How will your brand sound in the new golden age of audio?
As marketers we're in the business of influencing how people feel - and more than ever this will mean thinking about the sounds of your brand, writes VCCP Media's Paul Mead
What can you hear right now?
The human body is wired to be exquisitely sensitive to sound.
Our hearing is the first sense to develop in the womb and the last to leave us before we die.
The science of sound is complex. Pitch, resonance, frequency, amplitude. But its impact on us is profound.
Whether music or the spoken word, sound changes how we feel.
Sound connects us to each other.
We’ve known this for centuries but scientists are only just beginning to realise the full potential of sound to heal us, to lift our mood, to understand why sound impacts us both psychologically and physiologically.
As marketers we're in the business of influencing how people feel.
And more than ever this will mean thinking about the sounds of your brand.
Our communications will need to become multi-sensory if we are to win in a new golden age of audio.
For the last two decades the digital revolution has been screen-centric. The big screen of the smart TV and the desktop. The small screen of the mobile and the tablet. Our eyes rarely stray far from a panel of pixels.
The next decade will see technology enabling a more 'heads up' experience as we are freed from the tether of our screens to interact with the 'internet of things' around us.
Voice is the way we naturally interact with the world and the ultimate aim of the technology arms race is to make interaction with machines as close as possible to our interaction with other human beings. The next phase of this arms race is here now - ‘voice as a platform’. It's a fancy way of saying ‘talking to machines’.
It's a world where the audio experience is more important than the visual.
Mobile has been fuelling this new golden age of audio for some time now. From audio books to podcasting to streaming music services and even linear radio.
Audible.com is seeing membership growth of 40% year-on-year with users listening to almost 2 billion hours of audio content. Podcasting is now a monthly experience for 57 million Americans (up 23% year-on-year) with Serial having been downloaded 230 million times across its two series. Music streaming services such as Spotify and Deezer have broken the 100m subscriber barrier, genrating more than half of all music industry revenue. Goldman Sachs predicts the streaming music market to be worth 100bn by 2030.
As with any large revenue ‘iceberg’ it is unsurprising that the usual suspects are dominating the battle to control how we talk to our machines"
Overall in the UK we spend 26 hours per week with audio content, 74% of which is with linear radio. Audio is growing in all its guises but it is the seismic changes being brought about by ‘voice as a platform’ that will drive audio to the forefront of marketers thinking.
Gartner predicts that as early as next year, 30% of our interactions with technology will be through conversations with smart machines. The Internet of Things means everything in our homes being connected, in some way ‘smart’. The controllers for our lives will move beyond our mobile phones and towards ‘virtual assistants’ that can control our personal army of connected devices and be accessed through them whether or not they have a screen.
Just as Google’s search engine was the gateway to the web, the virtual assistant is the gatekeeper to the internet of things. More than £2bn of sales were driven by virtual assistants in 2016. Bearing in mind only 17% of Alexa owners use the device for shopping, this is the tip of a very large iceberg.
As with any large revenue ‘iceberg’ it is unsurprising that the usual suspects are dominating the battle to control how we talk to our machines. Amazon with Alexa, Google with Assistant, Apple with Siri, Facebook with M, Microsoft with Cortana. It's important not to be distracted by the hardware. Echoes, Dots, AirPods, Home will all come and go. This is a race to be the operating system of the internet of things. Brands can't win here.
Even among the silver back gorillas of the West Coast some will possess the AI capability but not access to the huge data sets required to feed (and thereby improve) the machine learning. Whoever wins, the direction of travel is clear. The way you sound will be critical. In this next phase, brands will need to either influence their audience to ask for them by name or influence the virtual assistant directly.
How do you market in the world of virtual assistants? A recent report from Mindshare and JWT suggested three potential models; paid placement, the affiliate model or what it termed ‘assistant optimisation’. Whatever it looks like we can certainly bank on the companies behind the virtual assistants to deliver a commercial platform.
Looking further ahead the best way to influence the virtual assistants might be to simply improve the products and services we provide. You can't advertise to an algorithm. In the future our virtual assistants will be accessing live performance data from every product in our lives.
If the performance data suggests washing powder A uses 20% less water to create the same volume of suds then our virtual assistants will take the decision to automatically re-order this product. And we will gladly sub these decisions out to our intelligent agents - removing much of the need to influence brand choice in our consumers minds. But this is a long way off.
Whether the conversation with machines is by text or voice, developing a multi-sensory strategy has never been more important"
Influencing the audience to ask their virtual assistants for a brand by name is much more familiar territory for marketers. Just as we currently measure success by how often we are Googled, analytics will tell us the volume of brand requests made to virtual assistants.
Influencing our audience doesn't necessarily mean an audio focused strategy of course (just like influencing people to Google your brand doesn't mean a search only strategy). But thinking about how your brand sounds when its requested by a user will be key. This isn’t something for the future. Almost a third of all mobile searches on Google today are voice.
Conversations with machines aren’t exclusively voice activated. Chat bots are more than just 'first base' in this voice as a platform model. They are powered by the same virtual assistants. In the same way that we actively choose to text or message someone rather than conduct a live conversation in the real world, we are often more comfortable with the thinking space that a messaging ecosystem provides.
This has been demonstrated very clearly by the WeChat model in China. Why would I need 50 apps on my phone when I can message the brands I want to talk to directly through a single platform? The West may not be able to replicate WeChat but the idea of brand apps will become as archaic as the idea of having an icon on a desktop home screen for every website we visit.
Whether the conversation with machines is by text or voice, developing a multi-sensory strategy has never been more important. While our eyes may be diverted from the TV for second screening during an ad break our ears are constantly scanning for audio cues that will make us look up. How strong is your sonic identity? What or who is the sound of your brand?
There is a huge opportunity for brands to act on the science of sound. We know that some natural sounds have a powerful effect on our mood. In 2015 a test signal for a digital radio station that broadcast the sounds of birdsong from an English country garden reputedly amassed an audience of half a million listeners. People find birdsong relaxing and reassuring because humans have learnt through millennia that when birds sing they are safe (it's when birds stop singing that is the cue to be alert).
As part of the recent rebrand of a Columbian Bank a soundscape was created based on bird song. The rebranding resulted in a "dramatic uplift" in people opening new accounts and customer approval ratings rose from 64% to 90% in six months.
BP used birdsong when research revealed toilets in its petrol stations were having a negative effect on customers' feelings about the brand. A strategy was drawn up to improve the toilets including, among other things, a birdsong soundscape. The aim was to create a mental connection with freshness. The scheme was piloted at BP services in Cambridgeshire and across Europe. Customer satisfaction ratings rose by 50%.
Of course bird song is just one example of a powerful human response to sound. Which travel brand will own the sounds of your holiday? Waves lapping rhythmically on the beach. The evening chorus of cicadas.
Sonic branding isn’t new. It's been around since the days of the very first jingle. But its importance is greater than ever and our approach is becoming more sophisticated. Intel, McDonalds, WeBuyAnyCar - to name but a few - have all built a strong sonic identity into their communications.
A new golden age of audio is upon us. For marketers the reality of modern media consumption is that you may not have the eyes of your audience but you will have their ears. And if they are not the ears of your target customer they may be the receptors of their virtual assistant. And in the future that may become even more valuable.
Paul Mead is founder and chairman of VCCP Media