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Disrupting the sonic branding market with a little bit of intellectual alchemy

As 2021 was a momentous year for SoundOut, we thought it was time we heard from our founder, David, about the future of sonic branding and sonic marketing.



Why did you get into the music sector?

I’ve always had a belief in ‘intellectual alchemy’ – the ability to build things with the power of the mind, not a factory. This is not about making money, it's about creating something disruptive that changes the way a market works. I'd made some money in the dotcom boom and decided to use it to put my faith in intellectual alchemy to the test. And my passion for music led me in that direction.


I'd bought a lot of albums in my time and been disappointed with the majority of them. This was because each album might only have two or three decent tracks with the rest being filler. So, I decided to create a research-led music selection process that would unearth great music that would otherwise not be heard. This was Slicethepie, a platform that today hosts our 3.5m strong consumer panel.


In 2006 MySpace, then the largest social network on the planet, had 90 million consumers and 13 million bands. Bands thought MySpace would make record labels obsolete because it enabled them to interact directly with their fans. But I realised there was a major issue for these bands. If they couldn't record a professional album, they wouldn't be able to get their music listened to. So, I created what was affectively a Kickstarter for music (before Kickstarter existed). We enabled consumers to rate the music of unknown bands and, based on the feedback, we put the best ones forward for fan-financing on the site. We launched this in 2007 and around 35 bands secured funding with one (‘Scars on 45’) going on to be signed to Atlantic Records, a Warner Music company. The dream was to become the music financing engine for social networks and we ultimately did deals with both MySpace and Bebo – just before they went bust.

More interestingly, we soon noticed something fascinating in the consumer feedback. The music reviews we received from consumers were very consistent. If we tested the same track with different groups of consumers, the results always came back the same. So, we created our SoundOut division to test music. Our breakthrough came when Dr Gary Heller, head of research at CBS Radio in the US, who had done a PhD in hit prediction, decided to use SoundOut to test all new music releases in the US market. Essentially CBS used (and continues to use) SoundOut to spot potential radio hits for playlisting. One by one, the major record labels came on board on the basis that if music tested well with us, it was more likely to get airplay. And, over the course of a couple of years, we became the undisputed market leader for new music research.


What was the trigger for your move into sonic branding testing?

Over this period, we had developed a three million strong consumer panel that had the ability to predict the future performance of music. We asked ourselves which other markets would benefit from predicting consumer appeal. We decided that as fashion retail buyers need to guess what volumes to order months before the next season, our approach could be of value. If buyers order too little, they lose profit. If they order too much, they lose margin. With the help of proprietary models trained on historical sales data using machine learning, we found we could predict sales better than retail buyers. As a result, WGSN, the world leader for consumer trend forecasting, white labelled our technology. But in 2020 COVID arrived and hit fashion retail (and budgets) for six. So, we retreated from retail and decided to focus 100% on our core – music.

We had first began sonic branding testing in 2017 when we met Professor Daniel Müllensiefen, the renowned music psychologist and head of Music, Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths, University of London. Daniel is both an award-winning academic and was also Scientist in Residence with the major advertising agency, adam&eveDDB. Daniel saw an opportunity to work with SoundOut to commercialise his and others’ academic work and take music psychology mainstream. As a result of this collaboration, we created a beta version of our ground-breaking BrandMatch tool to precisely measure the match between a sonic asset and any brand’s personality (as defined by the brand).


In 2019 Daniel introduced us to ALDI to test their new UK sonic logo and then sonic branding agency MassiveMusic pulled us into a project with AccuWeather. MassiveMusic loved the results of our work so much they decided to include our capabilities as part of their core offering to all their clients.


Over the same period, we'd also been working with a number of Unilever and other FMCG brands and became increasingly educated about strategic branding and the concept of brand archetypes and brand attributes. As a result, we developed an unbeatable solution for sonic branding testing – a combination of branding experience, music psychology and a three million strong consumer panel with a predictive capability.


What do you find most exciting about the business now?

It’s often said, ‘timing is everything’. And, after a brief 14 year wait, I honestly believe that we are now ideally positioned to surf the ‘sonic boom’ that is building right now.

