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Audio Branding: The Power of Sound

by Kim Garmon Hummel, on Aug 13, 2020 12:00:00 AM

This week’s topic is one that I am personally excited about because it happens to be something that got me interested in marketing and branding in the first place: audio branding. It’s a lesser-known concept for the general public, and an undervalued tactic by many businesses, especially the smaller ones. Even the Harvard Business Review deemed it to be an incredibly “powerful branding tool that has been generally overlooked or perhaps undervalued.” Larger brands, however, have been capitalizing on this notion for a while now and building it into their strategy without most of the public even realizing it.

What is audio branding?

Audio branding — sometimes referred to as sonic branding — has many definitions on Google, but they all come down to the same basic concept: the strategic use of sound elements (whether it is voice, jingles, songs, or even silence) to complete a brand identity and communicate it to the consumer. 

It is both a representation and reinforcement of your brand, its values, its promise, and its personality. We know that your brand isn’t just a logo, but rather the logo is the visual language for your brand. In the same vein, your audio logo is the auditory language for your brand and is more powerful than your visual logo in many ways.

Why is sound powerful?

To understand how it’s possible for sound to powerfully communicate your brand, let’s look at the science behind it. Believe it or not, neurologists and psychologists have been studying the effects of sound on the human brain for years.

  1. Sound is incredibly efficient. We respond to it fast. If you look at the way the body is designed, the auditory neural pathways that send information to the human brain are much less complex than the visual pathways, which allows for faster processing. In layman's terms: we can respond to sounds up to 100 times faster than we can to visual images!

    Additionally, your ears never stop receiving auditory stimuli. Even when you weren’t listening in school, you could still repeat what your teacher had just said right before she stopped to ask if you were listening. And when you’re asleep, you can still hear the noises of your house that wake you. Neurologists have found that the noise that comes through our ears will actually remain in our minds for almost five seconds before it begins to fade, while visuals that come through the eyes disappear in less than a second.

  2. Sound is visceral. We don’t process sound in a rational way because it doesn’t even go to the rational part of our brains; it affects our emotions. It’s been studied and proven that music elicits emotional responses more than visual. In fact, music, just like language, has structure, progression, and syntax. The human brain even processes music syntax in the same area that it processes language syntax. You can check out this TEDx by Hauke Egermann on how human emotion is influenced by music:

    Not only does sound evoke strong emotions, but it also evokes the memories that are tied to them, whether positive or negative. In the human brain, they go hand in hand. The results here are two-fold: sound can greatly influence the mood of the listener, and can provide us context for what is coming next because the memories tied to that sound tell us so. This is why horror films will play suspenseful music before intense moments, like when you discover that the serial killer had been hiding in the closet the whole time. Or think of the movie Jaws. When you hear that music, you know what is coming.

Why do brands use sound?

The science is there and companies have been capitalizing on this research for years. Why? How? Let's take a look!

To create a memorable, distinct brand identity across all touch points

Adding sound or music to your brand brings another dimension to your brand experience as it “produces additional layers of emotional response that still imagery cannot reproduce.” It breaks through the rational part of your brain and resonates on a more emotional level, remember? This means that if you pick the right sounds, you can better communicate and amplify your brand personality and values to the consumer.

When looking at audio branding as a strategy for your brand, you should be setting two main goals: consistency in the messaging and emotional relevance to the brand. Companies, after a long process of defining their audio DNA, will take the auditory components that communicate their values the best, evoke the emotions that are appropriate, and implement across touch points so that the experience is consistent.

There are two positive effects of this:

  1. The audio becomes a powerful identifier for your brand that can be played just about anywhere — apps, in-store, ads, website, etc.

  2. The brand builds trust, which is arguably the most important asset for any brand. One of the best ways to build trust is to behave in a consistent manner. At Brand Strategy Insider, Colleen Fahey describes it, “a focused approach to your own sound can bring congruity to brand experiences and that supports trust-building–more so than does the use of licensed music.”

