As the elevator doors open on the sixth-floor offices of Man Made Music‘s Midtown office, you hear tight, snappy notes tumbling into thumping beats. There’s no discernible rhythm yet–the unseen drummer is just warming up for a different kind of recording session at Joel Beckerman‘s
Manhattan-based sonic branding agency.
Sonic branding–“the strategic use of sound and music to build brands”–is used to trigger emotional responses that helps consumers identify with the brand and build loyalty. It may seem like standard marketing tactics, but Beckerman is quick to point out two things: first, it’s not marketing (if done correctly), and second, sound is hands-down the most effective, yet underutilized, tool in a brand’s arsenal. Hence, his new book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy.
“The mission of the book is really to start a movement about people being conscious of how sounds affects their experiences of every single moment,” says Beckerman, who’s created “sonic logos” like the six-note chime that’s used in all aspects of the AT&T brand, from ringtones to commercials to in-store music. “As human beings, we experience sound, for the most part, subconsciously. You’re completely aware of the visuals but not the sound underneath. If you’re having a horrible time at a restaurant or a horrible shopping experience, pay attention to the sound–maybe that’s it.”
You probably didn’t realize it, but you’ve actually heard Beckerman’s work before: That six-note chime at the end of AT&T commercials? That’s Beckerman. That “sonic logo,” a snippet of a brand’s full sonic anthem, is used across all aspects of AT&T’s brand, from ringtones to in-store music.
In the studio, practice is over. The drummer waits for his cue from the sound engineer behind a wide stretch of window. On today’s docket at Man Made Music: Create a new anthem for Qdoba Mexican Grill.
An instantly catchy, uptempo beat kicks in, layered with intermittent whistling and the quick strum of a guitar. The drummer’s rhythm comes in fast, steady, and unrelenting. The song has an indie-rock vibe with a Southwestern feel–think Arcade Fire composing the soundtrack to a spaghetti Western.
“Everyone has heard music in advertising and commercials–it’s not that that isn’t valuable, because it is, but people don’t like to be marketed to anymore. They want awesome experiences and they want to be connected to brands they care about,” Beckerman says. “It’s sound as experience design.”
Once Beckerman and his team receive the brand strategy, it’s their job to turn it into a sonic strategy. One aspect of that is translating the words a brand uses to describe itself into something that jives better with a musical styling. For example: “uncommon” for Qdoba becomes “badass” under Beckerman’s treatment.
“The thing that’s so amazing about music and sound is that you can get across this incredibly complex, rich emotional story in like two seconds,” Beckerman says. “It’s ultimately about helping brands create ‘boom moments’–those moments where music and sound change everything about someone’s experience. And the movement is about inspiring people to create their own boom moments.”
Shortly before the publication of his book, Beckerman spoke with Fast Company about how to create those effective sonic landscapes for your brand and ways to use sound to increase focus and productivity in the workplace.
What’s the key to building a solid sonic strategy?
The problem is that there’s way too much sound in the world. When we start working with people, the first thing that freaks them out is when we start taking the sound out of everything–because most of it is meaningless. And if you hear meaningless sound, you tend to tune it out. One of the most important things with sound as experience design is silence, because silence is our white space. Any kind of design has to have ample white space so the content makes sense. What I’m doing all the time is looking at opportunities to simplify the soundscape so that when we do introduce something it actually elevates people’s experience–that it makes them feel good or it gives them some information. Our paradigm is creating sound that triggers different human need states.
For instance, think about what you want with your interactions with brands: You want to be rewarded or you might want to feel successful like, “Hey, I was able to download that thing!” Think about on Apple devices when you send an email and you hear that whoosh–you’re feeling relaxed your email when out.
Think about sound as the cayenne pepper of experience: a tiny bit of it makes it amazing, but a little too much and it ruins the whole experience.
So what are some mistakes to avoid?
The vast majority of brands don’t have a sonic strategy and what they do is just, “Oh! We like that piece of music–we’ll just slap it on this ad.” That’s how you end up with things like Cadillac trying to make themselves seem cool by throwing Led Zeppelin on there. If people tried to lie to you with music and just slapped a piece of music on something that doesn’t mean anything or doesn’t resonate for you’re like “Marketing! These people are killing me.”
Brands have recognized the worst thing they can possibly do is have their marketing show–nobody wants to have messages pushed at them. What’s starting to evolve, and it’s one of my goals for the book, is everyone’s consciousness of sound.
But if everyone becomes more attuned to the sounds around them, won’t they be more critical of brands trying to market to them sonically?
If the goal is to try and manipulate people or market to them, you should be punished, and you will be punished because people are aware of that. However, if you use sound and music in a way that either elevates their experience or gives them information that helps them, they’re going to love it. Sounds make people love brands or hate brands–there’s no in between.
How can people incorporate create a sonic landscape in the workplace for increased productivity?
The first thing is to think about it in the architecture phase. The vast majority of architects are so focused on the visual design and the functional layouts and they’re not thinking about designing the spaces and the materials in those spaces to really maximize people’s productivity–to give them private space. Again, it goes back to creating white noise. Also think about sound in terms of setting the tone of a meeting, creating a soundtrack that preceded it to change people’s moods to be more receptive to what you’re about to present.
We’re building our own studio downtown and one of the things we’re doing is building little soundtrack moments in different spaces. So there’s going to be a quiet space; there’s going to be a couple of things that are going to be whimsical. We’re designing a common space in the middle with a fake skylight. So there’s going to be fake daylight and if you push a button we can have a rainstorm and it gets dark with thunder and lightning. There’s another button you use and you’re in the Amazon. There’s another button you can push and it’ll be nighttime so there’ll be crickets. People get stressed out and need a little bit of whimsy every once in awhile.