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What's Your Brand Sound Like?
July 7 2009, 1:28 PM by Nita Rollins
As a futurist envisioning digital things to come based on analogous developments in
other mediums, and—just to come clean—as a cinéaste (by training and in
temperament) interloping in the digital space, I’m patiently awaiting the aural web. I’m
waiting for Garbo to talk, and I don’t mean in a podcast. I mean in a moment that
signifies a sea-change. I’m waiting for the web’s Jazz Singer hour (the 1929 version
obviously), when we create a wholly different human experience with digital sound,
music and voice—for the mainstream customer, not just the gamer, not just the
MySpace indie band fan.
Sound online is overdue, delayed perhaps by early experimentation that left the cube
farm-dwelling populace apologizing to workmates for sudden unsolicited rock concerts
on their pc’s.
By now, there’s sensitivity to the context of the listener, and a new playfulness, even
artfulness to sounds that are, strictly speaking, functionally unnecessary. What would
our experience of the iPhone’s accelerometer be without that great clickety, clickety?
You can set your alarm but you can’t come up with straight jackpot cherries,
figuratively speaking, without it.
There’s a new, already wildly popular Mac app called the Poladroid that is a visual tool
for retrofitting your digital images with Day-Glo surreality and the occasional midday
poltergeist (and can make you channel Woodstock, if you look at an image long
enough). You can even add the clean white border of a Polaroid to your digital pix,
always so unceremoniously unframed. Some of the nostalgic irresistibility apparent in
the Poladroid demo for me derives from the exact duplication of the film paper’s
distinctive auditory dispatch from the camera. (There are other reasons the demo is so
delightful; for instance, it makes you wait just as long as you have to with a real
Polaroid for life forms to emerge from the brown murk. And the picture is shaken, as if
by an impatient hand trying to accelerate the development.) But ocular time travelling
aside, Poladroid had me at the clackety-click…whoosh.
Google results are paltry for the “aural web” but buried among them is a prescient post
on oreilly.com from 2006 that describes our prolonged ‘silent era’. O’Reilly pops up
again with his Where 2.0 2007 conference, where we can find not only a strong
argument for “soundscapes” for digital maps (putting the there in the where, as the
copy says) but an intersection of two of my favorite trends, aural branding and
Here is the question few brands are prepared to ask, let alone answer: what do you
sound like? What is your aural identity? Many brick and mortar retailers have brand–
reinforcing soundtracks for their shoppers but by and large leave them listening to
sounds of silence online.
There are notable exceptions, and many are found in the luxury category. (I believe
that the luxury value proposition online is, frankly, untenable without sound/music/voice
in the right places at the right times.) Nordstrom’s Designer Collections online plays the
song “Madrid” by the French band Holden. (I had to check them out on last.fm.) The
repetitive nature of the music, plus its worldly cred, is the right note to strike on the
charmingly illustrated home page. Cartier has a MySpace Love collection profile with
commissioned music by the likes of Lou Reed and Marion Cottilard. Talk about
atmospherics; the brand’s signature scarlet background and the songs swallow you
and your better judgment whole. RalphLauren.com features glamazons descending a
chateau staircase to the strains of the Pierces’ “Bored”; colossally snooty fun. And
LouisVuitton.com brings us downloadable MP3 soundwalks of Hong Kong, Beijing, and
Shanghai—essentially travelogues by three famous Chinese actresses serving as
seductive narrators that further reinforce the love affair Asians (and the burgeoning
Chinese middle class) have with this innovative luxury brand.
Accessibility experts have studied sound as a form of non-visual navigation, and
there’s something in this idea for everyone. Sounds can reward our decisions to move
through a web site, unearthing auditory surprises as we go. Music can be a powerful
brand differentiator, but so as to accommodate a brand’s every consumer segment,
music should be made available as a highly curated selection.
Sound not only has to be used creatively to reinforce the brand, it has to be used
judiciously, and always with the on/off option and a fade in or fade out (lifted right from
stage directions) once the choice to listen or not is made.
Brand differentiation we know is essential to business survival, particularly because
brand loyalty is, among certain demographics, on the wane. Sound and music are
memory narcotics and to help a customer remember your brand in a certain way is the
first step to putting your products invariably in the “consideration set.” Some day, we’ll
have thousands of brands with Intel jingles and—to modify the title of Alex Cox’s
Pulitzer Prize Finalist book on 20th century music—the rest will be noise.
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