You can tell by the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice, that this isn’t a typical commercial appearance for Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda. “A lot of work goes into making something sound a certain way, then somebody streams it in the worst possible compression format and then listens to it on their shitty laptop speakers. That’s not what the artist intended.”
That’s the money quote in the trailer for The Distortion of Sound, a short documentary on the impact of the digital revolution on sound quality, created by Harman and agency KBS+. It’s an interesting topic that, among other things, looks at why in our age of smart electronics and a screen size and resolution arms race, that audio is often ignored.
The doc, now available online and also airing on the Sundance Channel and IFC, features audio engineers and music producers like Quincy Jones talking about the tech aspects, but the real highlights are the artists like Snoop, Shinoda, Kate Nash, Slash, and more, speaking convincingly on the issue. They’re legitimately concerned with the impact of low-quality audio on their art form and it shows. It’s also the key to making this piece of brand content feel more like a proper doc than a sales pitch.
It’s a common mantra in brand content–that it must feel real and be a piece of entertainment that legitimately stands on its own, something people want to spend time with whether it’s created by a brand or not. But it’s very easy for brands to get in their own way, turning projects with great potential into glorified TV ads.
“The idea was just, how do we do something real and authentic that puts a spotlight on a real issue?” says Harman CMO Ralph Santana. “It’s something consumers aren’t necessarily aware exists, but once they do they realize what they’re missing. From the beginning, we wanted to put a spotlight on the issue but let the artists, producers, and engineers tell the story through their own perspective and experience.”
Santana and KBS+ president and chief creative officer Ed Brojerdi outline a few of the lessons in sound content marketing learned from making the project.
The more your product is naturally tied to the topic, the more natural its placement within the content will be, and the more likely people will make the connection between your brand and the content they’re enjoying. “We’re endemic to this in that we’re creating the solutions to the issue,” says Santana. “It would’ve been very easy for a brand that just has a bunch of celebrities and a pop culture-centric image, to slap their name on this. But if you’re an energy bar, it wouldn’t feel authentic because there would be no reason for a consumer to think of that brand around this issue. This project is so linked to our business and what we do that it happens organically.”
Brojerdi says that from his first meetings with the brand, it was clear this was a company focused more on creating products that deliver great audio quality than on cool marketing about audio quality. “So we wanted to show that authenticity to consumers and the rest of culture,” says Brojerdi. “You see this in other industries, like Chipotle talking about where they source their ingredients. There’s nothing better than when you can lift the curtain on a brand and there are some amazing things back there, as opposed to it being just an image.”
It’s a common question–how much brand should their be in the content? Santana says this project taught him an important lesson in this respect. “Don’t show your product,” he says. “You want people to come to that conclusion on their own. It just feels forced and fake if you’re shoving your product in there. Here, we provided a platform for artists and producers to talk about an issue that consumers may care about as well.”
To paraphrase a creepy whisper voice in a cornfield, if you tell it right, consumers will come. “If you know the piece of content is going to lead people to discover, then you don’t need to go overboard with the branding,” says Santana. “Since Harman has solutions for these audio problems, as people become aware of the issues and look for solutions, the company would eventually be the disproportionate beneficiary. No one is doing what we’re doing to resolve these problems so we didn’t need to get heavy-handed with the branding.”
Santana says that with no paid support, Harman and the film had about 45 million total impressions just a week after the film was available online.
Celebrity endorsements are commonplace but it’s easy to tell the difference between when a famous name is actually excited about something and when they’re just shilling. Santana says that every artist in the film was passionate about this issue and not only does that make the doc better, it turns that celebrity into a marketing channel. “When you engage celebrities, if they’re passionate about the cause they’ll use their social channels to talk about it,” says Santana. “The dialogue and engagement is so natural you don’t have to work too hard for it. it’s not just celebrities, it’s the audiophiles and purists who are passionate about this issue from a sound perspective.”
It’s not every day a brand produces a 22-minute film. How do you know what form of content your idea should take? It’s often a tough decision, and challenges remain either way, but in the end Brojerdi says one thing trumps all. “We’ve produced everything from six-second Vines to 30-second Super Bowl spots to longer content,” says Brojerdi. “The common element across all the good ones is that there is a great story to tell. Here, we’re trying to create 22 minutes of content, but as long as there’s a good story there and you have a point of view, the duration and time becomes a secondary factor. In a 30-second spot you have to figure out how to pack a lot of info in a short, sweet message. This was a great opportunity with a much larger canvas, but the challenge there is to make sure you can sustain interest and impact.”