The city’s voice

Voice of city

The concept of audio branding for destinations is intriguing. But why should places consider using this technique in their brand strategies? Steve Keller of iV Audio Branding introduces us to the emotive power of sound and discusses how it can be used to create lasting identities for places.

Steve, why should destinations use sound in their brand strategies?
Well, what is it that draws us to a place? Our memories are not simply visual. They’re multi sensorial. So when you think about a destination, why limit your branding to a visual logo or a verbal brand claim? Sound is one of the most effective implicit drivers of emotion. If you can capture a unique sonic identity for your destination, you will have added a powerful tool to your branding/marketing toolbox.

What are some examples of destinations that have made good use of sound?
Nashville, New Orleans, Memphis and Austin all have strong ties to music, and they use that connection to appeal to tourism. However, they are not exploring the multiple touch points available to take advantage of those obvious sonic connections.

Consider Vienna, which has effectively created an audio brand woven into its transportation system, which provides a sonic association with the city itself. Art installations, like the ‘sea organ’ in Zadar, Croatia, that incorporate sound, offer opportunities for both attention and promotion.

London used a ‘sound taxi’ that recorded the city sounds around it – buses, horns, and crowds – and then transformed them into ambient sound to music that created a real-time sonic experience for tourists and locals alike.

Destination brands can also use traditional audio branding assets like a sonic logo. Coupling that audio mark with a visual logo for a city offers a way to build recognition through use in broadcast commercials, online videos, digital communication and more.

Atlanta worked with Sixième Son (an audio agency based in Paris, France) to create an audio logo based on the city’s history, heritage and culture.

Some countries and cities conjure up distinct sound associations. Can you give us an example?
If you consider national anthems as ‘brand themes,’ that’s one obvious connection between a place and a specific piece of music. Some iconic landmarks also have a sonic association, with London’s Big Ben as a prime example.

Calls to prayer, chants, or temple bells are examples of ‘sonic signatures’ that speak to spiritual connections to places and cultures. Nature sounds can also be used to effectively communicate sonic associations with a particular place.

For instance, when riding the tram at the Zurich airport in Switzerland, you will hear the sounds of cows, cowbells, Alpine horns and yodelling. Nothing says, “Welcome to Switzerland” more than these iconic sonic associations with the Swiss countryside, and they never fail to bring a smile to the faces of the travellers arriving.

What kind of sounds work best for creating positive associations with places?
I think every place has unique sound/memory associations. To some extent, it’s less about creating them, and more about listening for them. These natural associations are always a good place to start, and are usually found through interviews with local members of the city or community.

You can also ‘sound map’ a city, noting the location of unique soundscapes within the city environment. As you listen, you want to find those unique sound/place pairings that can be ‘owned’ by the destination (i.e. you won’t hear it anywhere else, or at least not quite like you hear it when you’re in a particular location).

Sound maps, sonic installations (often paired with art installations), geo-tagging and beacons can all be used to help visitors and community members take sonic scavenger hunts through the city. While these distinct sonic identifiers can be natural, a destination could also create specific audio assets as part of an audio branding strategy.

An audio logo, as previously mentioned, would be one example of this kind of distinct, flexible, congruent, recognisable and ownable audio asset. Another asset might be a ‘Brand Voice’ – a particular voice or voices used in audio communications. Over time, this ‘voice of the city’ can become a recognisable sonic extension of the destination’s personality.

How would you integrate audio into a wider brand strategy?
Building a successful audio brand takes discipline. You must first uncover your brand’s audio identity. Once you identify, create, and curate its audio assets, you then need to be disciplined in their execution across multiple touch points.

For instance, let’s use the example of the ‘voice of the city’ mentioned earlier. This voice (or voices) should be chosen based on how it reflects the essence of your brand’s personality. Then, look for all the areas where you can consistently use this voice. You might hear it in marketing and branding communications.

Perhaps it’s used in online videos found on the city website. If I call the messaging centre, I might hear it there. When I visit the city, then I might also hear it on my arrival and as I travel throughout the city on trains, buses and in airports. It’s as if the city is speaking to me in a voice that I recognise, that I become connected to, and that feels more like a familiar friend than a strange place.

Add to this the fact that technology is creating new audio touch points all the time, particularly with our mobile devices. Sound is an extremely important part of that experience.

What’s the best way to measure the effect of audio in a place branding strategy?
You can measure at various stages of the process. We can test at the developmental phase, to make sure the audio assets we’re creating and/or procuring are hitting the emotional/rational targets we’ve identified.

We can see how our audio choices are affecting the way we interpret the brand visually. We can explore the free associations that pop up in the mind of a listener when they first heard a sound or a piece of music. These developmental tests help us make sure we’re capturing the true ‘sonic essence’ of the brand.

We can also benchmark to compare the emerging audio identity with other iconic brands. We can examine consensus meaning and cued recall. We can measure likability and familiarity. All these measures then form a baseline. We can run the same tests again, a year later, two years later, three years later – and measure the changes.

Finally, we can optimise, where we might look at how different applications of the audio brand might drive purchase intent (or in the case of a destination, desire to visit), enjoyment, breakthrough, and recall. In attempting to measure benefits and outcomes, you need to define what you want to measure, and how to build the best test design to give the necessary input to make decisions and evaluate progress.

Obviously, time and money are always a consideration, but knowing the right questions to ask is the most important part of any testing initiative. Good testing doesn’t just give you answers. It also helps you identify new questions.

Which place has the best sounds? And which has the worst?
I’m going to be diplomatic here and say that this has a lot to do with my own personal tastes and preferences, rather than attempting to name destination brands that I think are using sound ‘rightly or wrongly.’

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a number of amazing destinations all around the world, and I have fond sonic memories of them all. That said, I think there is a danger in how the world is becoming increasingly ‘noisy’. We’re losing some of the natural sounds of a place as they are masked by the noise of devices and machines around us. We’re losing the art of mindful listening, and with it the ability to be aware and present in the moment.

This is an important point: audio branding isn’t just about the intentional presence of sound. It’s also about the intentional absence. One of my fondest memories of Helsinki is the wooden Chapel of Silence there. It’s built in the middle of the city, and was designed as a sonic refuge from the hustle and the bustle going on outside its walls.

I think the idea of an ‘intentional use of sound’ is key. The use of sound in destination branding shouldn’t just be a tactic. It should be a strategy. There should be clear reasons for sonic choices, aligned with the brand vision and promise.

In your audio branding work, how do you use sound to change negative perceptions of a place?
Our associations colour our perceptions. Once we pair a stimulus with a particular place or object, the emotional outcome creates a powerful association. These paired associations are difficult, but not impossible, to break.

One way to change perception is to call attention to the paired association, and create another to replace it, or to at least offer a new perspective. The Chapel of Silence offers another experience to the sounds of a busy urban environment, a potentially strong positive association of a calm and comforting destination in a part of the city that may typically be thought of as a place of chaos and business.

The introduction of the sounds of the Swiss countryside into an airport tram actually creates a moment of surprise and enjoyment for weary travellers, suggesting to them that now that they’re entering Zurich, they can relax.

While these examples may not be specifically about changing a negative perception, they do help illustrate how sound connects with us on an implicit level, where emotional associations are most powerful and where they can affect how we interpret the information we’re receiving through our other senses.

Find out more about iV Audio Branding, or follow Steve on Twitter.

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