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Julian Treasure: It's Sad to Hear a Great Brand Undermining itself with Inconsistent Messaging Where the Eyes are Told one Thing and the Ears Get a Completely Different Story

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julian_treasureJulian Treasure is author of the book Sound Business, the first map of the exciting new territory of applied sound for business, and he has been widely featured in the world’s media, including TIME Magazine, The Economist and The Times. Julian Treasure is Chairman of The Sound Agency, the world's leading sound consultancy. He has over 25 years' experience in business, marketing and sound, working with clients such as Marks & Spencer, BAA, The Body Shop, InterContinental Hotels Group, Tesco and Unilever. His message is clear: take control of your sound; understand it; design it; make it work for you instead of against you.

The German romantic author E.T.A Hofmann has once said: "Where speech ends, the music begins". So where and how should brands use sound?

Actually according to anthropologist Steven Mithen, we sang before we spoke: he says that language evolved out of a ‘proto-hum’, so it might be more accurate to say “When the music ends, the speech begins!”

Nevertheless I understand the point: that music can express the verbally ineffable. Music is indeed a powerful form of sound and one to be used with great respect and care by brands - which is sadly all too often not the case. The mindless playing in thousands of commercial spaces like shops and restaurants of inappropriate music (which was made to be listened to, not to be shopped to) is a practice we at The Sound Agency hope to end: it is costing retailers up to 30% of their potential sales by causing people to leave shops faster than they otherwise would have done.

But the real answer to your question is this: all brands are already making sound. They are just unconscious of it and its effects, which (unless they are incredibly lucky) are mainly damaging. Research shows that incongruent sound will reduce the impact is visual communication by over 80%, so there are literally billions being wasted by brands that design superb visual marketing and have not noticed that it’s being undermined by undesigned, inappropriate and often downright hostile sound. So the message is: take control of your sound; understand it; design it; make it work for you instead of against you.

Why should a brand engage with all the senses?

We experience the world in five senses, so why would any brand not engage with (or at least explore) all of them? Obviously the weight attached to each is very different from brand to brand: sound is far more important to Ferrari than to Sunsilk, for example. But even a relatively mute product like a shampoo may have sound associated with its use, whether it be telephone conversations, advertising, the product name, or musical associations. I can’t think of any brand that is absolutely one-dimensional.

The deliberate use of acoustic elements can contribute to the desired emotional appeal of the brand. Can you reveal us some brands which have successfully integrated the sound into the branding platform?

There are many, and more are appearing thick and fast now that sensory branding is on the agenda for all the major brands. We distinguish eight expressions of a brand in sound from Brand Voice to Soundscapes, and good work can be found all over the world. In Germany, Audi have recently invested a lot in a whole suite of brand sound and brand music, which is implemented everywhere from advertising to individuals’ voice mail messages. British Airways consistently uses the Flower Duet from Delibes’ opera Lakmé, on planes, on hold, on the web and in advertising. Sonic logos like Intel’s are becoming the norm rather than the exception - and that one has added significantly to that billion-dollar brand’s value. Product sound is powerful too: Nokiatune is the world’s most-played tune, occurring around 1.8 billion times a day! In Colombia, Helm Bank has recently launched the world’s first multisensory retail banking environment (incorporating generative soundscapes and signature fragrance) with huge success.

What about the negative examples?

Most of these are where brands are not yet listening, so they make sound that damages their own interests. Starbucks is keen to communicate its values through a well-defined musical landscape, but has forgotten that playing music on top of the din created by its ‘theatre of coffee’ is like putting icing on mud: the music just becomes more noise. Most shops, bars and restaurants sound generic, undifferentiated and in varying degree hostile. Telephone sound is widely terrible: badly-designed automated systems, poorly-briefed and managed call centres on the other side of the world... it’s a mess. Sometimes even brands that become conscious and take on developing sound branding tools get it wrong: Mercedes launched a bizarre and frankly creepy sonic logo a couple of years ago, which has now been withdrawn. I’m sure they will be back with something more appropriate very soon.

What is the highest purpose of sound branding, to achieve innovation, surprise or redundancy?

None of those. It’s to achieve consistency, which is what any great brand should be about. The brand experience should be consistent with the brand promise, and every interaction with the brand should consistently communicate its well-defined personality and values, without having to state them explicitly of course. What’s sad is to hear a great brand undermining itself with inconsistent messaging where the eyes are told one thing and the ears get a completely different story.

