By Steve Keller
“What does your brand sound like?” The rise of smart speakers and voice interactive technology is forcing brands to answer that question. Though resolute in their belief that audio (and more broadly, audio branding) plays a fundamental role in shaping consumer perceptions and communicating brand intent, many brands wrestle with turning these beliefs into actionable strategies that produce measurable results. In this article, we offer five suggestions to help you maximise – and measure – your brand’s “audio ROI”.
In today’s media rich environment, where audio-enabled touch points are increasingly available to consumers, there is no question that sound can have a significant impact on brand messaging and identity. The rapid adoption of smart speakers and voice assistants has made marketing less visible and more audible, forcing brands to consider how they differentiate themselves in a world where they can be heard, but not seen. We’ve watched brands like Samsung expand deeper into the audio industry, discovering new technologies for sound devices like soundbars (here) to standout in the thriving industry.
No one denies the fundamental role music and sound play in shaping our perception and driving emotional connections. There are hundreds of empirical studies that demonstrate the power of sound to increase attention, facilitate brand/message recall, improve brand perception, drive purchase intent, elicit physiological responses, increase likability, build positive associations, prime implicit responses, and produce chemical reactions in our brains.1 Yet in spite of this evidence, questions regarding how to measure returns on audio related investments remain.
A study conducted by the Stockholm-based brand communication agency Heartbeats International found that 76% of the top global brands surveyed used music actively in their marketing. A full 97% thought that music could strengthen their brand and 74% predicted that music would become even more important to their marketing in the future.2
However, when asked about budgets, only 30% of these same brands spent more than 5% of their marketing budgets on music and 60% had no definitive auditory profile of their brand.
If these brand managers believed that audio was a key element in strengthening and building their brands, why weren’t they investing more time and resources into the strategic development and implementation of audio initiatives and assets?
When asked to explain this gap between perceived value and actual spending, the largest obstacle cited by respondents was the difficulty in measuring the value of their investment.
In our work as an audio consultancy, we’re often tasked with closing this “value perception gap”. It should come as no surprise that strategy and measurement are essential to capturing value, managing costs, and maximising returns. Very little has been written to help brands move towards a more definitive approach to managing and measuring their “audio ROI”. We’d like to change that. Based on years of experience in designing, creating, testing, and managing audio strategies for a wide range of global agencies and brands, we offer these five suggestions on how to improve the return on your brand’s audio investments:
Change the way decisions about music and sound are made. Historically, decisions about sound and music have been relegated to the realm of the agency creative director. In this context, there is a preoccupation with execution: write a brief, gather demos or tracks from third party vendors or artists, have editors throw something against picture, then pick a winner. Approached this way, choices about audio often become last-minute considerations, suffering from the constraints of time and budget. It’s viewed as the icing on the cake, rather than a driver of a language through which brand essence and meaning can be conveyed. If we’re ever going to develop actionable strategies around sound that produce measurable results, we need to start by revolutionising our approach to how we make audio choices, moving away from the preoccupation with creative execution (which perpetuates a high degree of subjectivity) and moving towards an understanding of sound from a process perspective. The process we’ve developed moves through stages of discovery, design, creation, evaluation, implementation, and management. It allows us to build an entire audio identity system for the brand, rather than simply generating a few audio assets. Such an approach facilities a more intentional use of music and sound, based on clearly defined strategies that help align brand intent with consumer perception.
Adopt more robust testing methodologies. When it comes to measuring the impact of audio on brand communications, most agencies and brands limit their exploration to likability/preference metrics. Likability should certainly be a consideration, but it tells us nothing about other important audio parameters like congruency, brand linkage, consensus meaning, recall, or explicit/implicit emotional drivers. In the case of certain audio identity assets (e.g., audio logos or brand themes), obtaining baseline data can provide benchmarks and offer opportunities to measure their performance over time. Gaining insights into the way different combinations of voice talent, music, and sound design impacts recall, brand fit, purchase intent, and willingness to pay can help us optimise our audio choices. The good news is that all these testing methodologies exist. Yet it’s difficult to shake our personal preferences when evaluating music. In a recent study by The Economist, 90% of the executives surveyed said they based their decisions on data analysis, testing, and collaborative discussion. Yet in the same survey, 9 out of 10 of these executives would find a way to disregard the data if it disagreed with their intuition.3 Bottom line: Beware of confirmation bias. Research is useless if we don’t incorporate the findings into our decision-making process.
