Audio Branding: ‘Tis the Season


Marketing campaigns often focus primarily on the sense of vision, whether they are purely visual elements like print ads and billboards, or even when they have associated sound, like television commercials or retail environments. I’ve written about olfactory marketing – appealing to the sense of smell – but what about sound? How can marketers go beyond using audio to communicate benefits (or, even worse, speed read through the legalese of a disclaimer) and incorporate a powerful branding or other marketing message?

Most marketers don’t ignore the possibilities of sound when it’s an available option. They’ll use it productively for mood-setting music or a persuasive voiceover. It’s possible, though, to go beyond the obvious. First, let’s take a look at the potential impact of sound in a retail environment:

In 1998, Adrian North, David Hargreaves and Jennifer McKendrick ran a test in a British wine shop to determine the role of background music in purchase decisions. For a number of days they piped in French and German music, alternating between the two. The results: on French-music days, the French wine outsold the German wine by a ratio of four to one. On German-music days, German wine outsold the French by a ratio of three to one.

The same team also discovered that customers are likely to tolerate long waiting times (both on the phone and in the real world), if and when the hold/background music is enjoyable and fits our expectations. [From Building Brand Value Through the Strategic Use of Sound by Noel Franus.]

So, as is common here at Neuromarketing, it is clear that seemingly insignificant factors – even those of which the customer isn’t consciously aware – can have a profound impact on customer behavior.

Muzak has been exploiting this phenomenon for decades, though for much of that time they seemed to be primarily suppliers of bland “elevator music” – relatively neutral instrumentals with extreme frequencies filtered out. This was music designed primarily not to offend. Now, Muzak considers itself an “audio branding” firm, capable of crafting a musical background particularly suited to a firm’s overall branding and positioning strategy. Here’s an example of a Muzak case study, Hotel Vitale:

Joie de Vivre Hotels has built its brand upon the importance of appealing to all five senses at every opportunity. And nowhere is that more apparent than at Hotel Vitale. Located on the San Francisco bay, Hotel Vitale features open, light-filled spaces and stunning water views. In addition to water and light, elements like warm wood, sprigs of fresh lavender and natural stones complete Hotel Vitale’s “Luxury, Naturally” concept. This concept is enhanced by the Moodscapes music program, a contemplative mix of pleasing instrumentals – creating a serene oasis in the lobby and the soothing experience of a day spa throughout the hotel.

Does it actually work? One has to believe there’s a fair amount of guesswork when you are an “audio architect” trying to come up with just the right branding music for a firm or environment. Still, it seems likely that a diligent attempt, even if imperfect and difficult to prove effective, is better than ignoring the concept.

The holidays are singled out for special attention by Muzak. Since the short holiday season can account for a greatly disproportionate share of annual sales for many retailers, striking the right musical mix to keep shoppers engaged can be of key importance. According to Michael Morain of the Des Moines Register in Muzak creates soundtracks to shop by, the firm works on both secular and non-secular holiday music packages. They start the process in mid-summer, incorporating both traditional carols and newer remixes of old favorites. Undoubtedly, holiday sound tracks are less about branding and more about putting shoppers in a festive and generous mood. Still, audio selections should still be consistent with a brand’s image – Bing Crosby’s White Christmas might not work very well for a hip urban jeans shop.

United Airlines has taken a familiar composition, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and made it their own (to the dismay of some music lovers). The airline has cleverly used the theme in most of its ads, but has modified it in many ways to vary the sound and keep it relevant to the ad content. For example, for a television commercial promoting Asian destinations, the familiar Rhapsody theme was arranged in an appropriately Asian style. It appears in airports, too, at times. While nobody wants to sit for hours listening to bastardized Gershwin, it’s an interesting addition to passenger transit areas which are high traffic but where nobody stays for very long.

