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Putting the emotional power of music to good work

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

This post is the second in our series of interviews with experts in the sonic branding sector. Fran Board from The Sound Agency, and an alumnus of Music, Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths, University of London, explains how audio branding can have very far-reaching impacts on consumers.

The Sound Agency - SoundOut
Fran Board - The Sound Agency

When did you first become interested in audio branding?

I originally studied graphic design. We did lots of audiovisual work, but we didn’t talk much about sound and so I was intrigued about the impact it was having. I’ve worked in audio branding ever since. For me, it’s this perfect niche that combined everything I was interested in. My mum’s a musician and my dad’s a designer, so I think I was bound to end up at this intersection between the two!

Years later, I went back to university to also study Music, Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths, which gave me the incredible opportunity to understand more about sound from a scientific perspective.

How can brands harness the emotional power of music?

There are lots of different mechanisms that come together to form our emotional responses to music. It’s a complicated process.

One of them is called the “musical mirror”. For example, when we’re happy we talk louder and faster and with more pitch variation, more expression. And when we’re sad we talk slower and lower and without very much melodic movement. Music that evokes happy or sad emotions tends to have those characteristics.

The mechanism that’s most powerful for brands is the link between sound and memory. If we hear a song that played at our wedding, for example, those emotions come flooding back. Brands can use this in a similar way. When I hear Netflix’s “du-dum” or the sound of HBO, I immediately get excited. That’s because of my emotional memories of those sounds. It’s a Pavlovian response.

If a brand can harness sound and emotion in that way, they’re onto a winner.

Where does research play a role in audio branding?

For us, research plays a part in every stage. We use it at the beginning of a project during strategic work to understand the brand and its market. We use it during the creative process to gauge people’s responses to creative routes. And we use it once sound is out there in the world to learn about its impact.

Sound has the ability to change the way people feel and behave, so as designers we have a responsibility to make sure it’s doing some good. For example, at the moment we’re doing research to understand more about how neurodiverse people (people with ADHD and autism, for instance) respond differently to sound so that we can design audio options that work for everyone.

How has audio branding changed over the years?

Historically, audio branding probably had a bit of a bad rep thanks to jingles and elevator music It was used sometimes to push a message onto people. After all, we have no earlids so often we’d have no option but to listen.

Nowadays, consumers are holding brands to much higher standards. Covid has really brought wellbeing to the forefront of many areas in design.

Sound has the potential to create genuinely healthy, enjoyable experiences, and brands should approach it from this perspective. They can start by considering every single way that a customer experiences their sound – from on-hold systems to restaurant toilets. At The Sound Agency we’re particularly experienced in designing sound in physical spaces. We’re seeing wellbeing themes like choice, control, personalisation, adaptability, and comfort come up again and again.

The knock-on commercial effect of a happy, relaxed customer is often beneficial anyway, so wellbeing-led audio is a win-win.

If you have one piece of advice for clients considering audio branding, what would it be?

Don’t stop once you’ve designed the sound! Some brands make a big song and dance about their new audio identity, use it for six months, and then forget about it. Audio branding is a long-term strategy. Yes, there are short-term benefits too, but the real value comes in time. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading the SoundOut Index Report on market penetration.

It goes back to what I said about emotion. After launching, it’s your job as a brand to “fill up” the sound with positive memories and experiences. That’s probably not going to happen overnight. It can take years to build the kind of value and recognition that comes with a really successful audio identity – but it’s absolutely worth it.

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