Sonic branding – How do you do it?


When a retailer asks me to select instore background music that will help keep customers in his shop for longer we are dealing with something measurable and exact. I know that if I change certain musical parameters people’s time perception will change and they will adjust their behavior accordingly. The outcome can be measured and is therefore very tangible for any business I am consulting.

On the other end of the scale we find sonic branding. Matching music (or sound for that matter) to a brand in such a manner that it will reinforce the brand and help get its message across. Also a vital part of my job since any music I select must fit the brand it is supposed to help perfectly. How on earth do you know which song or tune or voice will fit a brand?

Here we enter the world of gurus and magicians. If you hire an agency to help you out you will most likely get an individual in brightly colored shoes wearing fancy glasses telling you about ‘experience’, ‘feel’ and some more ‘experience’. Impressive, but it basically comes down to an individual’s gut feeling and opinion.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of these people are very experienced and have a natural feel for what will work with the greater public and what will not. The problem is that you can’t tell whether you are dealing with such an expert or a clown. And even if you have the greatest guru working for you, the method is still hit and miss.

So what if you want something more tangible? Something more surefire?

One approach you can choose is matching attributes. What attributes make up your brand? How is your brand DNA (Distinctiveness, Novelty, Attributes) built up? Try and capture this in single keywords. Maybe your brand is trendy, young, dynamic, fresh and accessible. Or perhaps more luxurious, lush, traditional and exclusive. Every brand will deliver its own unique selection of key attributes that build up its overall appearance and experience.

Next we have to match these attributes to music. You could do this by working with a research panel. Let a substantial group of listeners hear a shortlist of music you are considering and let them fill out to what degree they would ascribe certain attributes to it. “Would you describe this music as trendy?” Let them answer on a five-step scale from “not at all” to “very”. By testing a large number of attributes you will gain insight into which tunes might fit your brand.

Keep in mind that you should always test on your specific target audience. If you aim at urban youth and you question middle aged men and women your data will be useless. They might describe Britney Spears as trendy whereas your target audience probably stopped listening to hear years ago. Sounds obvious, but I see huge mistakes being made here by large companies investing massive amounts of money in research that delivers useless data.

This method will work particularly well for instore background music to get an idea of what kind of music will work. When it comes to a commercial different rules apply. You could take this approach but then again sometimes something completely unexpected and non-matching will work best.

Studies have shown though, that message reception is supported best when congruent music is chosen. When asking people what the commercial was about the answer is most likely to be correct if the music in the commercial was subtle and in line with the brand/message.

So it is important to decide what your goals are. If you are trying to inform people about a product or service (cosmetics or detergent commercials for instance), subtle, brand-matching music will work best. If you are trying to communicate a lifestyle or mood (fashion or perfume commercials for instance) you can choose a more radical and unexpected musical backdrop.

My advice is to take a best-of-both-worlds approach. Make sure your choices are founded on a strong rational (maybe even science-based) strategy and then let a creative mind go mad with it. This will ensure your music is working for you instead of against you.

Thomas van Straaten
Instore Media Consultant

Leave a reply


  1. steve keller 21 januari, 2013 at 17:06 Beantwoorden

    Great insights into audio branding, Thomas, particularly with your caveat emptor about entering the world of “gurus and magicians.”

    There’s certainly a degree of alchemy that exists in the discipline of audio branding. The good news is that there are audio agencies out there who effectively balance the elements of art and science. The key is to recognize that, while there are tangible audio assets created as part of the process, higher service providers will always approach audio branding from a design framework – with a clearly defined strategic process that is brand centric rather than campaign centric. These agencies will also be adept at using applied science and testing design to offer their clients data that can be used in making objective decisions. When you are looking to hire an audio agency to create your audio brand, you should ask to make sure that strategy and measurement are part of the package you’re buying – and not just the production of multiple audio logos or brand themes.

    You’re also right on the money with your focus on congruency (or “brand fit”). If you have done the work to define your brand’s emotional and rational attributes, existing research will give you a starting point for basic tempos, keys, frequencies, etc. that will help stack the “congruency deck” in your favor. It’s important to consider, too, that congruency isn’t just about brand attributes. It’s also about cross modal congruency between the audio brand and other brand identifiers (i.e. verbal, visual, taste, smell haptic, etc.) If you have the budget, there are test designs that are much more unbiased than focus groups – giving you a way to map the relationships between audio and brand attributes with a higher degree of statistical confidence. That said, the steps you suggest offer at least some degree of qualitative data, even in the absence of a more robust research methodology.
    Again, thanks for such a thoughtful and layered approach to the complexities of audio branding. Art and science are not polar opposites. Each informs the other, and together can secure a greater return on your audio branding investment.

    Keep spreading the good news!

    Steve Keller

    • Thomas van Straaten 22 januari, 2013 at 08:25 Beantwoorden

      Dear Steve,

      Thank you for taking the time to analyze my writing and reply. Much appreciated!

