You’re watching a heist scene. Rather than the sound, you’re focusing on the masked protagonists as they move about the darkness, gold bullion in hand. But it’s the soundtrack - nothing but a ticking watch - that brings you to the edge of your seat.

cinema crowd

In real life, as in the cinema, sound may exist in the background, out of consciousness, but it exerts this power over us all the time. Influencing our senses, stimulating our emotions and changing our behaviour. Every sound carries messages that we understand and decipher effortlessly.

Brand owners and marketeers have over the past few years begun opening their ears to the importance of sound as part of their marketing arsenal. But it’s still in the background, seen as an added extra. Used well, however, whether part of a product, a retail experience or a TV spot, sound can be both a powerful brand asset and serve to enhance the perceived value, quality and effectiveness of a product.

Neuroscience backs up this claim. At Condiment Junkie, we regularly team up with academic bodies to study the effect sounds have on our perception of brands. We’ve shown again and again that sound plays an incredibly important role in how we evaluate the environments we are in and the products we use, even more so when designed in tandem with scent, colour, texture and shape.

car dashboard

A recent study we undertook was aimed at investigating how much the audio signals inside a car affect our assessment of the vehicle itself. In-car sounds like indicators and alerts are usually carried over from other models or even other manufacturers. Little is done to design them specifically for the brand or product; unlike the car interiors, which have whole departments assigned to their design. Focus is always on the visual.

Our study was a bipolar emotional response test (BERT). Participants listened to a selection of in-car sounds (the indicator, the ‘lights-left-on’ warning, and the PDC - the beep when you reverse) and judged how they felt about them on a scale between two extremes. How flimsy or solid they are. Budget or premium. Mass-produced or crafted. Weak or Powerful. We chose the words to reflect the qualities one would want, or not want, consumers to associate with a luxury car. The sounds were from a range of premium marques - think Jaguar, Range Rover, Porsche, Bentley. Participants were also asked to hazard a guess at which manufacturer the sounds were from.

luxury car

The results were very telling. None of the sounds were rated particularly well and predictions of their make were generally mid-to-low range - Kia, Ford, Nissan, Vauxhall etc. The sounds in these luxury vehicles were priming associations of a less premium, mass-produced product. That shouldn’t be the case.

For the second part of the experiment, we designed our own sounds. We focused on indicators and created a range in different styles. One was super technological - reminiscent of a submarine sonar. One was made from recordings of watch mechanisms to illicit associations of craftsmanship and precision. We created two sounds in a musical key that is usually reserved for espionage films (the Bond chord - Em Maj9th) - would that prime feelings of cool, elegant style? Would the sound of high heels or the clink of champagne glasses evoke feelings of luxury? We put these designed sounds up against the best performing of the ‘real’ indicators.

sound of car

As we had hoped, the designed sounds out-performed the manufacturers. Every sound was rated positively. The Bond sounds came out on top. The answers to what marque they came from were fantastic - most common were Rolls Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, BMW and Mercedes. The top three guesses for the technological sonar blip were BMWi, Tesla and NASA.

This small survey showed that consumers have expectations about what brands should sound like, and that sounds can communicate the qualities of a product. We also showed that no car brands, at least the ones we tested with, have iconic and recognisable in-car tones.

car indicators

This presents a tremendous opportunity for brands. Apply this example to anything from the clunk of a makeup compact or the playlist in a retail store, to the audio feedback on a smartphone. There are powerful touchpoints at every turn where brand owners and marketeers can use sound to reinforce personality, values, or product attributes. The use of sound as a strategic design tool, combined with scent, textures and visuals, can engage the senses in a powerful, emotive and memorable way. With the potential to influence customer behaviour, increase enjoyment, premiumise products and promote purchase.