Sounding Your Brand

Some time ago, I was flicking through a copy of “People” magazine when I saw something that just about knocked me off my chair. An ad promoting a TV series about Elvis proclaimed, “The King is Hear…” This turned out to be the first part of an innovative campaign. Turning to the next page, sure enough, I did hear the King. Elvis was singing from the pages as a voiceover promoted the series. If you happened to see a copy of the magazine, I’m sure you found the ad as unforgettable as I did.

I got on the phone straight away and tracked down the genius behind the ad. Tim Clegg, the inventor of the concept and CEO of Americhip in California, told me that the ad had secured 100 percent awareness among the magazine’s readership — a first in the publication’s history. The innovative combination of sound and vision was an arresting achievement, despite the fact we live in a world in which hearing and seeing are sorely overtaxed. Yet used in this highly differentiated way, sound and vision communicated powerfully.

This appeal to a combination of senses seems to do the trick when aiming to secure consumer attention. It’s ironic sound isn’t more strongly deployed in online communications.

The first explanation for this apparent oversight is people don’t want noise around, particularly at the office when they’re sneaking to their favorite Web sites. But telltale noise to the guilty is suggestive sound to everyone else. Use the navigation wheel on your Apple iPod, and you’ll notice a highly characteristic “tick-tick-tick” sound, a sound that over time you associate exclusively with the iPod. When the battery in your cell phone is low, the phone emits an alert that’s instantly recognizable and, hopefully, prompts you to recharge the handset. And when you’re working hard in Microsoft Windows, the error sound checks your progress, causing you to review your last action and rectify it. Such sounds become so familiar to us that we never really think about them. But we soon notice their absence, the unexpected gap they leave, suggesting the application or implement to which they belong mustn’t be working properly.

Branded navigation sounds can be trademarked. But these potentially powerful brand signatures are rarely used online. Why shouldn’t there be a half-second tune the instant a payment for my purchase is approved? Why, when I win an eBay auction, am I not honored with a momentary fanfare? Why isn’t sound used more as a brand builder?

You might be surprised at how few people find brand sounds unwelcome. A survey I conducted for my latest book, “BRAND sense,” shows that only 5 percent of people turn off the sound on a Web site if the sound is for navigational purposes, and only 7 percent don’t find Web site sound useful. Of course, a consumer should have the option to accept or reject sound, along with any other communication approach made online. But the fact that sound is a branding tool seems to remain a secret, so little is it used to create that crucial point of difference on brand Web sites.

This takes me back to Americhip’s Elvis achievement. I was told the cost for this attention-winning point of difference was minimal. I know I’ll never forget it, and I’m sure everyone who encountered the ad was equally impressed. The online environment is crowded, though print media are bursting with brands fighting for consumer attention. Combining communication techniques that appeal to aural as well as visual awareness makes an enormous impact on audiences. Take a leaf from those pages advertising Elvis, and use the power of sound to build your brand innovatively.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.