Siemens branding platform was until recently based on Fibonacci sequence of numbers Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2. Can a brand generally afford this kind of sophistication in terms of sound branding?

Every brand is different. I wouldn’t apply a methodology like that for the sake of it, but if it’s rooted somewhere in the brand essence then go for it. I can’t comment on Siemens specifically, but we do apply high levels of scientific understanding of the effects of sound on human beings in our work. This is not about what the CEO, the marketing director, the brand manager, or even the customers like, and it’s not simply an aesthetic exercise: the question is what effect does this sound or that have, and is it on brand or off?

We are living in an increasingly noisy world. Are people able to restore their relationships with sound?

Silence is a rare and valuable experience these days. I urge everyone to seek out a little bit of silence every day, because it works like a sorbet in the middle of a feast: it resets your ears, gives them a rest and helps you to listen consciously to the world. This is important because there’s so much richness to listen to and we’ve become very unconscious about sound due to the high levels of noise around us all the time. One in four Europeans live with noise above the WHO’s recommended maximum, and the effects are massive: the resulting loss of sleep and stress is costing the EU tens of billions a year in lost productivity and healthcare.

A couple of simple tips for sound health. First, seek out silence. Second, get some natural sound (ideally bird song, gentle rain or running water) on your iPod and listen to it when working, especially in noisy offices, which can rob you of two thirds of your productivity. Third, don’t listen to loud music on headphones - you will end up with badly damaged hearing. the rule of thumb is, if you can’t hear someone talking to you from a metre away, it’s too loud.

What's coming next?

Three things. First, generative soundscapes. Brian Eno said that generative music is the future; I do believe that generative sound is the future for commercial spaces. Unlike recorded music, it’s played live by a computer based on probabilistic algorithms, so it always evolves and changes. It’s also fit for purpose; unlike most music, it is designed to be aural wallpaper, not to be listened to. I foresee generative sound replacing mindless piped music in most commercial spaces over the next five years.

Second, podcasting. This is massively underused by most brands at the moment. Communicating this way is cheap (there are low product costs and zero distribution costs - and some even make money). It’s also very effective, whether you are delivering high-value content with compliments to customers, training to customers or staff, or adding reassurance by running impactful testimonials on your website.

Third, websound. The web is still largely mute, but this is about to change. Mobile manufacturers and web players like Google are investing billions in voice interfaces, and within ten years we’ll all be controlling most devices with our voices. That will include natural voice search, which means many web presences will exist in audio only as we interface with them while moving around - without having to stop and divert our eyes and our fingers to a screen/keyboard interface.

These are exciting times, and sound is at the front of a revolution in branding and marketing communication. The next five years will be fascinating.

Julian Treasure is author of the book Sound Business, the first map of the exciting new territory of applied sound for business, and he has been widely featured in the world’s media, including TIME Magazine, The Economist, The Times, UK national TV and radio, as well as many international trade and business magazines. His TED talk on the four effects of sound has been widely viewed and highly rated, and is now joined by a second TED talk on sound and health.

Julian is chairman of The Sound Agency, a UK-based consultancy that helps clients like BP, Helm Bank, Sonae Sierra, Nokia, Bank Muscat, Honda, Unilever, Marks & Spencer, London InterContinental Hotel Park Lane, Saga, Colgate-Palmolive, Nestlé and BAA achieve better results by optimizing the sound they make in every aspect of business  - for example making sound in branding and marketing communication congruent with visuals, or designing and installing effective and appropriate soundscapes for branded spaces such as shops, offices and corporate receptions.

Julian formerly founded, grew and sold leading UK contract publisher TPD Group, during which time he was chairman of the Association of Publishing Agencies, a director of the Periodical Publishers Association, chairman of PPAinteractive and chairman of the UK government’s Digital Content Forum. In 2002 he received the PPA Chairman’s Marcus Morris Award for services to the UK magazine publishing industry.

Julian is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Marketers and a member of the Marketing Society. He is a long-time musician, and remembers with affection his two John Peel sessions – and reaching the final of X Factor precursor New Faces. Julian was educated at St Paul's School and at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. He is married to Italian children’s book author and Family Constellation counselor Swan Treasure and lives in Surrey.

Interview by Dana Oancea, Forum for International Communications. Copyright PR Romania
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