Okay, so they’re using sound to boost and communicate their identities, but what about the memorable part? They’re doing that too. Recall and recognition are big key performance indicators for most companies. You want your consumers to not only recognize your brand, but remember it. By harnessing the power of strategically chosen sound elements and pairing them with the visual aspects of your brand, you can increase both recall and recognition. 

Neuro-Insight published a study that showed how ads that closely linked their sound and visuals delivered, on average, 14% higher memory encoding at end branding than more passive soundtracks! Not only that, there have been studies conducted on how logos that fall into the range of 5-7 notes are the most successful in terms of sticking in the human brain. Think about many of the big companies with audio logos, such as McDonalds, Intel, or T-Mobile — their logos are five notes.

Veritonic conducted a study in 2016 pinpointing the Top 10 Most Recognizable Brand Audio Logos. Can you guess who was on the list?

  1. Nationwide
  2. Farmers Insurance
  3. Intel — this audio logo is recognized by over 90% of the world!
  4. Green Giant
  5. Hot Pockets
  6. McDonalds
  7. Chevy
  8. Folgers
  9. Statefarm
  10. T-Mobile

Most of these are right in that 5-7 note range!

To impact customer mood and purchase decision

The connection between sound and emotions is strong and not to be underestimated. Companies use this to influence their customers all the time across multiple touch points. For example, product designers for manufacturing companies spend a lot of time obsessing over the noise of their products (particularly ones for inside the home), and the experts at Consumer Reports spend a lot of time testing the noise and rating it.

Why? As stated by Maria Rerecich, senior director for product testing at Consumer Reports, “Your home should be a sanctuary.” In their research, household products that reach 40 decibels (which is a little louder than a quiet office) start to cause mood disruption. Your common refrigerator or space heater is at this level. Once you get to 65 decibels and higher, studies of the human physiological response show hypertension, increased secretion of stress hormones, and thickening of the blood. Around 65 decibels is where you’ll find your common air condition, air purifier, toilet, and vacuum cleaner. If the sound of your product has a negative effect on your consumers, they’re not going to buy any more. 

Beyond products, companies use sound to influence people in certain spaces, such as elevators. Muzak, a company in North Carolina, developed and implemented gentle tones inside elevators to quell the fears of people riding in them in early skyscrapers (which is why we call it “elevator music”).  

How about in retail? Back in 1998, a team ran an experiment in a British wine shop to look at the effects of background music on purchase decisions. They played French and German music for a number of days and alternated between the two. On the days that French music was played, the French wine outsold the German wine by a ratio of four to one. On the German music days, German wine outsold the French by a ratio of three to one.

Here’s a fun one: cars. For any of you motor heads out there, you’ll recognize the connection between the heavy engine sound and how powerful you perceive a car to be. BMW also knows this. In 2012, they introduced into their M5 a system that uses synthesized engine sounds and pumps it through the speakers of the vehicle. The result: people felt the car was more powerful and sales went up. Now they deploy that trick to most of their models, including the i8 hybrid sports car! They’ve even hired Hans Zimmer to create the sounds for their future electric cars!

Steve Keller, current Sonic Strategy Director for Pandora, did a TEDx in Nashville a few years ago, during which he discussed the surprising ways that companies have been deploying sound as part of their strategies and how effective it is. I highly recommend watching it —my favorite is the aerosol spray can bit. 


Are you listening?

While developing an audio logo may not be the next logical step for all companies looking to take their branding to the next level, it's definitely worth it for businesses to consider the auditory experience they currently provide to their customers. 

For example, if you own a restaurant, have you asked yourself what the noise level is inside your location? Maybe ask some of your customers. If they give you feedback that it can get really noisy, it may be worth it to invest in some sound dampeners to reduce the high pitch noise of your space to create a more pleasant atmosphere for your customers.

Ultimately, there are a lot of little things you can do to make a big impact on the experience for your customers. So start taking a look at what your brand sounds like!