Beyond Music

Music may be a powerful mood-setter, but other auditory inputs can have a profound impact as well. We’ve heard about the Mercedes door-slam team – a group project to get the most appealing sound from a closing car door. One of the more impressive auditory branding efforts I’ve seen is from Nextel, the cell phone company that is now part of Sprint. They have always offered a unique walkie-talkie feature which lets fellow Nextel users initiate a conversation instantly by pushing one button. While most cell features let the user choose from a range of sounds or ringtones, Nextel did something smart: every Nextel phone emits a distinctive chirp when in walkie-talkie mode. This chirp is unique and instantly recognizable by any other Nextel user. They have incorporated the chirp into their TV commercials, and one hears it often in public. This powerful auditory branding message cost Nextel nothing other than the courage to keep the sound consistent across phone styles and generations, and to not let users easily change it. (It’s unfortunate that the Nextel brand itself is probably doomed as it is engulfed by Sprint – their Nextel Cup NASCAR branding was a waste if the Nextel brand disappears, but it was well-targeted to the demographics of the firm’s customers.)

What does your brand sound like?

  1. Thanks for providing all that detail and source material. We’ve written about trademark sounds and “sound logos” on our blog before. The importance of appropriate pairings starts with the sound of the company name and the product name. You don’t want to create a dissonance between the name and the sound logo by pairing a frivolous sound with a serious name, or vice versa–unless there’s a comic punchline in there that will help sell the product.

  2. Steve Mills says

    Interesting article roger

    Has there been any scientific tests or studies to determine in Musak actually raises time spent in the store per customer, or what they purchase etc. Would be interesting to see what the exact effect is

  3. Noel Franus says

    Thanks for the correction Roger. The Nextel chirp is emerging as one that serves a dual purpose in brand identification across two major touchpoints — advertising and product usage. Very good for them.

    So how does Sprint Nextel improve on a good thing? Consider: Sprint’s pin-drop is being phased out after years of use. And despite Nextel’s chirp ubiquity, the sound doesn’t successfully cross over into other Sprint Nextel categories (such as commercials in for Sprting/Palm smartphones). Which leaves SN in a bit of a branding quagmire, soncially speaking.

    I’d look to cross that branding bridge by adding more emotional depth to the chirp. As a standalone, atonal sound, it can’t communicate; it can merely identify the product. However, with the right amount of compositional rigor, it could serve as a platform for sonic/musical expansion…which, done properly, could work for all present and future Sprint/Nextel advertising, and across product lines, startup sounds, etc., even as the brand evolves.

    In any case, a job well done. Thanks for bringing this one to light.

  4. Benedict G says

    I have been working on the sound bit. We are reading less and listening more. And listening to TV, radio and mobile phone. This means that the auditory pathways are being limited to a more restricted frequencies. Since the concept of reading has also come down, the phonemic awareness is a problem. The brain will find it difficult differentiate between sounds like da and ba (milar sounding sounds). Which means if the commercial or a jingle is not run thru a neuro check taking all these into account the chances of the consumer ever hearing the sound is remote, particularly if the frequencies are challengingly place. Or if there are many similar sounding phonemes in the commercial even then its lost. Because it becomes a challenge for the brain hence affecting the communication

  5. Chris says

    That was a very interesting article. Have you seen the ads that “beam” sound into your head as you walk by? (link below)

    Not sure if that will work because it’s a bit of a novelty, or if you could include some of the ideas in the article to help drive sales.

    There are also newer recording techniques like holographic sound that could probably make the user feel “closer” to the sound

  6. Debbie Irwin says

    I’m interested in learning about the qualitative results of adding voice over as a marketing/branding tool. Any insights into this?



    1. Roger Dooley says

      Hi, Debbie. When you say “adding voice over,” to what are you adding it? Video with no narration, or something else?


  7. Debbie Irwin says

    Hi Roger;

    Sorry for the vagueness….

    I’m referring to adding VO to websites– with and without video.
    More and more people are adding these components to their sites in order to attract and keep the attention of the viewers.

    In an attempt to quantify the benefit of adding VO to my clients, I’m hoping to drawn on research that studies this.

    Is that clearer now?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Debbie, I haven’t seen any studies specifically on websites. In general, though, stimulating one or more additional senses has been shown to enhance recall. I don’t have a link, but I recall a trial lawyer citing astounding recall improvements when instead of just illustrations to accompany testimony or a closing argument an animation with sound was employed.

      My only concern about website sound is that some users may find it unexpected and annoying if it begins automatically. That may change over time if sound becomes more commonly employed. I’d see only benefits if the sound was user-launched.

      I’d suggest doing an A/B test with and without sound – compare time on site, pageviews, and conversion (if any) metrics. Good luck!


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