Wired for sound: Why brands need to shift the emphasis to audio experience

As voice-based interaction takes hold, brands need to literally start better planning the audio personality they're showing to consumers


It is often said smell is the most evocative senses, readily resurfacing memories and feelings. But with marketers generally limited in their ability to reach the olfactory organs of most consumers, other senses can still be used to great effect.

One technological trend in particular is giving marketers a solid reason to revisit one of the remaining four – sound. For brands which have primarily connected with consumers via the Web, sound has been a relatively unimportant aspect of what has been a primarily visually-driven mechanism, expect in those instances where video is employed.

Now with Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s HomePod recently joining the Australian smart speaker market, consumers are gradually becoming more familiar with the idea of literally telling devices what to do – and listening back for their response. The result is that marketers are having to think more carefully about the audio experience they provide, rather than simply the visual.

Of course for many marketers the concept of using sound as a brand element is nothing new. Schweppes has been able to make great mileage out of the sound of a bottle opening, evening coining the term ‘Schweppervescence’.

And microchip manufacturer, Intel, achieved an even more remarkable feat, taking a simple five-note mnemonic tune composed in a garage more than 20 years ago (dubbed the Intel Bong) and turning it into a brand identifier estimated to be played somewhere in the world every five minutes.

The power of audio has also been well understood by creators of radio and television campaigns, such as the distinctive VB Big Cold Beer commercials, which continued to use the voice of actor, John Meillon, even after his death in 1989 (snippets of his voice were cut and pasted vocally to have him say the words ‘on tap’ in posthumous iterations of the campaign).

Distinctive voice

Lauren Clemett remembers well the importance of audio, initially from her own experience of being diagnosed with dyslexia as a child, and then in her work in brand agencies such as Clemenger and Saatchi & Saatchi, where she associated with many renowned jingle creators.

“I worked in world leading advertising agencies before the Internet existed, and sound to us was a highly tactile and very important part of branding and marketing,” she says. “You’ve got to find a way of emotionally connecting with your audience, and sound is a great way to do that. If you can get it to stick in their brain, you have a much better opportunity to convert them.”

In her current role as owner of the branding consultancy Ultimate Business Propeller, Clemett says all too often marketers overlook the importance of creating distinctive audio experiences for customers, opting instead for stock music and sounds.

“It is just almost too easy,” she says. “They just become vanilla, so there is a real risk of going with the cheapest and easiest way out.

“Sound is one of those senses we have that we take for granted. Sight you definitely notice – the minute you close your eyes you get rid of sight. But getting rid of sound is very, very hard to do.”

Old as new

It’s surprising then, given the lengths that many marketers will go to differentiate their products, that the default voices emanating from these devices all tend to sound the same.

According to Jennifer Wilson, a creative and digital strategist and founder of the consultancy, Lean Forward, reproduction of speech and how devices talk back to us an area we will start to think much more about.

“If your brand is on Google Home, are you stuck with the Google Home voice, or can you use your own voice?” Wilson asks. “One of the things that brands have to think about is that idea that the personality of their brand is the voice of their brand – is it male or female, does it talk fast, is it accented, does it sound highly educated? How does that voice work in coming back to people with information?

“These things start to become important, because we are now talking about personality as part of the brand identity.”

Earlier this year, US-based website for voice talent, Voices.com, surveyed 1000 creative professionals from advertising, marketing, corporate communications and other industries to understand how they would choosing and using voice in 2018. From this, it was able to determine the 10 most popular voices.

Topping the list was Morgan Freeman, whose deep and resonant voice was the preferred option for 21 per cent of respondents. He was followed by fellow actors, George Clooney, Mike Rowe, Sam Elliott and James Earl Jones. Women then occupied the next five positions – Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Viola Davis and Beyonce.

That so many nominees had rich and deep vocal tones is reflected in the results of a joint-study between the University of Miami and Duke University, which found individuals with lower-pitched voices were perceived to have more integrity, competence and physical power.

“What we want is a performance from a voice – a particular tone, delivery and dynamic range of expression that will deliver on the personality we are creating,” says marketing manager at the global digital product studio ustwo, Nina Drakalovic. “Visual-led branding speaks volumes; the same needs to be executed via voice.

“People don’t have a rational response when they interact with a brand via voice - it’s the myriad of subtle elements that make up a voice personality that keep users engaged.”

Drakalovic cautions much can go wrong when crafting a voice-led brand persona.

“We are now teaching machines to understand the context of conversation, and with that are the elements which contribute to the natural flow of conversation, such as nuances, tone, vocabulary, and references,” she says. “Interestingly, what we have found in our explorations is that sounding human is more important than correct grammar.

“What that means is that when designing the interaction, you have to add extra punctuation or full stops where normally there may not be ones in conversations. You have to make it feel like the machine is thinking. Adding pauses between information delivery and user questions will enhance the humanity of the voice assistant- as if it is thinking about your question.”

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