Facing the Music as a Brand Strategist

I can’t play a note. I can’t keep a beat. While after-work karaoke was fun at my last job, it’s a bad career move for me now where I’m chief strategist of a music company, surrounded by amazing musicians.

When I joined Interbrand in 2007 from a career at ad agencies, it was because I recognized that an industrywide shift was underway and knew advertising wasn’t the only answer clients needed. I wanted to learn new skills and be a part of the next frontier of brand engagement. Beyond my wildest expectations, I learned and innovated across a wide range of skill sets – from company vision to brand strategy, from portfolio architecture to employee engagement, and from visual and verbal identity to customer experience.

So why then, did I walk away after seven years to join Made Music Studio – a much smaller company that focuses only on sonic identity?

Fact is, I was inspired by my early discussions with Joel Beckerman, Made Music Studio’s Founder and Lead Composer. He said, “Sonic is the next frontier of brand identity”. I was intrigued and I took some time to investigate.

I read in the Harvard Business Review, “There’s one powerful branding tool that has been generally overlooked or perhaps undervalued by most marketers: sound… cognitive studies show that relevant sounds and musical cues can truly influence people in ways marketers want.”

I explored research studies that demonstrate how the right use of music can increase linger time and sales in a retail store, and how certain genres of music will increase purchases of certain types of products. And other studies proving that the right use of music will increase people’s tolerance of a call center and reduce perceived wait time. Further, how music can be used to commercial benefit by projecting corporate style and values, or to corporate detriment with the wrong music.

I learned about the science of sound. The way it bypasses the rational part of your brain, and how it is more instinctive. The Universal Sense, by Seth Horowitz, PhD says “in less than fifty milliseconds—still six times faster than the blink of an eye—you’ve already identified the sound and where it’s coming from. In the actual time it takes for you to blink, sonic input gets directed through your auditory cortex to other parts of your brain that control memories and emotions.”

Then I thought about how technology is changing the world and people. In reading Kit Yarrow’s Decoding the New Consumer Mind the following caught my attention, “our brains have adapted to a new digital world, and we’re neurologically different as a result.” This is fundamentally causing people to think faster, multi-task better, have less tolerance for ambiguity, less patience and shorter attention spans. The lesson for brand leaders and creators is that, “consumers increasingly rely on faster more symbolic forms of communication.”

Sound Makes or Breaks the Experience

I started to think about this new information in the context of my Interbrand identity and customer experience work, and also related it to personal experiences.

For example, I had recently visited a chain drugstore that stands for healthy living. I remember entering the vestibule and immediately a piercing door chime reverberated in the small space. There was overhead music that seemed like the wrong genre for 7:30 a.m. I arrived at the bank of self-serve checkout machines to hear that each one had an automated voice that was more mechanical than human, and each was saying the same thing, but, unfortunately, not at the same time. As I left the store, setting off that piercing noise, again, my head was spinning and I felt less healthy than when I entered.

That drug store brand has a well-executed brand vision. They align themselves with healthy living and that’s reflected in how they look, what they say, and the products they sell and don’t sell. It’s clear, however, they had not thought about sound, and the experience was ruined as a result. What if they played overhead music that reflected their brand and the time of day? What if they had a door chime that was welcoming? What if they had automated voices in the self-serve checkout area that were not only less mechanical, but electronically choreographed and provided directionally-focused sound? And what if the identity-rooted sound of this brand was present and familiar across all locations and digital interactions?

Sound is competing for our attention all of the time. We’ve become numb to a lot of the noise and some of it causes anxiety and displeasure. My mind wanders to the incredibly annoying sound my microwave makes repeatedly when something is done. On the flip side, I use music every day to complement or change my mood, and I pick playlists that are meant to accelerate getting me to how I want to feel.

Time to Face the Music

Then it hit me. For as long as anyone can remember, we’ve been talking about creating an emotional connection with our audiences. Finally, we’ve moved from a communication-focused world to an experience-focused world, and with the right music and sound, we now have a tremendous opportunity to strengthen that connection.

Despite all of the research about how sound impacts us, and massive changes in our behavior brought on by technology, many of us are still relying on the same brand identity pillars – visual and verbal – that have been in place for decades.

The big ah-ha for me was that the strategic use of music and sound is missing from most brand experiences, especially in spaces and on devices where brands have new challenges to connect and engage successfully.

Sound is the Shortcut to Emotional Connection

The fact is, sonic identity is no longer just a “nice to have”, and after joining Made Music, I developed this simple graphic to explain why.


A sonic identity, like a visual identity, brings brand attribution and a sense of personality. Sonic, however, is more emotive, instinctive and interactive than visual. In experiences, tempo and instruments are more powerful than fonts and color. The right music can forge greater connection at live events or in spaces, and it can efficiently convey a brand’s story and its values. The right set of sounds can also humanize digital interactions. Sound can be more responsive than static iconography during key experience moments and can be used to facilitate two-way dialogue that is both functional and emotional. A sonic identity can ensure that comforting human qualities like inflection and tone are not lost. And sound can travel where visuals can’t go.

Taking on The Next Frontier of Brand Identity

I joined Made Music Studio because I’m most inspired when I’m challenged to innovate, to simplify complexity and to introduce my clients to more effective ideas and approaches.

I thought of the power that brands can tap into when they use sound and music strategically to evoke emotion, create meaningful connections with people and guide them through experiences. I recognized how much more important music and sound are as brand experiences become more multi-platform and omni-channel, how technology is enabling brands to show up in new ways and new places, and how our brains are more in need of intuitive ways to engage and connect.

Most of all, I thought about how this is new information for many brand leaders, how the doors of this opportunity are just starting to open, and how much I enjoy being a guide through new frontiers.

All of that has me facing the music.

If you would like to share your perspective, I’d love to hear from you.

1. Decoding the New Consumer Mind
2. HBR “What does your brand sound like”
3. PRS The Value of Music Music and On-Hold Waiting Time
4. PRS Benefits of Using Music for Your Business
5. The Universal Sense
6. Music Alters Visual Perception Research

Kevin Perlmutter is SVP, Chief Strategist at Made Music Studio.
Share your perspective with him on Twitter @kevinperlmutter, or in email: kevin@mademusicstudio.com.

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