Sound Business: Getting More Bang For Your Audio Bucks

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Article Takeaways:

  • How audio can function as a behavioral driver
  • The uses of a sonic identity and how they should be applied
  • How to think about maximizing any investment made in sound

In today’s media-rich environment, where audio-enabled touchpoints are increasingly available to listeners, there’s no question that sound can have a significant impact on brand messaging and identity. The rapid adoption of smart speakers and voice assistants has made marketing less visible and more audible, forcing brands to consider how they differentiate themselves in a world where they can be heard, but not seen.

We all recognize the power of sound to move us. No one denies the fundamental role music and sound play in shaping our perception and driving emotional connections. There are hundreds of empirical studies that demonstrate the power of sound to increase attention, facilitate brand/message recall, improve brand perception, drive purchase intent, elicit physiological responses, increase likability, build positive associations, prime implicit responses and produce chemical reactions in our brains. Those facts notwithstanding, questions still remain about how to measure returns on audio-related investments in a marketing context. The result is a “value perception gap,” a disconnect between the intellectual assent to the power of sound on the one hand, and the tendency for sound to be an undervalued and under-leveraged asset on the other.

We’re often tasked with closing this value perception gap, helping brands maximize the returns on their audio investments. If we’re ever going to develop actionable sonic strategies that produce measurable results, we need to start by revolutionizing our approach to how we make audio choices, moving away from the preoccupation with creative execution alone (which perpetuates a high degree of subjectivity) and move towards an understanding of sound from a research perspective.

So how do they begin? It should come as no surprise that strategy and measurement are essential to capturing value, managing costs, and maximizing returns. Such an approach facilities a more intentional use of music and sound, based on clearly defined strategies that help align brand intent with consumer perception. We focus on three “Pillars of Sound Business” that we believe are key to understanding and measuring the performance of sound in a variety of contexts.

The Pillar of Engagement (Behavior)

Whether it’s capturing attention, delivering a brand message, evoking emotion, or attempting to benefit from sharing equity with a hit song or celebrity talent, advertisers depend on sound to connect with their audience. We know that audio can engage consumers emotionally, but brands often ignore how audio can function as a behavioral driver.

Engagement as a metric is meaningless unless it’s tied to a clear behavioral outcome. Behavioral outcomes are particularly important in a digitized world, where audio can function as part of the user experience and/or user interface (UX/UI) of brand applications or systems. It’s not enough to approach sound through the lens of art and aesthetics. It should also be considered from the perspectives of behavioral economics, behavioral design, and habit formation. The best approach is always a blend of art and science.

The Pillar of Identity (Perception)

The rise of smart speakers and voice interactive technology is forcing brands to think about sound in new multiple contexts, pushing the conversation beyond the impact of sound on influencing behavior and into discussions about how sound can shape perception. On the one hand, sonic identity is simply the use of music, voice and/or sound to communicate brand attributes, meaning, and purpose in a way that enhances brand recall and linkage. This can certainly be accomplished through the simple pairing of an audio stimulus with other brand identifiers. On the other hand, sonic identity is also about the use of sound to align brand intent with consumer perception. Framed this way, sonic identity should start with a strategic framework, a design approach that helps brands make better choices about the sounds they associate with their brand.

As brands and agencies rush to enter a “voice-first” future, the temptation is to focus on the development of tactical executions rather than overarching sonic strategies. The truth is, sonic identity is less about any particular audio asset (e.g., sonic logo, brand theme, brand voice, functional sound, etc.) and more about how these assets are applied across an entire sonic ecosystem. Brands should consider how to develop a congruent, distinct, flexible, recognizable and ownable sonic identity that can be communicated across a variety of audio touchpoints in a variety of contexts.

The Pillar of Management (Equity)

Once we begin to consider sound in the context of an entire sonic ecosystem, the obvious questions regarding how to manage and implement audio assets arise. Brands should be educated on sonic identity best practices and given the tools they need to manage, measure and maintain their sonic identity. Discipline in consistently applying audio standards can be a challenge, particularly within corporate structures where key decision-makers, agency partners and brand managers may all have varying opinions, preferences, and goals. Brands should be just as vigilant about protecting their sonic identity as they are in protecting their visual identity – or any other intellectual property for that matter. Many audio assets can be registered as trademarks and copyrights, opening up potential revenue streams through performance royalties and/or collateralization, further offsetting costs and capturing more value over time.

These pillars can help us define KPIs that allow us to make more informed sonic decisions. What are emotional and behavioral objectives for using a particular piece of music or selecting a particular voice talent? Are there cost savings we can achieve short/long term across various audio touchpoints? What role does audio play a role in communicating brand meaning, values and experience? How can we use sound to improve brand linkage, or focus attention and arousal? In our experience, the use of audio-related KPIs helps to further integrate music and sound into the brand manager’s scope of work. This is particularly important when considering sonic branding initiatives, where standards, consistency, and copyrights offer opportunities for measurement and value capture over time.

So what does your brand sound like?

The answer to that question doesn’t start with your ears. It starts with what’s between them. Sound business is ultimately about making sound choices. Literally. Maximizing and measuring the returns on your audio investments is possible. With strategy and discipline, you’ll not only find your brand’s voice, but you’ll also teach it to sing.

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