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Sonic Boom: Experience & Interface
Sound influences the way you feel, and how you interact with things
This is part 2 of an essay series about the creative potential of sound. Start with Part 1 here before reading this one.
SOUND AS BRAND INTERFACE & EXPERIENCE
A few years ago, for my sins, I went to Coachella.
It’s a sanitised version of the vomit-and-piss-stained misrule on offer at UK music festivals, but there were some interesting technological experiments on show.
One of the more interesting ones was by Doppler’s Hear One, an ‘audio AR’ company integrated into the festival app so that wearers of their earbuds could tune live into artist-picked presets for the gigs.
The idea was that you could listen to LCD Soundsystem play live in a way that brought together crowd sound and atmosphere with the music as the band intended it to be heard.
Artists had been asking people not to record their shows for years, but it seemed to promise a way of reclaiming technology as a meaningful part of a live experience rather than something that got in the way of it.
It also pointed towards a world where sound wasn’t just second fiddle to a relentlessly visual internet, but a way of navigating and experience the world without our faces bent down towards our phones.
Maybe it was an idea before its time - the company went bust a few years later1 - but a lot of good ideas are. As 5G and AR move us towards a heads-up world with tech as a layer working around our day-to-day rather than an app on a screen demanding our attention, sound is going to become far more important as a primary means of interface.
It’s been predicted that by 2024, there will be more voice assistants in the world than there are people to use them2. Speaking to and hearing brands and services will - in some places - replace browsing and clicking on them, and thinking about where and how you show up on the Sonic Internet is going to be something that brands who’ve always thought visuals-first will have to consider.
It’s not much use having a carefully-designed visual brand identity if you have zero distinctiveness in your tone of voice, personality and brand sound when people talk to you.
There are some brands for whom this presents an opportunity: to the increasing numbers of applications and services whose contribution to your life is largely invisible, sound might be a simple and memorable way of reminding users of the work they’re doing on your behalf (or just that they exist at all).
It also allows services and content to be available to a broader spectrum of users, as evidenced by Auditorial, The Guardian + RNIB’s platform to make journalism more accessible for blind and low-vision readers. If you’re not thinking sonically, your brand is exclusionary in the worst kind of way.
But sound isn’t just fundamental to how we interact with brands at the high-tech end of the spectrum: it’s also a major influencer on how we feel when using them even in much less obvious places.
“This is in D Minor, the saddest of keys” - Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap
There’s been plenty written about the effects of music as an emotional shortcut in advertising, but less about its impact on emotional mood and sensory response. Sound is a way of influencing perceptions of products, services and even physical spaces, as architects of cathedral, mosques and temples have known for thousands of years.
As Charles Spence, the godfather of this sort of thinking and the man who invented terms like “Gastrophysics” and "The Sonic Crisp”, puts it:
“Luxury is in the ear of the beholder.”
People think louder washing machines are better because they hide the noise of water splashing, quieter aerosols are seen as more powerful, and Clinique go through dozens of prototypes to get the right click when you open and close their lipstick3.
Anyone who has ever slammed the door of a Golf (meaty thunk) vs Prius (tin can) gets it, as do most carmakers:
“One designer for BMW described a Goldilocks-style search for perfection for its sporty 4 Series Gran Coupe: ‘it can’t sound too light because a light door wouldn’t convey the right aspects of quality and safety. But it’s not supposed to sound too heavy either’. ”
Marketers trying to define the brand personality of Harley Davidson could spend time talking about ‘outlaw spirit’, ‘the counter-culture’, and ‘American-made’ - or they could just play the sound one of their motorbikes makes ripping down a highway at dusk, and say far more than any collection of adjectives ever will.
This isn’t just a truth applied to mechanical goods and things that make loud noises. Sound’s ability to influence how we sense other things is everywhere, including when Heston Blumenthal serves people seafood with headphones playing the sound of the sea at The Fat Duck in Bray to influence their expectations of how the food is going to taste.
There is, inevitably, a Japanese word for this: Shitsukan
which refers to our ability to perceive things with multiple senses at the same time, or ‘the multi-sensory perception of material quality4’. This is captured in things like Peaceful Cuisine, a Youtube Channel designed to be gastronomically and sonically soothing.
There are plenty of categories where it could be free and easy to influence how people feel about you via the sonic or musical context around the moment where they engage: anyone thinking about how to affect brand experience for food and drink, hospitality/travel or any products involved when people are having sex should be thinking about where in the process music and sound might elevate the moment or add some value to it.
This can go both ways: you could spend years trying to build a certain type of warm and cuddly, non-threatening equity around your company only for a TikTok influencer to make a video about it featuring death metal that gets millions of views which will shape what people associate with it for ever.
So if sound is central to brand experience, and to how we interact with a lot of products and services in a world of voice assistants, a few starter questions that might open our ears to help us think more creatively about it :
Do we ever consider defining a brand’s personality not just through words and visuals, but through sonic references? Can you articulate who you think a company is with sounds and music - upbeat, minor key, 140BPM - rather than reaching for tired adjectives like ‘authentic’, ‘human’, ‘confident’ and ‘witty’ like every other fucking marketer in the world5?
Do you have any important sound-first ‘distinctive assets’ or ‘owned sounds’ that you could be playing with to amplifying memorability and keep you top of mind? Think about the noise of a Mac booting up, the Neeeeeuuuum of a Formula One car at top speed, or the clinking sound Revolut makes every time you add money to your account.
What part of the brand experience & interface opens up opportunities for sound, and what might we do with it? Could your packaging design be not just tactile or visual, but include some additional sonic element to make unboxing or reselling it especially rewarding?
How are you using sound to make your brand, services or content universally accessible to the visually-impaired? (I interviewed someone recently who described the experience of presenting creative ideas to clients who are visually-impaired and it blew my mind).
Next week: sound as audience signal and a way of identifying people.
Thanks for listening, and if you want to talk about this, I’m all ears.
1843, “The Sweet Sound of Sonic Success”, Jan 20th 2020
Charles Spence, “The Multi-Sensory Perception of Quality”, 18th August 2020
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