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Sensory Branding

Sound: Differentiating Brand Builder


Sound: Differentiating Brand Builder

Some time ago, I was flicking through a copy of ‘People’ magazine, when I beheld something on its pages that caused me to just about fall off my chair. An ad promoting a TV series about Elvis, which was to run on CBS, was the source of my surprise.

“The King is Hear…”, proclaimed, typographically, what turned out to be the first part of this innovative notice. On turning to the next page of the magazine, sure enough, I did hear the King. Elvis was singing from the pages and a voiceover was promoting the series. If you managed to see this copy of the magazine, I’m quite sure you’d have found the advertisement as unforgettable as I did.

Naturally, I got on the phone straight away and tracked down the genius behind the ad. Tim Clegg, the inventor of the concept and CEO of Americhip in California, told me that the ad had secured 100% awareness among ‘People’ magazine’s readership – for the first time in the publication’s history. The innovative combination of sound and vision was an arresting achievement, in spite of the fact that we live in a world where hearing and sight are overtaxed senses. Yet, used in this highly differentiated way, sound and vision communicated powerfully.

This appeal to a combination of senses seems to do the trick when aiming to secure consumer attention. So it’s ironic that sound is not more strongly deployed as a sensory communication channel media online.

The first explanation that you might to me for this apparent oversight is that people don’t want noise around, especially at the office when you’re sneaking into your favorite website. But telltale noise to the guilty is suggestive sound to everyone else. Pick up your Apple iPod, use the famous navigation wheel, and you’ll notice that highly characteristic ‘tick-tick-tick’ sound – a sound which, over time, you associate exclusively with your iPod. When the battery in your cellphone is getting low, the phone emits an alert that’s instantly recognizable and, hopefully, prompts you to recharge the handset. And, when you’re beavering away in Microsoft Windows, the error sound checks your progress, causes you to review your last action, and rectify it. Such sounds become so familiar to us that we never really think about them. But we soon notice their absence, the unexpected gap they leave suggesting that the application or implement to which they belong mustn’t be working properly.

Navigation sound – let’s call it branded navigation sound, seeing that it comes to signify the brand – can be trademarked. But this potentially powerful brand signature is rarely used online. Why shouldn’t there be a half-second tune the instant that the payment for my purchase has been approved? Why, when I win an eBay auction, am I not honored with a momentary fanfare? Why isn’t sound used more as a brand builder?

You might be surprised at how few people find brand sounds unwelcome. A survey I conducted for my latest book, BRAND sense, shows that only 5% of people turn off the sound on a website if the sound is for navigation purposes, and only 7% don’t find website sound useful. Of course, the consumer should have the option to accept or reject sound along with any other communication approach made online. But the fact remains that sound is a branding tool that seems still to be a secret, so little is it used to create that crucial point of difference on brand’s websites.

And this takes me back to Americhip’s Elvis achievement. I was told that the cost for this attention-winning point of difference was minimal. I know I’ll never forget it and I’m sure everyone who encountered the ad would be equally impressed by it. The online environment is crowded, and print media is bursting at the seams with brands fighting for consumer attention. Combining communication techniques that appeal to aural as well as visual awareness makes an enormous impact on the viewer and reader. So take a leaf out of those pages advertising Elvis and use the power of sound to build your brand innovatively.

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Bhavana Jaiswal on June 08th, 2009 said

I read somewhere that the more senses of the consumer you touch, the stronger the Top-of-mind (ToM) recall value becomes. In the People’s Magazine ad, the Elvis song touched another dimension of the consumer’s senses – sound – and unexpectedly so.

Airtel, a leading telecom operator from India, has used this very effectively to their benefit. When the telecom market in India was at nascent stages, talking to the consumer about their lower tariffs, Airtel roped in AR Rehman to create a trademark theme song – which became its most popular brand symbol. Early advertisements weaved a story about how the trademark song was created. The song was also distributed as a ringtone (ringtones were just picking up pace in the Indian market then).

Quite simply speaking, Airtel converted a ‘jingle’ into one of their most powerful branding weapon.

Brett Beilfuss on June 10th, 2009 said

I agree that sound can be a key element in brand association. However it does have to be carefully monitored.

I’ve had colleagues that have had their computer speakers turned up, and they broadcast to the office that they’re checking their personal AOL when you hear the “you’ve got mail”.

Also, going into Hallmark and hearing someone test out all of the audio cards can be a bit annoying as well.

This is a great innovation to put sound into a magazine ad, but People has to be sure that they’re magazine doesn’t turn into one where you’ll always have audio when you’re flipping pages. It is a differentiator now, but could easy travel down the slippery slope to “noise”.

Great insight that Branding does go beyond the visual.


Paul Flanigan on July 16th, 2009 said

Martin, great post.

When I worked in baseball, I was adamant that every single time a home run was hit by the home team, the very same song sample was used (It was always Land of 1,000 Dances – Wilson Pickett — the “na na” part.)

At one game during the season, my audio guy asked if he could change the song and I said no. When asked why, I said that the home run has branding, that if you are not in your seat when it happens – you’re at the concessions, restrooms, concourse, wherever – when you hear that song blast on the audio system, that you know a home run was just hit.

Exact same philosophy. While not every event in your life could have an aural brand, every event that has impact on you could.

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