Striking the right chord - why brands need to develop sound thinking in an audio-first world

Hugh Fitz-Gibbon
Feb 22 · 4 min read

Visual advertising is all around us. From billboards to mobile ads, our eyes are bombarded with thousands of branded messages every day. But what about advertising for the ears?

In pre-literate cultures, products and services would be marketed orally in the street. That’s fine, if you didn’t mind limited reach. But it wasn’t until the first UK radio ad in 1973 that audio started to be used by brands at scale.

Nowadays, the landscape has fragmented with the rise of podcasts, ad-supported music streaming and digital assistants — which provide an attractive option to comms planners looking to reach people ‘on the go’ where other media can’t.

Think commutes, the gym or multitasking at home. Audio is even changing the way we buy, with voice shopping promising a new era of frictionless commerce. But this poses a problem. In an increasingly screenless marketplace, brands need to consider how they stand out through sound, as well as sight.

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Photo by Denisse Leon on Unsplash

But first, why should brands care about sound? The answer lies in its unique ability to make us feel. How? Because it’s processed by the same part of the brain that’s responsible for memory and emotion. This should be music to an advertising practitioner’s ears as the work of Field and Binet teach us that emotional campaigns are far more effective and profitable than rational ones.

We think fast most the time anyway, according to Behavioural Economic theory. It’s also a good communication tool, with 60% of consumers saying that audio used in marketing is more memorable than visual stimulus whilst being understood up to 2x faster. If David Ogilvy calls advertising a ‘medium of information’, then sound is a pretty efficient way of getting a message across.

Ok, so the science sounds promising. Now comes the interesting bit. Without standard visual cues such as colour, typography and symbols, how do you stand out on the audio shelf? Consistency with the rest of your brand is key here. Of course, we’re all aware of tone of voice in marketing guidelines. Yet, little thought is given to the literal incarnation. Man? Woman? Young or old?

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Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Even Claude C. Hopkins, writing in 1923, knew the power of personality to differentiate from competitors. ‘We try to give each advertiser a becoming style’ he writes, ‘We make him distinctive, perhaps not in appearance, but in manner and in tone’.

As touchpoints diversify across physical, digital and voice environments, marketers need to think carefully about how they create memorable and instantly recognisable experiences to remain top of mind. For many, it’s new uncharted territory.

But brands like Mastercard are facing the music of a more screenless tomorrow by investing in their audio identity today. Brands need to act now to avoid playing second fiddle to their competitors.

Once an audio creative strategy has been agreed, there are plenty of activation options to choose from. With digital audio consumption up 9% year on year and one in five UK households now owning a smart speaker, more pay-to-play media inventory and ownable voice skills are luring marketers in.

Promotion can be seamlessly inserted into audio content such as podcast host reads and playlist sponsorship, whilst the development of programmatic is making audio easier to plan and buy at scale.

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Photo by Jonathan Farber on Unsplash

Combined with clever tactics like contextual targeting, geo and weather personalisation, retargeting and out-of-home integrations, audio is becoming an attractive and measurable proposition. Unlike linear radio, the magic of digital means that there are plenty of data points to increase the likelihood of getting the right message to the right person — without falling on deaf ears.

Ultimately, our job as marketers is to stand out and get remembered. Sound, it seems, does a pretty good job at that. But can it build a successful brand alone? Probably not. So, we need to introduce it into the marketing mix with a test and learn approach to see what works and what doesn’t.

As we move into a more screenless future, audio-first thinking will take on a greater role in attracting and retaining customers. When? No one really knows. Let’s just play it by ear.

[Originally written for Mediatel, the media industry’s number one destination for data, news and events]

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Hugh Fitz-Gibbon

Written by

Communication Planning Manager from the UK interested in creative strategy. As featured in The IPA and Mediatel.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +719K people. Follow to join our community.

Hugh Fitz-Gibbon

Written by

Communication Planning Manager from the UK interested in creative strategy. As featured in The IPA and Mediatel.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +719K people. Follow to join our community.

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