Write-up: sound branding talk with John Groves

On Sunday 23rd October 2016, I and nine others were lucky enough to spend an hour-and-a-half with John Groves, founder of Groves Sound Branding GmbH, a legendary music producer and a pioneer in the field of sound branding. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had an “aha” moment: sound branding seems obvious when someone explains it to you, but few people seem to know what it is. It was fascinating to dig deeper and find out what sound branding can and cannot do.

John started by getting us to imagine ourselves in a dark forest. We hear the hisses, screeches and other sounds you might expect, and then silence. The breaking of a twig under foot, a roar …

Simple sounds like these can convey such a huge amount of information: something approaching, its proximity, its size and so on. It can even control your emotions and ultimately your actions. In this extreme case, you would probably be very afraid and attempt to flee. (I’m sure sound can influence your bodily functions too.)

That’s an extreme example, but everyone understands that a particular song, or sound, can evoke memories and emotions. The theme from “Dirty Dancing”, the click of leather on willow, the popping of a champagne cork, the crackle of a log fire and so on.

How we react to sound: are we born with it? And is it cross-cultural?

We discussed the extent to which our reactions to sound are hard-wired, and to what extent they are learned. John said studies show that newborn babies react to music as we would expect, i.e. happy music makes them laugh. This suggests that our perception of sound, and its effects on our emotions, is not entirely acquired. Similarly, studies with African tribes in remote areas who have never been exposed to European music react similarly to Europeans. This suggests that there is something innate in the music – or, rather, in us – that makes us react to sound uniformly.

On the other hand, there are wide-ranging exceptions to this. For example, Chinese people are much more used to dissonant sounds than we in the West. Playing two notes next to each other on the keyboard will make us wince: we associate dissonant sounds with danger and fear, for example the music in the film “Psycho”.

Even between European countries, cultural differences influence us. John played a few songs and we had to guess which country they represented – and as a group, we weren’t that bad!

Apparently, people in the UK are less able to recognise the typically Greek music (think the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” theme tune) than in Germany. This is because there is more imported Greek culture over here. Outside of London, I’ve barely seen a Greek restaurant in my life, but over here they’re all over the place.

But everyone’s different

Even within cultures, John estimates sound has predictable effects on only about 75% of people. So if you’re unfortunate, you can be pitching a sound branding concept to executives who are tone deaf to what you’re communicating. This is why John attempts to get past personal taste, bringing in empirical information to back up his work.

John Groves event on sound branding

John Groves and people in his studio.

Is society becoming more fragmented?

It’s often said that marketing is becoming more difficult these days because it’s harder to reach people than before. In sound branding, the same applies: a few years ago, you could reach pretty much everyone through the TV and people at work would talk about what they watched the night before. Now, there are all manner of channels – Netflix, Spotify, YouTube and much more. We have fewer shared experiences.

This diversification of channels makes it less easy to predict the effect that songs will have on people, because you can’t know what shared experiences they’ve had. As an example, John played us “Whiter Shade of Pale” – for lots of older people, this represents nostalgia but many youngsters haven’t heard of it and have no particular association with it. (What a shame! I love that song.)

So to trigger the intended associations, you have to research your target audience. Age is still the easiest parameter: if you can find someone’s age, you can look to see what was in the charts when they were 16, and the chances are you’ll find something that resonates with them. (Or at least 3 out of 4 of them.)

Anyone who has been involved in branding can understand where John’s coming from here: some people think they just want a cheap and cheerful sound logo, but sound branding is about more than that.

It’s about having a consistent identity across all your touch points: your hold music for customer service, the voices that make announcements, the music playing in your waiting rooms, jingles, music in corporate videos. And yes, your sound logo. This is what Groves (the company) does: analysing company attributes, auditing all the sounds a company makes across all these touch points, and bringing them into unison. Similarly to visual branding, they create a style guide, and even ensure that it is adhered to over time.

Finally, we discussed sound logos in depth. Sound logos are shorter than jingles, and have recently become popular. Iconic examples are the “Intel inside” and “Deutsche Telekom” sound logos. (Go and Google them if you need to, but you probably don’t … that’s how effective they are.)

Sometimes, these logos can become victims of their own success: you hear them every time someone turns on a phone, or camera, or car radio, and some companies play them in their lift and all over the place. AAARRGH! It gets annoying.

Deutsche Telekom has sought to tone it down a bit recently, by reducing its use but also by seeing the sound logo as a kind of framework to be played on different instruments to suit the current situation, or integrated into other music. I spent some time on hold for Deutsche Telekom recently – if you dial 0800 3301000 (from Germany) you will hear a musical tapestry with the sound logo recurring every now and then.

Thanks John!

Many thanks again to John – it was fascinating to learn so much from a sound branding pioneer. The feedback I got from the other people who came was just as positive as mine.