Consumers are paying more attention to audio than ever. The success of the Serial podcast has supercharged a revival of podcasting in the US with a 25 per cent increase in Americans listening to podcasts in the last 12 months. WeChat and other mobile messaging apps are deepening social interactions via voice messaging. Consumers are craving hyper-curated playlists, which are being facilitated by algorithm-powered platforms.
The emergence of premium headphone brands suggests that everyday sonic experience has shifted from function to lifestyle. Beats by Dre is the highest profile of these brands, successfully marrying technology with popular culture and winning 27 per cent of the $1.8 billion headphone market in the process. And then there’s the recent announcement regarding Android Auto, just one of many examples of how the Internet of things and seamless connectivity between devices has enabled us to spend more time surrounded by sounds of our own choosing.
Despite all of this, just 4 per cent of brand identity spend is currently on sonic identity. And we think these identities need to gain traction.
So why is audio a potential winner?
We are constantly on the move, and multitasking has become a natural part of everyday life. Audio seems an intuitive fit with today’s saturated lifestyles. With audio, one can engage with a podcast, or a song, or a brand advertisement without giving up another activity or taking time out to pause. The experience of listening is also inherently personal. Product descriptions, stories, interviews and testimonials are voiced, often making them more compelling.
Consumer value systems are changing, especially for digital natives—more likely to be early adopters of technology. In our new digitally enabled societies, we seek meaning in our lives as much by creating and sharing memories and experiences, as by buying objects. And in these experience economies consumers are sensitised to the experiences that brands can deliver through a range of channels. Sonic brand identities tap into the aesthetics and sensibilities of the experience-hungry millennial target. Many of the sonic experiences brands provide are immersive and all the more powerful for that.
Many brands are already capitalising successfully on audio to ingrain their brand in consumer memories and strengthen their distinctiveness. In environments overwhelmed by images and logos, a brand that owns specific sonic experiences can have a real advantage. Apple crafted a sound that makes turning on any Apple device feel like an adventure. The five-note “I’m loving it” whistle injects fun into the McDonalds brand all over the world. And there’s HBO and its white noise sound—tantamount to premium television. These brands all understand the power of sound in eliciting emotional responses.
With effective sonic branding, physical spaces have the potential to become brand theatres, creating the kind of compelling benefits for consumers that drive profits and growth. Retailers have known this for years. But it’s Abercrombie and Fitch who seem to have taken the art to the next level: Its stores have become synonymous with the signature A&F scent and loud music, stimulating purchasing, and cementing the brand as young and fresh. Walt Disney World also gets this with 15,000 speakers in place to heighten emotion, cancelling out white noise and aurally transporting visitors from kingdom to kingdom.
But not all brands deal with sound (like Beats by Dre) or necessarily provide theatres where sound can come into play. But does this mean that any other kind of brand necessarily has to think visual first, aural later, or as an afterthought, or not at all?
When we consider the salience of sound in our new experience economies, it seems that brands, and those tasked with communicating them, would be wise not to ignore the potential.