All things sonic is making a comeback in marketing. Audio content reigns supreme, sonic branding is the new kid on the block, and it’s not a fad. What brought on this full circle? What drove consumers to what the eye can’t see and the hands can’t touch?
Marketing is visual in its essence. Famously, 93% of human communication is non-verbal and visual cues and interpretations steer our perceptions and judgments. Marketing has had to (and got used to) tap into this truth by using primarily visual elements to capture consumer attention with product packaging and advertising. All well and good, but what marketers are swimming against in the digital content era is the ‘sensory overload’ that technology brought on, and the relentless competition amongst branded content is thickening the plot.
Consumers - well, as human beings first and foremost - are highly adaptable. Technology and marketing are changing the way we behave, perceive and interact with the world around us, and there’s no reason why anyone would complain. Thanks to innovations and the devices we own, we readjust our ways and norms, mostly for the better. The constant upwards trajectory to the new and fresh is conditioning us to want to be mesmerised by technology and brand activations at all times… But marketing and content innovation have come to a saturation point. There’s a repetition of utility and purpose that is very visually evidenced on devices, in marketing and content. This creates a fatigue and even an adverse effect amongst consumers and it certainly doesn’t facilitate increased familiarity or loyalty. Some of you may remember the consumer desire/movement to go back to dumb phones, e.g. Nokia 3310’s comeback as a novelty, albeit short-lived gimmick/item. This was the consumer reaction to the myriad of apps, phone features, devices - not to mention the personal and usage data minefield. A cognitive overload triggered fragmentation in consumer opinion and choice, and one of the fruits of this was a leaning and preference for nostalgia, “what-was”, and the ease that comes with the simplicity of proto-internet days.
A similar case of ‘overload’ is the visual overload, it created a reversion in the marketing communication multiverse. The incessant scrolling, swiping, liking, skimming through content with a million cues begging for attention and interaction were bound to reach a point of change. It’s not just the challenge to reach the accurate information amongst fake news, but it’s the sheer noise that algorithms can’t, or won’t, tone down for consumers to digest relevant information. On a human communication level, there are also many scientific studies around how visual internet communication - specifically emoji - rewires our brains and redefines interaction dynamics into new exciting dimensions... By that same token, I myself was involved in a research project on the haphazardness of this phenomenon: that the individuals’ subjective interpretation of emoji can cause confusion, and this very relativity can result in misunderstandings, even complete crossed wires in interpersonal communication. We are humans and digital communication started to cloud our judgments on what’s genuine and what isn’t - this is because we operate on 2D visual cues only, but we aren’t wired to make sense of things solely based on these. When online or on different devices, we can’t judge by touching, feeling, smelling what we engage with. Auditory experience, on the other hand, gives the human connection and judgment a second chance.
Humans don’t like not knowing, nor guessing - it all means risk and we’re naturally risk-averse creatures. Especially given the new tech-enhanced living standards, consumers crave a way to remain truly connected and in-tune (pun intended) to the world around them, and what’s relevant to them - with the risk of the unknown reduced... There are numerous studies on consumers withdrawing from certain technology or digital platforms for this very reason - the “I’d rather stick with what I know” sentiment. Auditory sense transcends these boundaries, it is familiar, and it is personal. Consumers are retracting and going back to a type of content consumption that is very basic, even archaic, the good old audio. It’s risen from its ashes, so consumers can listen and respond to authenticity much more easily.
Now let’s rewind a little...
What’s the appeal of sonic culture?
Radio was invented and later diffused as an innovation at the dawn of the 20th century. It was an information vessel more than anything. For the first time in the history of humanity, something went beyond the visual for the masses - beyond the print media - and people were glued to radios (until TV entered the scene, of course). Why? Not unlike today’s technology and social media, radio made information more human and accessible. Today, we’re witnessing that radio had good karma :) With the sensory overload and the blurred lines between fact and fiction in conventional online content, what’s believable is no longer what we see, but what we hear first hand, from the human source. It’s an extremely interesting twist in the digital futures plot, because I don’t think anyone was prepared for this type of a sonic come-back. Remember Google Glass and similar devices? Technology prepared for a visual future and crafted content for ease and information, served directly in our peripheral vision. However, what the marketing world is now realising is that audio content is more human and versatile than what we see on the screen: listening to an actual human that we can give our attention to even in the background, and suss out for credibility, sincerity, authenticity. When we listen to podcasts or any other audio content without any visuals involved, the experience is relatable, intimate, and very private as if it’s a one-to-one exchange.
Sonic is usually paired with branding in general. But it should be seen as the full auditory communication landscape and what this will mean for brands and marketing. Rise of video content gave us a taster, but consumers are going back to square one, to what is before seeing. With voice technology and smart assistants [that is yet to realise its true potential] how brands and their content come across in the sonic realm is going to be a very crowded hill to climb in the coming years. The actual tone, gender, mannerisms of the voice that represent brands to convey products and brand essence will be very fascinating to observe. At the most basic level, how a brand ‘sounds’ will override all branding elements, because there will never be a more human representation of a brand to bring them closer to consumers. I should say, it doesn’t have to be a human, of course, it can be as simple as Mastercard’s sonic logo from last year - an auditory cue (and nod) to the consumer that you’re with them throughout their daily business, and your relationship to them is personal to them, which can make a steroid effect on the salience, engagement and loyalty.
As ever, the human connection, or mimicking the human connection, is getting tougher through a screen and while pushing out digital content and brand extensions to keep the consumer on the journey with you. I find it extremely intriguing that consumer psychologists, behavioural scientists, sound engineers, musicologists, marketeers, brand strategists will start collectively asking what a certain tone, musical note, instrument, beats-per-minute, octave etc. will connote in the consumer culture. Think trust, warmth, quality - the perceptions that are very difficult to quantify! Everyone in the industry is going to have to think harder and longer, and learn to utilise this great opportunity we all have in our hands: consumers have retracted and embraced what we thought was a by-gone medium, or a sense as the primary way of interaction - the audio. Participation means new things now. Listening is never passive either - it’s an active engagement that is agnostic of the primary or secondary activity it may take place alongside. The development of the sonic era is not only in achieving better AI in voice technology functionality, it’s about brands grabbing a unique corner in the sonic ecosystem to use devices as the facilitators of deeper engagement with consumers.
As I always say, consumers are savvy and more unforgiving than ever, and for this reason, genuinely digesting why the sonic resurrection is happening, and what, or if your brand can own its space [yet] is a lucrative soul-searching exercise that brands should consider sooner than later. Not jumping on to podcasts, audio ads, sonic logos; the best response to the movement is in understanding what humans love about listening, imagining and regaining control of the human connection to be able to judge things for themselves and for authenticity. For an audiophile like me, it’s music to my ears.