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Remember the last time you heard a great piece of music, and it moved you, transported you someplace else? Maybe it made you melancholy, or perhaps it made you happy. Whatever your response, it took you on an emotional journey, and the chances are the memory of that journey lingers still.
Humans are wired for sound. A good piece of music — one that touches us — releases increased levels of dopamine, according to researchers at McGill University who used a PET scan to study the effects of music on the human brain.
Maybe this shouldn’t be too surprising — sound is processed in the part of our brain that processes our emotions. Interaction between the auditory areas of our brains and our rewards system drives pleasure, according to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Given this, it’s no wonder we’re so emotionally invested in sound.
The branding world is becoming increasingly aware of the relationship between sound and emotion. Historically, people have tended to conceive of branding as a visual industry. When discussing branding, people immediately start thinking about logos and colors.
But in a crowded world, companies are looking for new and more innovative ways to break through, to tell their brands’ stories, and they realize they have a new secret weapon: sound.
Now, I know that, in one sense, companies wising up to how sound can complement their brands is not new at all. Brands have long understood the power of the human voice to tell their story, for example. An advert using Morgan Freeman’s voice immediately tells you something about that brand. There is a reason Mercedes use John Hamm for their voice-overs.
But we’re now moving far beyond a conventional, linear relationship between sound and brand.
A new wave of sound
We’re entering a new technology-driven era redefining this relationship in ways we didn’t foresee even a decade ago. As the boundaries between work and play, home and office, the real and the virtual, collapse, our relationship with sound is changing fundamentally.
In this mashed-up, hybrid, fragmented world, sound accompanies us across space and time. Where we go, it comes along for the ride. It is there in our phones, cars, smart speakers and computers. It is pervasive.
No demographic has sound permeated through more than young people that have known nothing else than having sound at the touch of their fingertips, all day, all night. Their expectations about how sound makes them feel are higher than any other generation. It’s no surprise that recent research shows 70% of Gen Z consumers connect to brands through sound.
And as sound becomes a new currency, capable of adding value wherever it is spent, something symbiotic is occurring; sonic branding is becoming a powerful tool to plug into the human psyche and to initiate conversations.
It may be that this conversation is sparked by hearing a simple rhythm or tone. It could even be just one lonely note. But whatever it is, it must become highly memorable for that brand, something that makes us feel different about it from anything else in its category.
That familiar feeling
Perhaps inevitably, some of the first companies to wake up to the potential of sonic branding are those whose brands are helping define this new technological era.
Remember when the HBO static branding icon dropped 15 years ago? That sound, how it made people feel?
Then there’s Netflix. When you hear that distinctive sonic branding, it invites a Pavlovian response. You know the brand without ever having to see it. That sound generates interest. Maybe you’re in another room in your house when you hear it. Immediately, you’re intrigued. You want to know what someone is going to watch.
Or what about when you turn your computer on? You know whether it’s a Microsoft or an Apple, simply from the sound. It’s a trigger to say, ‘Something is coming.’
A memory reflex happens there, just like when you send an email or a note on Teams, and you hear that familiar, reassuring ‘whoosh.’
Given it’s being driven by new technology — which can rip up everything in its path, remake it, then make it, again and again, every single day —we’re still figuring out the true potential of sonic branding. Every industry and every company is at a different stage in its journey.
The agency’s role to play
My company, Landor & Fitch, recently acquired a specialist sonic branding company, Amp, to help us maximize our potential in this area. But while the technology may be new, the fundamental approach remains the same.
It must start with an understanding that each brand has its own DNA. It’s only then that we use AI and other tools to explore which sounds are appropriate for specific brands, whether a deep baritone sound for a strong, powerful car brand or something very light and fluffy for a low-calorie dessert consumer brand. Then we test it and talk to consumers to hear what they feel when they hear it to gauge that emotional connection. That’s where the magic can happen, like when you hear that great music.
Admittedly, as momentum builds in this area, there is a risk that some companies jump on the sonic bandwagon simply because someone is saying, ‘we need to put some sound here.’
This would be a huge mistake. In this rapidly evolving aural landscape, brands must think about using sound to make themselves heard amid the cacophony.
Because if misused, it’s just noise.