We are surrounded by sound. From perusing grocery store shelves to starting a car engine to using our smartphones, most of us hear sound from the moment our alarm rings in the morning to the moment we click our light off to go to sleep. Every second of the day, an audio cocktail swirling with beeps, hums and environmental noise is drifting in and out of our ears. And we don't have to be listening to be affected.
It takes 0.146 seconds for a human being to react to sound. It's like a syringe: Sound injects emotion and feeling directly into our being in an instant, with no former learning, experience or context required to receive the message.
"Whether we recognize it or not, every single moment of our lives is scored by music and sound," said Joel Beckerman, founder of Man Made Music. "It's guiding our choices and changing our mood in an instant, and it's making or breaking emotional connections we have with people, places, and things."
Our relationship with sound
Man Made Music partnered with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum to illustrate our relationship with sound and technology in Hear, See, Play: Designing with Sound. The exhibit (running from Oct. 13, 2017 to July 29, 2018) tasks visitors with choosing the sounds for a street cleaning simulator called Trashbot. Wielding the power of melody and ambient sound, you make the little bot a normal part of the New York City ecosystem. But the exhibit touches on deeper ideas about how people interact with technology.
"There's the human component of that. It's not just the technology and picking up the trash and everything – it's how are people going to accept that robot in our lives," Beckerman said.
Our relationship with products and technology is spurred by the human component. Businesses have found a way to use the power of sound to insert themselves directly into our field of vision, changing the way we experience their brand, technology and products forever.
How sound has changed business
Beckerman has been among those at the forefront of this change. After writing "The Sonic Boom: How Sound Affects the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy," Beckerman began working with companies to change the way they use sound. Sound has always been a part of branding. Companies have used jingles or songs since the early days of advertising, and throughout the 20th century, companies began to monetize their brands.
But Beckerman has seen marketing and branding change because of sound. Instead of selling customers on a product or distinct brand, companies are aiming to have an even bigger impact by creating a full-scale buyer experience.
"For the last 20 years, brands have shown and proven that brand monetizes," Beckerman said. "Now a lot of brands are coming around to, actually, it's experience that monetizes. So there's really nothing that provides the immersive sort of immediate, emotional connection quicker than sound."
This change has paired Beckerman with high-profile companies like IMAX, HBO and AT&T to usher in the new era of creating experience around their brand with sound. In the case of IMAX, a video on Man Made Music's website details just how important a role sound plays in the user's perception of the brand.
"We got this famous iconic logo, and it deserves sort of a sonic brand that matches that, to create more permanent and easily accessed memories," said Eileen Campbell, formerly the chief marketing officer for IMAX. "We wanted to have one foot in the past – all the beautiful things that we've done, our nature documentaries – but also thinking about the future and where we were trying to take the brand and blending all of those influences."
Sound also helps brands transition a company's identity into the modern era. HBO, a brand known for its iconic use of sound, was looking to create a brand experience for its users and called Beckerman for help.
"We hear music and sound in association with where we are in this moment in culture," Beckerman said. "We're really looking at making sure that we're telling the right message, that we're triggering the right emotions, but that we're also really doing it in sync with where culture is in this moment. That's kind of the secret sauce."
Monetization of experience
But the real task comes with pairing sound to the entire brand experience for a consumer. This transition, from businesses monetizing their brands to monetizing a consumer experience, is best exemplified by Beckerman's work with AT&T.
As a major telecommunications company, AT&T has gone through significant rebranding since its inception in the early 1980s. The latest change has involved transferring the company's iconic three-pinged sound across all its platforms as well as setting up flagship stores to sell customers on the AT&T experience.
This experience needed to be tailored to different audiences. Beckerman, who has worked on a few different AT&T stores, needed to adjust the store's soundscape to what city it was in. The Chicago store's soundscape, for example, was much different compared to the one in San Francisco. Even after adjusting on a broad level, sound played a different role in each area within the store to evoke different feelings from costumers.
"We did a mashup; basically, San Francisco is a giant mash up of cultures," he said. "We represented that in a sort of soundscape of brand takeover moments that happen in the retail store. These things show up specifically in locations (in the store)."
Dividing and adjusting where sounds appear within a store adds to the overall soundscape experienced by the consumer. One way Beckerman and Man Made Music create these sounds is according to a concept known as the sonic burrito, an idea created by Dan Venne, senior vice president and creative director of Man Made Music and a main sound architect behind Trashbot.
The sonic burrito equates music with the contents of a burrito. As explained by Beckerman, a burrito usually has three main ingredients: rice, a protein and some toppings. For soundscapes, composers play with three main ingredients to build a sound that embodies emotion: melody, ambience and sound effects.
"The most powerful thing is to come up with a soundscape that is perfect for telling that story that you happen to be in in that moment," Beckerman said.
Part of telling this story, and creating meaningful sound, is enticing and drawing the consumer into whatever brand experience Beckerman is orchestrating. People hate being branded to death, and part of Beckerman's skill set is his sleight of hand – he can work with marketing teams to veil the corporate interest of enticing a consumer, instead using sound to play up the service aspect the brand is looking to provide.
"We could have little sort of moments of surprising delight and sound, and you kind of walk in the store and it's like, 'What's going on?'" he said. "There's this ambience that welcomes you. But part of the magic that welcomes you into that store is you just heard exactly contrasting sound outside the store. Contrast is one of the things we play with all the time."
By combining sound with other areas of marketing, like the smell, taste, touch or the design of a product, Beckerman creates an overall brand experience tailored toward customers. The key for businesses is understanding that the sound of a brand is a piece in the larger puzzle.
"I think it's really about monetization of experience," Beckerman said. "That understanding, that making people feel something, that creating and triggering emotions in association with a brand experience that you like is an incredibly powerful tool."
Accepting technology through sound
Our relationship with sound and products has evolved over time. The exhibit at Cooper Hewitt gives visitors a taste of how sound colors our world and provides a gateway to understanding that sound has become a major pillar of experiential branding.
It's also a great way to view how sound can make technology a part of our daily lives.
"You want [Trashbot] to be approachable, you want him to not scare people, and you want him to be something that maybe people don't even just tolerate," he said, "but actually like."