Take the recent VW television commercial making light of a hybrid car's sound or General Motors admitting that the Volt has "the feel of a sports car" but its sound needs to be refined. Or Starbucks' approach to reinvigorating its brand by rejuvenating the coffee experience so that customers can hear the "whir of the grinders."
We're often oblivious to the impact sound has on our product perception and choices. But whether we realize it or not, sound has the ability to inspire, create desire and persuade.
The automotive industry has long recognized the power of sound to generate sales. Studies show that almost a third of consumers can distinguish one car from another by the sound of their doors closing. Automakers have taken notice. Chrysler, Mercedes and Acura all have acoustic engineers working on refining the sound of their car doors. Bentley's acoustic engineers have actually influenced the design of the car to achieve a unique and instantly identifiable sound in a market where almost half (44%) of consumers say the sound of a car is an important factor in their purchasing decision.
It's been proven time and again that sound can alter people's behavior. Numerous experiments have illustrated that the pace of music can influence the size of the check at restaurants - the slower the music the greater the check.
A grocery store study confirmed that the type of music played greatly influences the choice of wine. And when classical music is piped over loudspeakers in the London Underground, robberies dropped by 33% and vandalism declined by 37%. In the 1920s, the use of sound actually assisted in making people more comfortable with the elevator. When first introduced, people had a high level of anxiety about riding in elevators. Recognizing the calming effect music had on people, soothing music was pumped in to make passengers more at ease - and "elevator music" was born.
While sound contributes heavily to the perception of quality in the automotive industry, it is making major inroads in other categories.
Kellogg employed a company to design a particular crunch for its cereal. Nokia succeeded in trade-marking its ringtone, with 41% of global consumers able to recognize the Nokia tone. Bahlsen, a German food company, created a division of researchers to engineer an optimal crunch for its biscuits and potato chips, going as far as developing special microphones placed inside testers' ears to record crunching. Other companies clearly understand the power of sound to convey freshness by focusing on the sound of opening a jar of freeze-dried coffee, along with a can of soda or Pringles.
Sound also plays a critical role in gaming. How engaging would Space Invaders be if the music intensity didn't pick up as the aliens got closer? Last year, Ogilvy used sound on behalf of Fanta to more effectively position the product with teens by creating a mobile application that used high-pitched frequencies audible only to people under 25. These sounds included wolf-whistles, warnings and "pssts," along with tags representing traditional words and phrases.
Author Julian Treasure said, "Sound affects human beings in four ways: physiologically, psychologically, cognitively and behaviorally. These effects are profound, changing how we feel and what we do -- including our commercial decision-making and actions."
Without the effective use of sound, the ability to evoke emotion is severely limited. Sound has an immediate, direct link to both the rational and emotional parts of our brain. Sound shapes our thoughts, our feelings, our behaviors, our lives. With all of the scientific and physiological evidence available, there is a real opportunity to begin using sound and our sense of hearing more effectively in the marketing of products, particularly in radio. After all, there are only two senses that can be "broadcast" to reach customer en masse -- sight and our hearing.
Ads have been focusing on our sense of sight and visuals to grab and maintain people's attention, while our sense of hearing gets short shrift. But sound enables the messenger to reach a place within the human mind that visual branding cannot - and does not - approach. We can hear around corners, we can hear in the dark and our sense of hearing enables us to envision a product in a personalized fashion based upon our own individual experiences.
In this challenging marketing environment focused on marketing payback, it might be a good time for the pendulum to swing towards the greater appreciation of our sense of hearing and the influence and effective use of sound and audio can have on our purchasing habits.