aspect of relevance to brands: Whereas visual digital content increasingly has to contend with ad-blocking software, acoustic elements are hardly subject to such limitations.

Good sound branding can be adapted to different regions and purposes

A positive example of successful, holistic sound branding comes from the bank HSBC. They opted to collaborate with Jean-Michel Jarre, a pioneer of electronic music. He created an acoustic brand identity that reflects the bank's global positioning. In addition to a sound logo and a soundboard, it comprises seven additional pieces of music that express diverse moods – sometimes euphoric, sometimes motivational, sometimes calm and relaxing. On their own they can be used for a variety of occasions, but they also gave rise to sounds for app notifications and sounds that support interaction in the branch offices. All together they afford a great deal of variety for HSBC. And that means customers don't get annoyed by hearing the same jingle over and over again.

When creating its acoustic brand identity, Mastercard recognized that it was not just about creating a single, universal sound logo, but that regional adaptations would be necessary. This enables the brand to respond to a broad range of consumer expectations – enhancing its likeability and relevance. The brand not only expresses its acoustic identity through a sound logo, but in the various feedback sounds when making payments. Both of these brands also emphasize that good sound branding needs to be set up by experts. It's the interplay among designers, composers and strategists that ensures the company's sound is a good match with its visual identity – and that both together reflect the values and positioning of the brand.

When creating and selecting sound branding components, there's another potential obstacle people often fail to take into consideration because of how absurd it seems, namely the way it sounds. Just as our speech at the Reeperbahn Festival was streamed online, team meetings and client presentations are also often conducted virtually. Depending on how their equipment is set up, executives might find themselves discussing the nuances of sound branding while battling the audio quality of a presentation shared using Microsoft Teams. I must admit, this is where in-person meetings, and perhaps a field trip to an audio studio, have practical benefits. It is my hope that at next year's Reeperbahn Festival we can not only stand on a real stage but actually interact with the audience and enjoy a good old, analog, pub crawl.

The article was published in German language at W&V.

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