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Is Your Brand on Mute?

Updated: Feb 29

by Rob Davis

We live in a screen-optional world. That may seem incongruous given society’s obsession with screen-time and emphasis on visual entertainment, but it’s true. A few years back, as the world went agog over the promise of the Internet-of-Things, 4K screens on appliances and social networks that urged brands to create videos for ‘sound-off’ viewing, a consumer-driven sonic boom was redefining the role of sound in the cultural zeitgeist.

Fast forward through a relatively short period of time, high-quality ear buds, affordable music streaming apps, digital assistants and smart speakers have led to entirely new sound-based consumer behaviours that have become cornerstones of media consumption. Yet, every day most brands go to market without a sonic strategy which, in today’s audio-forward reality, may not actually be a sound decision.

Making the most of the aural opportunity begins with developing a sonic strategy of the same depth and rigor traditionally reserved for visual branding. The breadth of the sonic marketing ecosystem requires forethought and planning. Just as fonts, Pantone colors and logos build awareness through brand consistency via visual incarnations across platforms, so do unified aural elements.

It is tempting to jump into sonic marketing on a tactical level, without taking time to plan a full strategic approach, but it sets a brand up for disconnected, random executions. We’d never run a print-ad without visual standards, but Alexa skills, digital radio ads and podcasts often suffer from the inconsistencies one-off decisions. They end up failing to help build – or grow – a brand.

There are four basic questions brands should explore before making sonic assets:

  1. Should we have a mnemonic (sound logo)?

  2. Are we OK with default voices on digital services like Alexa, or do we want a consistent human voice?

  3. Do we need a music strategy?

  4. Should we create a master strategy that guides everything we do with sound?

BTW, in almost all cases the answer to each of these questions is unequivocally “yes.” Sound is omnipresent: it’s the foundation of television commercials, the focal point of customer service chatbots and the literal voice of a brand via podcasts and digital assistants. Understanding the breadth of how audio makes or breaks marketing mojo requires a consistent strategic approach to two very different predominant sonic marketing experiences: passive and active.

Passive sonic engagement occurs all the time. The sound bed of a TV spot, a mnemonic heard in audio/visual content, a dynamic Spotify ad or a branded podcast are all examples of opportunities for brands to make inroads without the consumer having to do anything but listen. It is a lean back experience.

Passive situations are opportunities to build brand awareness and instill an almost innate reaction to your content (think about how you react to the Intel sound logo - you don’t have to process it, you instantly know what it is).

Active sonic engagement, what the industry often calls “voice,” requires the consumer to lean forward and play an active role. Examples include asking Google a question, summoning a branded bot for information on a product or requesting a voice landing page after hearing a digital radio ad.

Active experiences are more conversational, triggered by the consumer’s voice. They can be challenging, requiring a rich dialog strategy in addition to a brand’s core sonic approach. They can also be rewarding. Active engagement can accomplish simple tasks like making a medical appointment and more complex challenges such as conversing with a customer throughout the sales cycle, leading directly to an e-commerce transaction.

There are two common pitfalls brands need to watch out for when deciding how to move forward in sonic.

The most dangerous course of action is doing nothing. Ignoring sonic marketing leaves the door open for competitors. Like most of the Internet world, the soundscape is egalitarian and impatient. Everyone can play, but it waits for no one. Silence on the part of an established brand may create opportunities for upstart competitors to fill the void and make inroads with customers. If a brand is not present (or not optimized for presence), the customer will only hear from those that did make the effort to create audio ads, develop intelligent bots and optimize for voice search. There’s no reward for being number two. Brands must fight to be the first heard.

When a brand does move forward, choosing the right partner is a complex decision. There are many wonderful music houses that have been serving the advertising industry for decades, but most do not bring the marketing or brand knowledge to lead aural strategy. Sonic branding requires a solid, strategic foundation that goes beyond the art of creating a jingle or mnemonic. Brands need a true partner who can work through all aspects of aural marketing.

The simple truth is that brands have the opportunity to be heard in more places, on more devices and in more different contexts than ever before. That’s beyond debate. The only question left is how many brands will address the sonic opportunity with deliberate, strategic action and how many will continue to roll along with the sound - literally and metaphorically - turned off?

Rob Davis is Head of Digital, US at Ogilvy.

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