Philip Ellis
Earcons And The Power Of Audio Branding

We live in a visually oriented world, especially as far as brands are concerned, with consumers instantly recognising a brand’s logo or colour story. But the way a brand sounds can trigger an even more instinctive form of recognition and trigger a required user response if used correctly.

In his book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms The Way We Think, Feel and Buy, musician Joel Beckerman examines how sounds affect our moods and influence our habits, whether it’s the sizzle of a fajita platter or the background sounds of the milk steamer in a coffee shop: “What happens when you hear the tinkly music of the ice cream truck? Maybe it takes you back to a childhood in the suburbs, and you feel a twinge of anxiety from hearing that faint music, which meant begging your mom or dad for change and sprinting out the door before the truck rolled by. Sound initiates all those feelings and memories of sights, temperatures, and tastes.”

If you think you’re not influenced by soundscapes, just try reciting the alphabet without singing the tune we’re all taught as children. That’s the power of sound.

Earcons are the audio equivalent of icons; symbols which communicate meaning and function as prompts for a certain behaviour. Examples include the beep your car makes when you’re not wearing your seatbelt, or the startup sound made by Windows and Apple laptops. Earcons are incredibly short, lasting just a few notes, but create an instant association in the listener. Perhaps the biggest earworm earcon is the Nokia ringtone, which at the height of the brand’s popularity was heard 1.8 billion times a day.

It takes just 0.146 seconds for a person to react to sound. As such, audio cues can be much more effective in pressured, real-time situations. For instance, healthcare workers respond much more quickly to auditory alarms than visual displays, as they don’t rely on the user looking in a specific direction. UX studies have shown that melodic alarms are less efficient as they are harder for clinicians to memorise and can be confusing in the moment; earcons consisting of simple, clear notes which cut through incidental noise work best.

As advances continue in electric automobiles, earcons will have a part to play in alerting pedestrians to their approach, as they are far quieter than vehicles today. Beginning in 2019, US regulators will require auto companies to make their electric cars make an audible noise when in motion. Whether that means simply mimicking ordinary traffic sounds, or composing brand-specific earcons, remains to be seen… or more specifically, heard.

“Effective use of sound means building a strategy to pick and create the music that helps people understand the brand’s place in the world,” writers Beckerman. “With the right foundation, sound and music can help transform a business or a message by communicating a clear emotional story and helping people feel the brand.”

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