Sonic branding and the rise of voice technology
Converting sound into marketing and branding opportunities
Voice technology has not only made life easier for consumers, but has also given marketers the opportunity to capitalize on sonic branding.
The future of sound
Smart speakers come with voices that satisfy our curiosity. They supply instant weather forecasts, quick answers to web searches, and information like arrival times for meal delivery drivers. Millions of homes, offices, and institutions use the Internet-enabled assistants, which interpret commands and respond in a recognizable voice. The devices have transformed how consumers shop online, how families run their smart homes, and how employees get tasks done at work.
Another important view is shaping this voice-first future, however, as marketers use sonic branding to communicate to audiences through sensory tactics.
What is sonic branding?
Sonic branding, sometimes called audio branding, sound branding, or acoustic branding, is the practice of using auditory elements to brand your product or service.
A surge in voice-enabled technology is making this possible. Deloitte Global calculates the market for smart speakers and integrated digital voice assistants at $7 billion this year. With a 63 percent growth rate, smart speakers comprise the fastest-growing connected device category worldwide in 2019. By 2022, Juniper Research predicts that Americans will be using nearly 900 million voice-assistant-enabled devices. That estimated $40 billion market will be accompanied by machines that are getting better in language support, accuracy, and simplicity, giving marketers multiple potential applications across new industries.
Proponents of the technologies say voice-activated, hands-free communication saves time, and potentially makes operations safer. For instance, as a practical solution at work, an Ohio producer and distributor of pet supply products adopted a voice-based solution to replace paper-based picking, leading to productivity improvements, and achieving near-perfect accuracy for shipping operations.
Some consumer-facing industries such as hospitality are also integrating voice technology more fully into their brands. Marriott International Group has experimental plans to outfit a growing number of hotel rooms with smart speakers, feeding into a trend in which a large share of the world’s 17.5 million guest rooms might feature some version of voice control within the decade. This year, financial services giant Mastercard released a “transaction sound” that plays across various mediums and platforms.
Using voice for convenience is one thing, but quite another is converting sound into a meaningful branding opportunity. Therefore, marketers who are developing sonic branding strategies say it requires companies to stretch the limits of their current branding activities to determine how sounds spark emotion and ultimately drive audiences to action.
Speed of sound
One way companies can use sonic branding to their advantage is by focusing on speed, a formidable challenge amid the research on humans’ shrinking attention spans. A Canadian survey of 2,000 participants found that in the era of smart devices, the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, to eight seconds today.
Brands appear eager to battle those odds. Audio streaming service Pandora adopted a sonic logo this year, emphasizing the emotional response that can emerge from a seconds-long composition associated with the brand. The Chinese ride-sharing company DiDi Chuxing added a notification sound on its app to let users know drivers are on the way—using sound so that riders wouldn’t have to check for visual, on-screen notifications for the service.
Sonic branding may serve as a substitute for visual cues, but the influence of voice on emotions and memory is nonetheless perceptible. Studies of vocal expression on the brain suggest that audio tones can transmit messages that transcend language and cultural barriers. As a result, listeners from different backgrounds and cultures can interpret music as being happy or sad. From a branding perspective, marketers are using this knowledge to appeal to customers’ appetite for memorable, shareable content with sonic branding.
FedEx jumped into the sonic branding stream in 2017 with its interactive SoundTrack feature, allowing users to create a composition based on a package’s shipping journey, including delivery type, parcel weight, and dimensions. Meanwhile, M&M’s Bite-sized Beats campaign let users choose musical loops to create a personalized song, with a combination of the loops revealing a music video by the pop artist Jessie J.
Earcons in your head
Marketers looking for ways to incorporate sonic branding also needs to adhere to their organization’s core identity. Google exhibits brand coherence in its search capabilities with a microphone icon in its search bar, as well as the “OK Google” sound serving as an “earcon” for voice searches. The Guardian newspaper recently created a five-second earcon for its Voice Lab team, arguing that earcons “play a pivotal role in establishing tone and asserting a brand identity.”
Mass media provides some examples of why this is important. Spain’s robust industry of voice actors who dub dialogue from into Spanish for popular foreign actors over the course of their on-screen careers is one example of the fierce loyalty that audiences expect through sound. If the buzz over National Public Radio’s recent theme song update for its popular Morning Edition program is any indication, consumers are fiercely loyal to familiar, comforting sounds.
The booming market for voice command services has not only made life easier for consumers and workers. To capitalize on this opportunity, marketers need to understand the nuanced differences between voice- and text-enabled queries. Marketers might also want to explore how machine learning and AI could be enhanced for predictive modeling across platforms.
Companies routinely use logos, colors, and other imagery as standard markers of their identity. But humans perceive sound faster than they see, taste, smell or touch.1 This physiological reality means the next big memorable campaign might sound more memorable than it looks.