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Building A Brand Voice: Why Sonic Identity Matters For Marketers Today

'Sound is our fastest sense,' says Pandora's Lauren Nagel. 'It's hard-wired into us, and that's also the driver of its cognitive simplicity.'

With on-demand audio streaming up 58.7 percent YOY at the end of 2017, claims that the U.S. is currently experiencing an “audio renaissance” appear well-founded — and this trend provides a clear indicator that creating an audio advertising “sonic identity” matters for brands today.

As such, music streaming specialist Pandora debuted its “six dimensions of sound” concept at Cannes Lions, aiming to help brands better understand why audio has such strong cognitive resonance and how marketers can tap into this in order to tell a story.

“Our brains are actually biologically wired for sound — we’re processing it faster that anything else,” says Lauren Nagel, executive creative director at Pandora. “And I think a huge reason why sound inspires action is that, truly on an unconscious level, we are always listening. You can close your eyes, but you can’t shut your ears.”

GeoMarketing: What inspired you to define the “six dimensions of sound,” and how is this project helping to build or enhance a connection between brands and consumers on Pandora’s platform? 

Lauren Nagel: Foundationally, at Pandora, we believe that music connects us to ourselves, us to each other.

We’re actually built on the foundation of connection, so the Music Genome Project — the name of the ‘web’ that refers to the way our songs are analyzed —  is really about how those connections form the algorithm that can power our playlist. It creates a really dynamic, personalized discovery experience that is based on not just what songs are popular, but what is actually musicologically connected.

So, when we are doing a lot of this work, we’re really paying attention to the way that consumers behave and connect: seeing how they’re using the Pandora app, and then how they’re behaving out in the world beyond Pandora. Basically, we’re really seeing that we’re in this moment of an audio renaissance. And [unpacking that] is what “six dimensions of sound” is really about.

This concept of an “audio renaissance” has gained a lot of traction over the past year — and in part because of the rise of voice and voice search as well. Can you talk about how voice and audio are inherently linked, and why audio is so powerful? 

It is really hot right now, in part because of this voice technology. But what we really wanted to dig into is the idea that, yes, the technology is changing consumer behavior —  but going deeper than that, what is actually the most powerful and primal experience that exists through sound and storytelling, period? The experience [we brought to Cannes] is all about defining these six dimensions of sound, and honing in on what makes sound such a powerful storytelling medium.

Of the “six dimensions of sound” we’ve defined, the first one is connection, which is truly the way we process sound — how are brains are wired for sound. Resonance is the next dimension, and that’s how that sound takes on meaning.

The third is perception. This one is interesting, because you can actually use sound to change and influence your perception of all your other senses. For example, we actually do a tasting with sound, which shows listeners how listening to a certain tone can change your perception of how bitter or how sweet a piece of chocolate tastes.

The fourth is identity. If perception is thinking about how you can change someone’s perception through sound, identity is actually about how you amplify that perception. Identity can be everything from a character, or an archetype, through to an actual sonic brand logo.

The fifth dimension is voice, and then, finally, our sixth dimension is storytelling. Essentially, we’re asking, “how does all this come together? What are the tools marketers can use to tell a really phenomenal story through audio that, frankly, you cannot do in any other medium?”

Let’s dive deeper into a couple of those sonic dimensions and how they come together. How does connection inform identity — and how does that influence what the brands you work with can do in terms of audio storytelling?

Let’s start with connection. I think what’s really phenomenal is to actually realize [that sound is] the first sense that we experience. For sixth months, in your mother’s womb, you hear a heartbeat at 90 decibels. What’s really interesting, then, when you’re thinking about sound and connection, is the way that sound has always been connected through life and nature.

Or let’s take, for example, the sound of waves breaking. There is a reason why data shows that this sound is calming and soothing: It’s because the average cycle, the average frequency of waves, is the same as the frequency of our breathing when we’re sleeping. Human beings, our breath is actually at 12 cycles per minute, which is the exact same as waves.

Why does any of this matter? It’s because, as I said, sound is our fastest sense. It’s hard-wired into us, and that’s also the driver of its cognitive simplicity. We process sound in about .05 of a second. In .05 of a second, which is ten times faster than the blink of an eye — that’s insanely fast.

Another thing I wanted to highlight in terms of identity is thinking about symbolism, in music and in sound: It’s actually called a leitmotif. It’s essentially just a theme song; it could be a specific melody that comes on in an opera, or a TV show, when you see a certain character or group of characters, to symbolize a place. Think about the music that’s used in Game of Thrones, for example: When there are multiple characters or families you have to keep track of, you will actually notice that the composers use sonic cues for cognitive simplicity — like, “okay, I don’t remember who’s fighting who, but I know that guy sounds like this.”

That kind of sonic identity is obviously interesting from a branding standpoint. 

Yes. Those are cinematic references, but it’s really interesting to think about how these sonic archetypes play in just every day life. We would be remiss, of course, if we didn’t think about those sonic archetypes in brand logos.

One of the most famous sonic logos, for Intel: You might know that the writer was inspired to create it by actually giving voice to the tagline, “intel inside”. Hence, the melody of saying it out loud. He actually gave a brand a voice. He said the tag line out loud to create this sonic logo.

So, of course, the last component of identity is voice — how you can create that most memorable brand voice. And the way we’re thinking about this question is, “how do you stay connected to the human experience even as technology has shifted?”

