by David Collins
For many years, commerce was firmly grounded in the physical world. Supermarkets, shopping malls and product showrooms were key battlegrounds for companies looking to win over consumers at the point of purchase. Brands invested millions – if not billions – of dollars on logos, packaging and in-store advertising to ensure they stood out among a sea of competitors.
Then came online shopping, presenting a whole new set of challenges for brands. Consumers were given increased freedom to explore a range of options that were no longer defined by location. Comparison sites introduced new levels of transparency, while marketplaces like eBay and Amazon gave small retailers the opportunity to tackle the big guys.
Now, the next era is upon us – voice. According to Lauren Nagel, group creative director at Pandora, we are about to enter a world that’s defined by a “currency of language and sound, as opposed to screens.” Where previously a colourful packaging design may have been enough to stand out, brands now need to start thinking about how their identity translates in a channel devoid of visuals. “I think for a lot of folks the sound of your brand is still a bit of an afterthought,” Lauren asserts.
So what can marketers do to protect their brands from the loss of identity that will occur in the ‘Age of Alexa’? The answer lies in ‘sonic branding’.
Put simply, sonic branding (or a ‘sound logo’) is the use of a sound, song or musical phrase to reinforce a brand’s identity. One industry that has mastered the art is film and TV. Watch any Hollywood movie and before the opening titles start, you’ll be greeted with the familiar sound of the production studio’s audio-signature. From the triumphant horns of 20th Century Fox’s anthem, to the MGM Lion’s roar, the movie studio refrain has become an intrinsic part of cinema. In fact, there’s some who argue that it’s more than just an add-on, it’s an integral part of the movie’s musical landscape.
Another common place we see a sonic brand is in the outro of a TV ad, when a short melody accompanies the brand’s logo. Some of the most famous examples include Intel’s chimes, McDonald’s ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ jingle, or LG’s playful end tune. Closer to home, Australia also has some wonderful examples of sonic branding. Telstra’s latest TV ads end with a catchy piano melody, as do Commonwealth Bank’s.
There are also many great examples of audio mnemonics built around eclectic, everyday sounds. Take Netflix, for example, which borrows its intro sound from Frank Underwood knocking on his desk, or HBO’s title screen which uses the (usually) dreaded sound of a static television. Simple effects like a can of Coca-Cola being opened or a Harley Davidson revving can be elevated and become ownable assets that capture the essence of a brand in a few seconds.
The Harvard Business Review says the strategic use of sound can play an important role for brands, particularly in “positively differentiating a product or service, enhancing recall, creating preference, building trust and even increasing sales.” Science has shown that music and sound establish deep connections through the limbic brain which can bypass rational thought and trigger powerful emotions. Do you have certain songs you associate with particular moments in your life, or certain sounds with people and places? This is why.
New figures from Edison that were released in May estimated Australian smart speaker ownership at 5% – equating to approximately 1 million units sold. That’s an impressive figure – given Google Home didn’t start selling until July last year, while Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s HomePod were only released in February this year. According to Accenture Australia, the levels of home assistant devices are projected to rise more than five times this year, reaching 23% by the end of 2018.
Soon, voice will be one of the primary ways we interact with brands. AI assistants will manage multiple steps of the CX journey, streamlining customer service and ongoing support. Already the likes of AGL, NAB and Qantas have launched their own branded voice apps (also called skills) via Amazon Alexa and Google Home.
Early signs also suggest that smart speakers are contributing to an overall uplift in the consumption of audio in our daily lives. Surveys from NPR and Edison Research have revealed that 70% of smart speaker owners are listening to more audio at home since acquiring their device. This means they’re streaming more music, news and podcasts each week – which in turn creates more opportunities for advertisers. Brands such as Toyota, Campbell’s and Unilever are currently testing audio ad units that allow listeners to ‘talk’ to an ad to request an extended message or request further info.
If your brand doesn’t have a sonic identity already, now is the time start thinking about one. As audio technology becomes more embedded in our lives, having a distinctive audio trademark will be an essential branding tool. Just like a logo, a strong sonic brand creates consistency, differentiation and familiarity across your own assets and in third party environments. As we enter the next frontier of commerce, that should sound like music to most marketers’ ears.