How marketers can make the world sound better

Marketers must apply the same level of rigor and attention that is given to their visual identity to sound, says creative music agency Listen.

How marketers can make the world sound better

Sound is a powerful force in our lives. It moves us and helps us feel; it hits us in the gut, rather than appealing to our rational brains. It even helps us regulate our emotions. Sound can convey a host of moods and feelings, both positive and negative: delight, surprise, excitement, despair. So why don’t more marketers tap into the potential of music and sound?

We know that the majority of marketing spend is allocated to visual messaging, but we have entered an era where that is changing. The art world refers to this as the "sonic turn" —a wider cultural awareness that sight no longer dominates our perception or understanding of contemporary reality. We’re seeing the sonic turn in people’s day-to-day lives. People are constantly plugged into their iPhones, streaming music, and interacting with the Internet of Things audio systems and products. Marketers must embrace this paradigm shift and apply the same level of rigor and attention that is given to their visual identity to sound.

Why sound?
Science backs this shift. Brands with music or sound that fits their identities are 96% more likely to be remembered than those without music or whose music is a poor fit for their brand. Consumers are 24% more likely to buy a product with music that they recall, like, and understand. But we’re not just talking about a radio jingle or an Intel-style mnemonic. Sound branding requires a strategic and holistic approach to sound across every touch point a brand has, specifically: music, voice, product, and experience. 

In 1998, researchers conducted a famous study. A British wine shop played French and German music on alternating days to see if it would have any effect on buying behavior. Indeed, it did: On the days French music was played, French wine outsold German four to one. On the days German music was played, German wine outsold French three to one. 

To that end, brands should be thinking in a similar way. This requires creating a distinct and ownable sound that considers brand values or personality and understanding how these can be expressed through music, giving consistency across an increasingly fragmented marketing landscape. Think of it as a color palette for the ear, rather than the eye. 

I often ask executives to think about their "tone of voice" as a poem and their "brand voice" as the delivery of that poem. For example, read the first stanza of Maya Angelou’s "The Mask on Poeticus," and then listen to her deliver it. Our brand voice is very different from our TOV and is critical for a brand to develop. Should the brand sound old or young? Gender neutral? Excitable or measured?

New and emerging digital technologies require cues that let people know how they behave and what operations they’ve completed. Think of a Skype call, a Tinder swipe, the seatbelt notification in your car, or the alarm you use every morning on your phone. As digital products become more embedded in our lives, we must be responsible and not pollute the world with more sounds. Rather, we should consider function and aesthetics that help us navigate through our lives, provide us with a sense of comfort and accomplishment, and, when done correctly, give the technology its own identity and personality: a branded product sound.  

Brands from Red Bull to Microsoft recognize the power of music and have created programs that identify an overlap between a brand’s purpose and an artist’s objectives to create meaningful experiences for audiences. When a brand defines its role in music culture, it can reach audiences in environments that were previously off-limits or unattainable. 

The way forward
Sound and music are important parts of our daily lives, and their role in marketing should be just as prominent. The data is there, and it points to one thing: sound is powerful—in a way that’s different from imagery or words. Brands that are hesitant to make an investment in their sound identity, take heed: you relegate sound to secondary status at your peril. Sound shouldn’t be a supplemental part of your marketing; it should be sharing center stage with visual.

So, what does your brand sound like?

Steve Milton is a partner at creative music agency Listen. This column first appeared on

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