In the Earbud Era, Sonic Branding Is Marketing’s Biggest Missed Opportunity

A Pandora vp looks at today's audio renaissance

Can you remember the last time you closed your eyes to hear a sound clearly? To ingest the soothing comfort of a babbling brook, to absorb the effortless harmony of a choir, to listen to another human's heartbeat? Two things stand out: The memory of the moment is visceral, and it evokes strong emotions—exactly the kinds of reactions that advertisers strive to elicit in building brand strategies.

However, we live in a world where consumers are bombarded by a constant stream of visual stimuli and where marketers spend massive resources on visual identity to influence consumer beliefs and behaviors. In a time where consumers have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, marketers must embrace the the power of sonic branding to capture attention. Audio has always been one of the most powerful ways to tell stories, and thanks to technology and the ubiquity of mobile devices, capturing attention with audio has never been more important.

Punching through the barrage of visual clutter with clean, memorable sound isn't the only reason advertisers should revisit their branding playbooks. After all, neuroscience has long supported the powerful imprint audio signals leave on the human brain—whether delivered in a foreground tone or a subliminal manner. That's why broadcast radio remains a $17 billion-plus business in the 2010s.

But audio has come a long way in the past decade and is smarter and more innovative than ever. Personalized platforms feature brands sonically in a one-to-one environment. A persistently logged-in user can be targeted at deep, granular levels, and personalized messages are served at a time most likely to resonate. Reach and frequency can be dialed up and down with confidence, and feedback signals extend far beyond impressions served or click-through rates. This isn't your father's audio—it's a virtual sonic boom.

The travel industry is starting to embrace sonic strategies and finding great success. This is a category where consumers face a wide spectrum of choices to scratch the get-out-of-town itch. Today, state tourism boards, convention and visitor bureaus, and hotel chains work with music curators at my company, Pandora, to create sonic identities on the platform by creating brand stations, customized for their target audiences.

Advertisers like the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Agency are able to connect with listeners through the Vegas brand station—"24/7 Radio"—with timely promotional messages deemed most relevant to listeners in selected feeder markets. Based on campaign analytics, LVCVA officials estimated their Pandora campaign created more than 150,000 incremental visits, representing over $110 million in incremental revenue for the city of Las Vegas.

Similarly, the value of connecting with consumers in a personalized sonic environment is also being rediscovered by marketers trying to capture the attention of the ever-elusive millennial (think education, QSR, fitness) and the always-on-the-go mom with kids (think department store, CPG, grocery chain, back-to-school.

With music streaming services' ability to connect brands with customers across multiple platforms, conversational-toned messages "work" because they are delivered between songs that listeners love and during moments the listener is most likely to engage. 

Recently, Anytime Fitness, the world's fastest-growing gym franchise, turned to a sonic strategy on Pandora to promote its brand and drive foot traffic to specific locations. According to a post-campaign study conducted by Millward Brown, the campaign targeting fitness enthusiasts on mobile devices raised brand awareness by 22 percent, boosted offer awareness for "Free Saturday Workouts" by 44 percent and caused a surge in sign ups that exceeded target goals.

It's clear that we are in the midst of an audio renaissance. Everywhere you look, people are plugged into their earbuds, and according to Edison Research, consumers spend an average of four hours per day with audio. Audio has never been more accessible, personalized or personal. The time is now to embrace this renaissance, recognize the power of audio and build a sonic strategy to win the hearts and minds of consumers.

Doug Sterne is vp of audio development at Pandora, a sponsor of The One Show's Creative Week, being held this week in New York City.