      I take it you work with such a combined art/science approach? That is great to hear! I was initially trained to be a composer/producer and found that although I was attending a highly rated and respectable University, the science part was completely ignored. This is a shame since the market is moving quickly towards the combined approach. I find my clients no longer believe the pure guru methodology and in times of financial headaches require something more tangible to justify any investments. I now see a lot of young producers struggling to “speak the business language” since they make great music/sound but fail to find the proper connection with brands.

      Good to see you underline the importance of the combination of the two worlds. In my daily practice I am responsible for the tangible, science-based side of the story and then we let our creatives run wild with it. We find that this approach leads to the best results in most cases.

      Indeed there are far more precise methods to research the congruency of sound with a brand and with its other sensorial cues. The above is merely an accessible and easy-to-do-at-home option for aspiring sonic branders.

      Again thank you for taking the time and perhaps we will meet again!


  2. Peter Wildsmith 17 april, 2015 at 21:12 Beantwoorden

    Hello Thomas, I came upon your blog by chance whilst browsing for shoes! I found it very interesting but not very informative. I have been interested in the topic of instore music (or ‘musak’) for some time. This is mainly because I find it an intrusion upon my shopping (and sometimes dining) experience. From your blog I note that your conclusions for prescribing ‘music’ to an organisation is based upon your rationale of what is ‘best’ for that client. Yes, ‘upbeat’ may go down well in a fashion shoe shop and ‘smooth’ better for certain styles of restaurant. But my enduring question is why do we need musak instore, every store and repetatively and relentlesly? A couple of years ago I contacted by phone the lead person (at head office) for a well known high-street pharmacy chain, responsible for their sonic branding. I contested the need for blaring and intrusive music in my local town store. The lead person argued for the music stating that ‘it improves the shopping experience’. When I asked for some evidence to support this assertion then line went dead. This only furthers my contention that instore music is, in-the-main, an unecessary intrusion but one we have to put up with. Shop-floor staff must become numb to the repetitous sound of their sonic branding. I could go-on but will leave with one request, if I may. In your blog above, you state; ‘Make sure your choices are founded on a strong rational (maybe even science-based) strategy’. I am interested to read more on the scientific basis of sonic branding; ie, what works because it has been researched and proven? Food for thought: In the last couple of years I have discovered both Aldi and Lidl food stores do not play musak in any of their stores. I wonder why? One of the pleasures of shopping in either of these establishments is that people can enjoy their shopping experience without the sound of musak. I will be interested to read your reply. Regards, Peter Wildsmith.

  3. Thomas van Straaten 18 april, 2015 at 09:40 Beantwoorden

    Dear Peter,
    Thank you for reaching out! I appreciate your efforts in discussing your point of view on the subject. Always good to hear a different angle!
    I am afraid you are part of a minority of people who prefer silence in shops. We have actually researched that very question last year in France, and found a staggering majority of consumers to prefer shops playing music. The same was true for shop personnel who indicated they enjoyed their work more. This was a study conducted by an independent market research agency.
    If you have found many shops’ music to be repetitive musak, I’d argue there is something wrong with the way they are doing it. If I look at shops I have consulted, we have usually implemented music profiles containing upward of 500 songs, which are updated regularly. That is much more than an average radio channel has in its routine, so repetition should not be an issue there.
    With Lidl and Aldi you name two interesting examples, and I happen to know their rationale behind the choice. Music is a form of luxury, in people’s minds. It is something that adds to the atmosphere (although I think you will disagree). Lidl and Aldi argue that this would undermine their image of being extremely cheap. This is the same reason why they display their offerings in cardboard boxes, rather than on a nice shelve. They aim for a “no redundancy” atmosphere. I have not yet seen any research on that choice by the way, so although I understand their rationale, I cannot prove or disprove the approach.
    When it comes to shops slightly higher in segment, such as many shoe shops, research shows that music has a positive effect on both consumer experience and shop performance. I think browsing through my blog you will find me quoting several scientific publications on the matter. If you would like to dive into it yourself I can recommend a book “the oxford handbook of music psychology” which has a short but striking chapter on studies into instore music. You could also browse through google scholar looking for scientists like Kim & Areni, Milliman, Yalch & Spangenberg and North & Hargreaves, who have all conducted excellent academic work on the subject.
    Still, I would agree with you that music is not always successful in shops. I think many fashion shops opt for extremely loud EDM music, which sooner serves to induce stress and reduce sales than to build the right atmosphere. This is my gut feeling though, still looking for ways to research it objectively. This is why I urge retailers to think about their goals.
    That being said, we are very aware that there is a group of people who have strong feelings against any instore music. That’s a shame really because retailers obviously would like your business and to leave you feeling good about them. But the measurable positive effects usually outweigh the negative effects on people like yourself. So I am afraid that bottom line I will have to tell you that the chance is slim that you will find a silent shopping street any time soon. I do sincerely hope the references above will soften the burden for you a bit!

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