Thinking about the history of voice style and aesthetic, in America, in the 1930s, we started with that sort of old-timey radio voice. That dynamic range and over enunciation is partially to compensate for the actually fidelity of the sound, for the limits of the technology at that time.

There have been extensive changes and adaptations to this — from the mid-atlantic dialect in the 1950s to the “sports announcer” sound of the 1970s — and now today we’ve arrived at what might be termed the “podcast voice.” The, “from this American Life, and WBEC Chicago, it’s Serial…” voice.

I think the podcast voice is sort of the most authentic expression of real human emotion: You’ll hear imperfections, you’ll hear the vocal fry.

At Pandora, we think about that evolving human aesthetic of voice style for a couple of reasons. One is, our content has actually changed. We’re delivering — and you’re consuming — a much more personalized content experience [when it comes to songs].

And if your content is more personalized, the [marketing] messages you’re hearing have to be as well. I think that “super announcer” shine, in a space where you’re listening to something that’s been curated just for you, feels even more obtrusive. Our ad breaks, at least on Pandora, are a minute and under, so at most, you have a 50 to 100 percent share of voice. You do not need to shout above the competition.

This is why podcasts are becoming more popular too, and why Pandora is getting into the podcast space. It’s about really understanding what that human, personalized conversation and connection is — and what it sounds like. I think we all esoterically understand that personalized content is better, and that’s what consumers want, but how do you make sure, when you’re thinking about a brand’s identity, that you’re taking into account the diversity of the audience you aim to reach?

How do you balance both personalization and identity — and the diversity of each listener’s identity — when telling a brand story? How are you helping brands to do that on Pandora’s platform? 

First and foremost, I don’t think that it’s unlike doing a brand exploration through visuals. I think a lot of people are thinking, “oh my God, it’s sound, and I have no idea what to do.” But when you think about a core brands’ pillars, or when you think about the visual logo of a brand, those are the same elements that you’re going to incorporate into your sonic experience.

Let’s use AirBnb as a brand example: Their entire platform is aboutcreating a world without strangers. So, what you’re actually wanting to embody in sound is connection, or familiarity. At Pandora, we do have a dedicated creative agency that does this [to help craft brand campaigns]. This audio creative studio is looking at not only everything that is coming into our platform, but also understanding audio advertising in the industry at large. Pandora actually produces two-thirds of all audio advertising in America. And with our recent acquisition of Adswizz, that’s a huge part of taking that next step into extending our reach even beyond our platform.

Essentially, our work here is about looking at those brand pillars, and helping the brands understand the sonic identities of the objectives that they’re trying to reach. Additionally, the question is, “how are you representing multiple voices?” This means the diversity of the vocal space in a multi-cultural sense, but we’re really thinking about this in terms of targeting as well.

When you take into account the amazing data capabilities at this point, we are reaching millions of listeners — and we’re reaching them one listener at a time. Nothing breaks my heart more than when I see this incredible media targeting strategy, and then they say, “we’ll hit all of these very specific people with this exact same message.” You need a customized, relevant message in order to drive an action.

As we talked about earlier, the fact that our brains are actually, physically, biologically wired for sound — that we’re processing it faster — is a major driver. We use sound in everyday life all the time to trigger action. I think a huge reason why sound inspires action is that, truly on an unconscious level, we are always listening. You can close your eyes, but you can’t shut your ears.

Let’s talk about the Snap integration, because that news broke just this month. Obviously, this is a big-deal partnership — but we all know that Snap has had its own struggles with engagement. Why did this partnership make sense for Pandora, and what do you hope it will bring you?

Yeah, great question. We’re super excited about that. I think first and foremost, this is actually about where our conversation started: music and connection.

If we truly believe that music connects us, then we also want to be a part of platforms that are truly connecting people. Additionally, I think there is a natural business partnership around our objectives: We’re looking at reaching a younger audience, and [with Snapchat] their objective is actually reaching an older audience.

So there’s a cross-audience play there, certainly. 

Yes. I think that’s an obvious benefit. Part of this, too, is wanting to capture those moments and spaces where music is a key part of your everyday experience. We talk about being a sound track to someone’s life. Well, that’s what Snap sort of enables you to do: share those sound track life-able moments.

It’s not simply a feature of, “oh, I like this song and you should listen to it.” It’s really in real-time, that this is the song that’s quite literally animating my life experience in this moment. So, that is really what the partnership means, and that’s why we wanted to do it.

Being amongst the great company of Snap Kit in general is really exciting, and I think we’re going to see more partnerships like this coming up in the future.

To conclude, what are the biggest takeaways from your work with brands in 2018 — at Cannes Lions and in general. 

First, that the time for an audio strategy is now. Yesterday, actually. Technology has evolved us into this voice-activated space, and we would be remiss not to take advantage of some of the core primal, powerful methods of storytelling through sound.

I think the second is that as technology increases, so does our desire to have a true human creative aesthetic on the other end. So we might all be walking around in space suits talking to our devices instead of each other, but we are still going to want to hear a human on the other end. It’s why you see AI innovations around how we can actually reflect authenticity through voice — so that we’re not feeling like we’re talking to robots. I think that’s going to become increasingly important.

Finally, sound has so much influence, so I think that the first key is [for marketers] to be thinking about it more — as mindfully as possible. You have to think about what sound you’re putting out there into the world.