There are a number of factors driving this:

  1. The industry is ready. Awareness of, and demand for, sonic branding is exploding and our services have never been more in demand.

  2. Having mapped the explicit emotional DNA of sound, we already have a suite of tools that can be used at various stages of sonic branding development to increase the certainty of a return on investment.

  3. There will come a time in the not too distant future when brands will be called out for not investing in sound, and the tools and technologies we continue to bring to market will accelerate and justify these investment decisions.

  4. There is currently very little competition in our sector and no other player can match the sophistication and scale of our testing capabilities. Furthermore, no other company has the 360-degree market perspective that working directly with brands, agencies and academia provides.

  5. We're now widely recognised as the global market leader. And with a number of industry-changing products for sonic branding, sonic marketing and catalogue management/search ready for release later this year, we fully expect to consolidate and extend that lead.

  6. We have very productive relationships with Goldsmiths and Cambridge University who lead the world in the psychology of music and sonic branding – ensuring that academic excellence underpins our product set.

  7. We have meaningful market validation with scores of successfully completed projects with many of the world’s largest brands plus our core tools have already been white labelled by sector leaders such as MassiveMusic and DLMDD.

  8. We are about to complete an ambitious £400,000 research project, in partnership with Goldsmiths, (funded by the UK government’s Innovate agency) to map the subconscious emotional DNA of music. This understanding of the implicit impact of music, and its relationship to the explicit impact within a marketing environment, will have fundamental implications for brands intent on building value and driving sales through music.

Where do you think the growth of the business will come from?

More and more brands are investing in sonic branding. Furthermore, the adoption of sonic branding is a great educational path for brand owners. It helps them to understand the emotional power of music. This remains virtually untapped by brands for achieving brand loyalty and increasing the propensity to buy through brand-consistent music marketing. This understanding will translate into strategic sonic marketing. And we will increasingly help brands and agencies make the best choices for music marketing - thus making music a strategic tool in the marketing toolbox.


Why have you been able to achieve world leadership?

It's down to our mindset and our fundamental belief in the power of research and development. We are driven by the customer. Because we're constantly exposed to brands, agencies, music psychologists and the wider music industry, we have a very clear understanding of the market need. And our huge investment in R&D, that has resulted in the emotional DNA map of music, has enabled us to build products that satisfy that need. I believe our disruptive approach to sonic branding testing is proof positive that intellectual alchemy works!


Have you any desire to work in other markets?

No. We are going to stick with sound. We are going to use our global leadership to keep innovating with new tools for both explicit and implicit testing. And then we will continuously improve them. We are all-in on music.


Where would you focus your innovation if you had a big injection of investment capital?

About 50 to 60% of our revenue goes into R&D already. So, if we had a big injection of investment, we'd ramp up our latest project: transforming the music catalogue management market. This truly revolutionary technology will help brands search huge catalogues based on the personality of their brand - as defined by them. Today catalogues are searched on sound qualities such as genre, mood, the number of beats per minute and a limited number of attributes. A 360-degree brand personality search capability could remove the frustrating processes that are currently endemic across the industry. It would enable a holistic search capability where brands search for music based on their own brand language rather than musical terms. This would ensure that the music identified will be aligned with their brand attributes and personality, helping to reinforce the emotional connections that consumers have with their brand. We are already in early trials with huge catalogue owners and should be in a position to share more about this in a few months.


Is there a music track that triggers powerful emotions in you?

There are many tracks which trigger emotions for me. But I think the more important point is the unique power that music has compared to some of the other senses. For example, couples have ‘our song’. They never talk about ‘our video’ or ‘our logo’. Songs have this power because of the strength of emotional connection music makes with the subconscious mind. When people get home from work, they don't ask Alexa to play their video playlist, they fire up an appropriate music playlist to reinforce or change their mood.


Sound can be a unique brand asset that most brands haven't yet begun to capitalise on. The potential for brands, and by extension SoundOut, to harness the power of sound is almost limitless. While we have been around for a while, I believe that our journey has just begun, we are just at the start of a seismic shift in the relationship between music and brands.


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