Why retailers need to take sonic branding seriously

Retail is undergoing something of a paradigm shift. This is a sector that faces unprecedented challenges as it adapts to the ever-changing shopping habits of consumers.
Last week’s ONS data revealed that UK retail sales fell in December by 0.6%, making it the fifth consecutive month in which retail sales failed to increase. Despite economists’ hopes for a rise in sales during the festive season, many high street retailers were hit by consumers opting to shop online or visit out of town retail parks – two key factors driving change in shopping habits.

Since its inception, the internet has opened up a wealth of opportunity for retailers, however the web has also marked the death of several well-known brands, most of whom were too slow to adapt.

In recent months, retail chains such as Mothercare, Maplin, Toys R Us and Links of London have all entered administration. Arcadia, the owner of Topshop, faces an uncertain future, while Debenhams, New Look and Carpetright are all seeking legal agreements with their landlords to close stores and reduce their rent bills.

Whether its news of a much-loved high street store closing, or the merging of two retail giants, we are confronted with significant stories on a daily basis, marking the evolution of a once traditional industry.

However, it’s not just shopping habits and the rise of online that threaten the retail world. Competition has never been greater, with an abundance of retail brands springing up across the UK and overseas, some with physical shop fronts, but almost all with an online offering. Never has there been a more challenging time for a retail brand to stand out than in today’s competitive market.

Brand identity is key

Businesses have been quick to invest in building the visual identity of their brand, in a bid to both retain and win customers. From colour palette, to logo and font size, the look and feel of a brand can have an enormous impact on the overall performance of the business to which it belongs. But it’s not just about visual identity; sound is also a key component that is too often ignored.

In a world now dominated by audio, with the emergence of the connected home and voice-led technologies including Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, now is the time for brands to put sound right at their core.

And for retailers in particular, the opportunities around sound are endless. Our attention as an audience is increasingly being split across numerous channels and platforms – from traditional marketing and media (print, online and digital, TV and radio) right the way through to physical touchpoints, whether in store or through live activations and pop-ups.

Evidence behind the power of sound to drive purchase intent is significant. According to a review of the effects of background music in a retail setting, published by Garlin and Owen in 2006, the liking of music in store has a positive effect on spending, while a field study of music in service environments by JD Herrington in 1996 found that shoppers who liked the music they heard spent significantly more time and money in the store.

Jacob, in a paper published in 2009, found that romantic songs in a flower shop significantly increased the amount of money spent by customers, all examples supporting the fact that music reflecting the retail outlet has a positive effect on spending. In simple terms, it is widely understood that music in harmony with the target market increases the number of purchases and money spent.

Given the volume of evidence which dates to the 1990s, it’s clear that using sound as a key marketing tool isn’t a new concept. However, brands – and specifically retail brands – have been slow to embrace sound as a core component of their identity.

There are some retail businesses leading the charge and integrating sound deep into their business strategy.

Take Burberry. Music was a big thing for Christopher Bailey (former CEO and creative director) in taking the fashion house out of the ‘trenches’ from chav culture to high fashion. It’s music platform Burberry Acoustic increased dwell time on their website to 20 minutes. Similarly, Co-Op has been working hard to make sound a key component in their in-store experience, also tailoring it specifically to regional communities across the country.

Yet there is a huge opportunity to push further. You only have to consider all the consumer touchpoints in a classic supermarket to see where creative and unexpected audio opportunities might lie, from electronic till points, shelf wobblers to live in-store activations. But it’s not just in-store; retailers can also broaden their sonic experience through pop-up stores in shopping malls and town centres.

Consider also the potential surrounding online shopping and voice activation. As voice assistants, and internet enabled products like fridges and washing machines become more commonplace, there will be a significant opportunity for sound to play a central role in the e-commerce experience.

With a plethora of innovative and engaging platforms on offer, never has there been greater opportunity for retailers to find their own distinctive sound.

Max De Lucia, co-founder of DLMDD

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