You Are Here: The Power of Sonic Branding in Physical Spaces

by Alex Coutts,  SVP, Head of Experience


Live music was always the reason I wanted to move to New York City. Growing up in suburban Connecticut, it seemed like every band that mattered had a “Central Park Concert” or a “Live in NYC.” And while it’s sometimes easy to get cynical about the mythmaking around The City, the potency of its live music scene was one of the few claims that the Greatest City in the World could always back up.

It didn’t matter if it was 50 people in a basement club on a Tuesday or a career musician finally making their way to Madison Square Garden, it was always clear that both performer and audience fed off of one another. While I reflect on the things I miss most since the live music scene went quiet back in March, I keep returning to that infectious communal energy and spirit.

But, this isn’t another post-mortem of New York City or the canceled shows of 2020 that may never get rescheduled (RIP Soulwax’s first US tour in over a decade).

While we all collectively daydream about our first show “back”, this may also be the best time to ideate on the future of shared experiences. From retail to restaurants, people are hungry to return to in-person events and activities. But as experience designers, how can we harness the power of sound to build even deeper emotional connections?

With any experience that incorporates sound and music, the beat, mood, volume and energy tell a story and subconsciously alter how we have that experience. Research has found that the pace and tempo of music has a direct effect on our walking speed — meaning that designers can not only dictate our emotions, but also how we interact with the space itself.

And while many visual or physical experiences are confined to specific environmental constraints, a shift in music and sound can impact the entire emotional takeaway — or the emotion the experience intends to leave with audiences — in an instant. We call this a form of sonic branding.

Varying audio modes, zones or dayparts can also create a range of ‘skins’ for a single physical experience – driving repeat visits, longer dwell times, and improving employee satisfaction.

Think about how your favorite restaurant has a completely different feel during the lunch rush versus dinner — all thanks to a simple change in playlist volume, mood and energy.

None of this should be particularly surprising. We’ve all felt first-hand the emotional power sound can have, but sound’s power as a functional tool routinely goes untapped.


Here are three things the right sound and sonic branding strategy do for designed spaces and branded or built environments:

  1. Build the Bond — An effective sonic cue can not only bring added weight or emotion to a moment, it can provide touchless and immediate feedback to guests. While physical infrastructure is forced to evolve away from shared touchpads and other touch technologies, sound has the power to act as our guide as new interactions based on gestures and voice emerge. Think about the wristbands worn at theme parks or festivals, and how the sonic feedback of those interactions could potentially become a memorable cue across a brand’s contactless experiences.
  2. Keep People Coming Back — Further, as human beings, our reaction time to sound is much quicker than all of our other senses. Thus, it has the innate ability to impact the way we experience sight, touch and taste.
  3. Guide the Customer Journey — Put most simply, we can easily close our eyes, but not our ears. Sound doesn’t require you to look in a certain direction to have the desired impact. It can also draw our attention to key areas of interest to ensure we never miss a meaningful moment.

When we can safely return to the shared human experiences we all miss so much — concerts, sporting events or any other spaces where we feel connected to the people and world around us, sonic branding will continue to be a vital pillar of experiential design.

In fact, it could very well serve as the emotional underpin in a new era of communal experiences. And whether your brand is strategic about it or not, sound will actively be telling an emotional and functional story about your space. What kind of story do you want to tell?

Contact Us