While sitting in the expansive lobby of a suburban Mumbai hotel, my attention is drawn to a sudden increase in volume of what can be best described as ‘muzak’, the ubiquitous piped music found in elevators, shopping malls, airports and hotels, that appears to be as essential to the ambience as the enormous flower arrangements and overwrought upholstered furniture in the lounge area. Halfway through our conversation with Daniel Jackson, CEO of Cord Worldwide, he pauses mid-sentence and gestures upwards, pointing to that same music playing in the background, and says, “This…is horrible music, but it is music, it is intentional, inspired by environments.”
Daniel wrote the first ever book on sonic branding in 2004, when he realised that, “music is about passion and love, but I also have this idea that it can be created with some science and understanding,” in a way that can be used by brands to connect with their customers. Daniel went on to explain that at Cord they believe brands need to create these connections through time and across different territories and touchpoints. We caught up with him while he was on a hectic, 2-day trip to India and had a long chat about music – from Bollywood and the current state of the international music industry, to the synthetic ‘boring’ sound of a PC starting up that annoyed us in the 90s, to that fake, “happy sound” of coins dropping in Las Vegas slot machines.
Cord use a data-driven approach when creating sounds for brands, which starts with understanding what a demographic listens to. The origins of this approach lie in Daniel’s early days working in advertising. “We were making television commercials for Renault cars, and the creative director came up with one piece of music that he really loved from his own record collection by Robert Palmer, called Johnny and Mary, [sings the first line of the song]. As a young guy – they wouldn’t let me near any of the creative stuff – I was told, ‘You know, we have an executive car coming out, how can we change the song so that it appeals to old guys?’ So I would research about what old guys were listening to, and turn that into a creative brief (so that they could then do something with the notes. Then they said, ‘Okay, we have a young car for women, about 23. What are they listening to?’ I’d do the research, find the numbers and data and turn that into a creative brief for a new version of it. We got about 150 versions of that [song] in 18 months and I got into this idea that you could take a data – or a planning approach to something that was instinctive. What I started to like was that you could put some science behind it.”
“You know how a brand has guidelines, style guides? They know what colours they are, what photography they have, and what typefaces they use, and all this is very well defined for most brands. Coca-Cola has a great style guide for music and sound. But instead of being in PowerPoints and being a description of how the music should sound, what we get is a little toolkit, which is a 20 seconds piece of audio. What’s on that audio is sound design and some notes,<fizz comes up> and then five notes called ‘the open happiness platform’. And then the way they use [the notes] is the most interesting, because instead of slapping them on in the end as a jingle, they give them to the composer or the songwriter and say, ‘You know, use these somewhere: maybe it’s in a chorus, maybe you’re gonna have it as the bassline, it doesn’t have to be right in your face all the time. In fact it should be more subtle than that.’ The people who are listening, the people who care will be able to hear it.”
Sound really is sort of an incentive to touch things. If something makes a noise on a tablet you want to touch it and play with it, and then the sound is the reward for it.
Music has the ability to induce a Pavlovian response, the power to suggest certain behaviours.
SOUND AS A REWARD
“Sound really is sort of an incentive to touch things. If something makes a noise on a tablet you want to touch it and play with it, and then the sound is the reward for it. Some of the things we’re starting to do now on tablets are really interesting. We work with a dishwasher tablet that makes your glasses clean on a tiny little app that is just a picture of a clean glass and when you touch it, it gives a little ‘ting’ and the more you touch it obviously the more it tings and the longer you play with it the deeper the engagement with it and the more the message comes through. If it’s just a picture you don’t have to touch it. If it’s just static you don’t touch it but as soon as it gives you a little reward it makes you want to do it again and again and share it.”
My favourite sound in the world is now completely artificial but used to be real, which is from an ATM machine, when it counts your money. It doesn’t need to make that noise anymore. It’s completely made up.
“ATMs, they go ‘Beep beep beep beep’ because inside there’s an old Windows computer. Three or four years ago one of the banks in the UK was putting up new ATMs with much better sound chips. We’re able to design much nicer sounds for them and a lot of the older sounds didn’t have to be used anymore, but we had to use them because people expected them. This skeuomorphic design, that Apple does, where you make everything look like it’s made of wood, reengineering analog sounds into new digital environments is actually quite a big part of our business when we’re doing UX/UI. For a short while we were seeing lots of gigs where technology was changing, the old sounds were disappearing, which meant people didn’t know how to navigate their way.
My favourite sound in the world is now completely artificial but used to be real, which is from an ATM machine, when it counts your money. It doesn’t need to make that noise anymore. It’s completely made up. But people understand that money is coming out. Even if you’re only getting out 3 notes, it still feels like you can hear it in your head. I still love that and we’re helping the effort of Barclay’s Bank to put that sound back in their ATMs.”
THE POWER OF SUGGESTION
“Casinos are amazing environments for screwing with people’s heads and using music is very good for that. We use music in casinos to move people around. People are easily suggestible, and very easy to manipulate, in a good way.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of those casinos, and they always have one long queue. Then when you go to the front of the queue you could go to Asian cuisine or Mexican or Barbecue or Italian. We had a speaker set up over the queue and we were up in Security, looking it over. We’d look at Mexican, and if the Mexican restaurant was busy, we’d change the music in the queue and start playing Dean Martin or Italian music and we’d watch people just walk over to go and get pasta. And if pasta was busy we’d change the music again and we’d put on some Chinese folk music and they’d go over and eat Chinese food. It was almost completely direct, the relationship between what we were making them listen to in the queue to where they were going to eat.
We have an educational job to do as well. To teach all brand people to be as good with sound as they are with visuals, to know what a Pantone colour is: and what the equivalent is in sound.
We found it in a piece of research in the 1980s called the Asda wine experiment. Adrian North is a professor at Leicester University, he set up an experiment with German wine on one side of the aisle and French wine on the other. For two weeks he played German music and then for two weeks he played French music. No other changes. German wine is not as nice as French wine. You need to drink it very cold. German wine outsold French wine by two to one in the German music [period], and French wine outsold German wine three to one in the French music [period]. No other changes. All that was happening was the music was changing.”
If you think of any great ad or film or interactive experience, music has been integral to creating a lasting impression. The difference is, when speaking about music and sound, Daniel told us, “You can’t pin it on the wall and you can’t all look at it and say “that’s orange” or “that’s red”. Unless you have classical training, it’s very hard to describe the harmonies or pick out the notes. We have an educational job to do as well. To teach all brand people to be as good with sound as they are with visuals, to know what a Pantone colour is: and what the equivalent is in sound.”
There’s noise everywhere now, everyone’s constantly with headphones in their ears, everyone’s constantly listening to [something]. We try and come up with music that is intentional, that has a purpose, which has a reason, that’s also good for the soul.
“For me, the whole point of music is that it gets us in our hearts and so I’d like to make sure that what’s going into my heart is pure and good and is worthwhile. For most of the industry, music has become very disposable but I prefer something that’s more crafted and intentional and has the outcome that is desired, not just that it sounds “like something”. There’s noise everywhere now, everyone’s constantly with headphones in their ears, everyone’s constantly listening to [something]. We try and come up with music that is intentional, that has a purpose, which has a reason, that’s also good for the soul.”
A version of this article was published in Kyoorius 23
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