Product sound gone wrong

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Sometimes we can learn a lot from bad practice. Even though I don’t like to bash other people’s work, I feel I have to devote an article to my latest piece of household equipment since it’s got the most ridiculous bit of artificial product sound I have ever come across. So here we go. My new Samsung SC8480 vacuum cleaner.

In fact I got it as a very considerate present when moving to a new home. It all looked great. A compact yet powerful vacuum cleaner with a handy remote control built into the grip. It is when you turn it on that it all goes a bit sour though.

For some mysterious reason Samsung found it necessary to build in a little speaker that plays a tune each time you turn on your vacuum cleaner. It is a short, high pitched, rather loud tune that is most reminiscent of a “text message received” signal a mobile phone might make.

The big question is, why would one add a sound like that to any product? Well, in the case of the mobile phone it is to notify you that you have received a message or that someone is calling you. It is therefore functional. Most manufacturers use this functional bit of sound to their advantage by turning it into a recognizable tune. At some point the Nokia tune, for instance, was the most played bit of music in the world. This cut-out from a classical Spanish piece by Tarrega is believed to have been audible around 1,8 billion times every day at the height of Nokia’s reign.

This is a great example of how you can use a functional bit of sound to create a brand experience. Nokia gets free publicity every single time someone is called on their Nokia mobile. Same goes for the most popular iPhone ringtones nowadays. Why do you think you cannot select any of your iTunes library songs as your personal ringtone? Because it is technically impossible? Well…no. It is because you are marketing your iPhone for Apple.

Let’s look at the functional part of product sound. In the case of ringtones the function is obviously to notify you that a call or message requires your attention. But in these digital days a lot of attention goes into designing interface sounds as well. A tune existing of an ascending melody line clearly indicates success. A descending line is associated with denial. Think about an error message on your computer. It is usually accompanied by a sound consisting of two or three descending tones letting you know you are going nowhere.

Another good example is typing on a touch screen device. Most manufacturers add some kind of auditive feedback to let you know you have succesfully touched a key.

Okay, now let’s go back to my vacuum cleaner. We have (extremely briefly, I admit) looked at why one might add sound to a product. Let’s apply this knowledge to this example.

Let’s look at brand experience first. Why would you want to make a connection between your brand and an activity that most people dislike? Granted, this point is up for debate. But then there is the fact that the tune Samsung have included cannot be heard anywhere else in their marketing outings. It is a stand alone sound that has nothing to do with Samsung as a brand. If they were aiming to let you know you are dealing with a Samsung product they would probably have chosen a Samsung sound logo.

So we will have to assume the sound was implemented with functionality in mind. A bit of sound to let you know your vacuum cleaner is switched on. Considerate in theory but have you heard a vacuum cleaner recently? They are loud!

So the actual functioning of the product is already making a sound that lets me know it is working properly. Why do I need an extra tune for that?

What is even worse is the fact that it is a terribly loud tune at a highly penetrative frequency. If my neighbors don’t hear my actual vacuuming, they will now definitely hear me switching my vacuum on! It also triggers a bit of a startling reaction every time one starts cleaning.

This a great example of what happens when you implement sound without properly thinking it through. Somehow many companies think of sound as something fun that is purely there for entertainment. This explains why many shops have such terrible background music and why many commercials completely strike out with unfitting music. This vacuum cleaner shows the same mistakes are made with product sound.

Sound and music have a strong influence on how we behave and perceive things. You ignore this power at your peril. Give me a call Samsung. We’ll get you on the right track 😉

Thomas van Straaten
Instore Media Consultant

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