Define the meaning of “ROI” in the context of audio expenditures. When it comes to quant-based assurances of value, one of the most popular metrics marketers invoke is “ROI”. Trouble is, in the context of marketing, ROI quickly becomes a “fuzzy” metric, incorporating everything from a return on advertising expenditures, increased market share, customer conversion rates, and any number of other performance measures. If we drill down even further into specific audio related expenditures, there exists little to no research dedicated to applied econometrics and/or predictive analytics that help us determine the value of audio in the context of branding and advertising. As a result, brands and agencies are at a loss as to how they could best determine costs or measure returns for music and sound assets. So how do they begin? One suggestion is to consider attaching KPIs to audio initiatives and expenditures. What’s the objective for using a particular piece of music to a campaign? Are there particular cost savings you’re hoping to achieve short/long term? How does audio play a role in communicating brand meaning and values? In our experience, the use of audio related KPIs helps to further integrate music and sound into the brand manager’s scope of work. This is particularly important with audio branding initiates, where standards, consistency, and copyrights offer opportunities for measurement and value capture over time.
Move beyond “engagement” and focus on behavioural outcomes. With the advent of digital marketing channels, consumer engagement became a driving force in measuring marketing effectiveness and ROI. Marketing Week conducted a survey of readers in 2016, which revealed that 78% use brand engagement as a return on investment metric and 57% use engagement to prove the worth of marketing activity to business leaders or the board.4 Yet when asked to define engagement, the survey responses where all over the map. In the absence of a clear definition of the value that engagement offers (and how it ties in with overall brand objectives), engagement as a metric can become useless. We know that audio can engage consumers emotionally, but brands often ignore how audio can function as a behavioural driver. We’ve found that a meaningful engagement metric for audio is one that is tied to specific behavioural outcomes. Behavioural outcomes are particularly important in a digitised world, where audio can function as part of the user experience and/or user interface (UX/UI) of brand applications or systems. Brands and their agencies should view the development and implementation of UX/UI sounds through the lens of behavioural economics and habit formation. If the sonification of a digital interface can increase engagement and generate behavioural responses, those responses can be captured and analysed, helping to further optimise and personalise brand offerings and services.
As brands and agencies rush to enter a “voice first” future, the temptation is to focus on the development of tactical executions rather than overarching audio strategies. We shouldn’t limit the conversation to voice technology and smart speakers. Instead, consider how to develop a congruent, distinct, flexible, recognisable, and ownable audio identity that can be communicated across every audio touchpoint available to the brand. We’re fond of saying, “Audio branding doesn’t start with your ears. It starts with what’s between them.” We believe that brands can be educated on audio branding best practices and given the tools they need to manage, measure, and maintain their sonic identity. Far too often, these sonic responsibilities are either abdicated to, or co-opted by, advertising agencies. Unfortunately, advertising agencies are often no better equipped for the task. To further complicate matters, brands often engage multiple agencies to manage their marketing needs – which can mean multiple (and sometimes conflicting) approaches to the development and use of audio within the brand ecosystem. Discipline in consistently applying audio standards can be a challenge, particularly within corporate structures where key decision makers, agency partners and brand managers may all have varying opinions, preferences, and goals. Audio branding practitioners, while sensitive to the creative and strategic input of a brand’s agencies, should always operate with the best interests of the brand at heart. Their goal should be to empower the brand to develop centralised, efficient systems designed to build audio brand equity and maximise returns for audio investments. Finally, brands should be just as vigilant about protecting their audio identity as they are in protecting their visual identity – or any other intellectual property for that matter. Many audio assets can be registered as trademarks and copyrights, opening up potential revenue streams through performance royalties and/or collateralisation, further offsetting costs and capturing more value over time.
Answering the question, “What does your brand sound like?” isn’t just about sound branding. It’s about sound business as well. Maximising and measuring the returns on audio investments is possible. With strategy and discipline, you’ll not only help your brand find a voice – you’ll teach it how to sing.
About the Author
Steve Keller is CEO of iV, an audio consultancy dedicated to exploring the power of sound to shape perceptions and influence behaviour. He blends art and science into award-winning audio branding strategies and content for a long list of global agencies and brands. Recognised as a leader in the field of sonic branding, Steve shares his insights and research at international conferences, professional organisations, and universities around the world. In addition to his degree in psychology, Steve has over 25 years of experience in the music and advertising industries. Forever the student, he is the 2017 recipient of the iHeartMedia Scholarship for Leadership in Audio Innovation, and is currently completing an Executive MBA through the Berlin School of Creative Leadership.
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2. Lusensky, J. (2010). Sounds Like Branding, Heartbeats International: Plaza Publishing
3. The Economist Intelligence Unit (2014), Decisive Action: How Businesses Make Decisions and How They Could Do It Better”, Applied Predictive Technologies (APT)
4. Chahal, M., et. al. (2016, October 28). Is ‘brand engagement’ a meaningless metric? Retrieved from https://www.marketingweek.com/2016/08/10/cover-what-does-engagement-really-mean-to-marketers