Not too long ago, in a Brandingmag-hosted discussion titled ‘The art and science of sound for your brand’, attendees heard different specialists (a scientist, brand marketer, creative strategist, and research expert) discuss the psychological impact of sound and sonic cues, and why there’s never been a more important time for brands to recognize this.
Curious to watch our full discussion? Get your free access to the recording here.
But we didn’t stop there. With everything hyper-visual right now, sound may seem like “the forgotten sense”, but that’s only because it is less understood than visuals. So, we decided to dive deeper into its scientific component, by reaching out to Prof. Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen, co-director of the MSc in Music, Mind, and Brain at Goldsmiths, University of London. The good professor graced us with some in-depth explanations about the science behind sound and music, their relationship with emotional associations, and what it all means for brands.
Brandingmag: Branding works with emotional associations and perceptions, mostly relying on sight (visual stimuli) and cognition (informational stimuli). How is sound different and what unique associative capabilities does it have?
Prof. Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen: Sound is different from visual stimuli in that it can reach us from anywhere and we don’t have to turn our heads towards the sound source or consciously devote attention to it. We can shut our eyes, but we can’t shut our ears. This also explains why sound can creep into our perceptual system easily and stay below the radar. For example, background sound and music in bars, restaurants, public and commercial spaces will affect how we perceive the space we are in and it is very hard to turn off or deliberately ignore the influence of sound in these situations.
Sound and music have an effect on us through two different processing channels. It has been shown that sound and music can trigger the reward system in the brain including the limbic system with hippocampus and amygdala and generate responses that are similar to those evoked by other highly rewarding stimuli (e.g., food, sex, exercise). In addition, sound and music can also have beneficial effects via learned associations where specific sounds, voices, or songs are associated with other contents in memory. Due to these two processing routes, sound and music can be very effective heuristic cues that accompany branding and marketing messages.
Bm: Is it possible for sound to become (part of) the central message in brand communication? Can it reach a point where it can work independently, as a standalone piece, without any help from other stimuli?
Prof. Dr. DM: Yes, there are certain marketing or branding strategies that use sound and music not as a heuristic cue but very much in the foreground of the brand communication. But I’m not referring here to sonic logos that have become iconic and are now almost universally recognized (e.g., the Intel sound logo, the Netflix “ta-dum” opening sound, or the Windows startup sound). These are examples of very successful traditional strategies where a very distinctive and well-fitting sonic logo is encountered very frequently and achieves very high recognition rates.
In contrast, there are strategies that use music at the heart of brand communication. For example, when a brand like Red Bull establishes a record label that brings new artists to the market and operates under ordinary commercial conditions to sell music. But at the same time, the name of the label establishes a firm connection with the drinks brand and demonstrates that it is very serious about (a certain type of) music.
Bm: What do you know about the sound of the name (of a brand) and how it can influence the name’s ability to fit the brand and deliver appropriate perceptions in the market?
Prof. Dr. DM: Brand names per se are very important and most big companies work with naming agencies that ensure the name for a new brand has positive or at least neutral associations in all languages where the brand is going to market. This is to avoid the disaster that Mitsubishi experienced when they tried to market the Pajero in Spain. But in addition to negative meanings or direct associations, it can also make a difference whether a brand name can be pronounced easily in a target language. We have published a study* recently where we show that songs with Turkish names that are difficult to pronounce to native English speakers are liked less than the same songs when paired with easy-to-pronounce Turkish names. This effect is based on the linguistic fluency bias which predicts that words (and sounds, by extension) that are easy to process and remember will be evaluated more positively.
*Anglada-Tort, M., Steffens, J. & Müllensiefen, D. (2018). Names and Titles Matter: The Impact of Linguistic Fluency and the Affect Heuristic on Aesthetic and Value Judgements of Music. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000172
Bm: Are you familiar with the psychology of colors? Is there anything similar when it comes to sound – perhaps some musical notes or frequencies that trigger certain emotional responses?
Prof. Dr. DM: I’m only vaguely familiar with the psychology of color. In sound and music, there are only very few universal effects that are true for listeners with different musical backgrounds or coming from different music cultures. In particular, there are no individual absolute frequencies or tones that would universally trigger the same responses. Unlike with color, the overwhelming majority of the population is not even able to associate a pitch label with specific sound frequencies and we can enjoy music in any key. Exceptions to this rule are, for example, sounds with very low frequencies for which we can’t determine the direction of the sound source. These sounds tend to be perceived as eerie and make us uneasy. This might have an evolutionary reason because the source of a low-frequency sound for which we don’t know where it is coming from might signal potential danger from a large object.
Bm: The five human senses are interconnected, influencing one another. Can sound’s emotional responses be affected by the addition or subtraction of other stimuli, like smell or taste? Subsequently, is it fair to expect sound to behave the same in its real-life implementation as it did in its out-of-context testing?
Prof. Dr. DM: Yes, there are several experiments on the integration of stimuli from different senses (e.g., conducted by Charles Spence at Oxford) that show that stimuli perceived at the same time will influence each other’s perception and evaluation. But it depends on the strength of these effects on whether they can be observed in the same way in a real-world scenario as in the lab. In real-world situations, the case would be much more complex than in the lab where we can control the effect of additional variables.
Bm: Can the sound of a product make or break the user’s perception of it? Furthermore, should sound be considered more proactively in the product development process?
Prof. Dr. DM: Yes, the sound that a product makes when it is being used can be quite important for the overall perception and evaluation of the product. For high-priced consumer goods, like cars, you will typically find engineers working together with sound designers to optimize the sound of doors closing and opening or the sounds that are introduced artificially now to simulate and enhance the engine sounds of EVs that are very silent otherwise.
But sounds can also be decisive for the perception of fast-moving consumer goods. For example, Charles Spence has shown that the sound that crisps make when you bite into them affect how they taste.
Bm: What do you see as the next threshold, after sound, in the quest for complete sensorial branding (all 5 senses)?
Prof. Dr. DM: I honestly don’t know and, as a music psychologist, I hope that the increasing interest in sound and music research for branding will develop its full potential over the coming years. Sound and visual stimuli are easily transmitted by most communication devices. Smell and taste are much more difficult. But the haptic sense (touch) is something that VR developers are currently taking forward in terms of research and applications.
We can shut our eyes, but we can’t shut our ears.
Bm: Is there anything extraordinary that people don’t know about sound that you would like to share?
Prof. Dr. DM: One fact that is often overlooked is that music very much exists only in our brain and our brain is the main contributor to music. We have only about 3,500 receptor cells in the inner ears but the information picked up by these few cells then keeps several million cells busy processing sound information in the primary and secondary auditory cortex. Hence, a large part of the information that we perceive as sound or music is created by our brain itself. This aligns with the fact that there are more efferent connections going from the cortex to the ear than afferent connections transporting information from the ear to the cortex. Together, this means that music is primarily a psychological thing and cannot be pinned down to the physical properties of sound waves.
Cover image source: Adam Kring