Hearing is a “special sense”, argued R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer, because it can’t be shut out at will. Sound persists after we close our eyes to sleep, and it’s there before we wake up: “There are no earlids,” he wrote.
As consumers we’re used to inhabiting a visual world. We reflexively recognise the logos of brands, the silhouettes of familiar goods, a season’s on-trend colours. In shops and in advertisements, most of us are led by our eyes.
How products sound might seem small beer by comparison, but there’s a growing recognition that our ears influence how we feel about products – even if, as Martin Lindstrom argues in a book called “Brand Sense”, “there are thousands of brands that are yet to realise the enormous potential available by tapping into sound.”
Carmakers, however, have long been attuned to its power. The way a car door sounds when it closes, for example, is carefully orchestrated. One designer for BMW described a Goldilocks-style search for perfection for its sporty 4 Series Gran Coupé: “It can’t sound too light, because a light door wouldn’t convey the right aspects of quality and safety. But it’s not supposed to sound too heavy, either.”
Not all sounds are created equal. Quieter doesn’t always mean better: consumers may think a quiet product less effective. In a case study involving two dishwashers, consumers actually preferred the louder one. Why? Because the quieter one unmasked the annoying splashing sound of the water when the machine noise was reduced.
“Sonic branding” has become more important as engineering and technological improvements have made products quieter – just think of Dyson appliances. That leaves the question of what, if anything, to replace it with. Much of the seductively powerful roar that the driver of a BMW or Volkswagen hears from an engine is actually no more functional than the shutter click of an iPhone camera: it is a carefully crafted, trademarked imitation, sometimes delivered through the car’s audio system. There are now consultancies that design “interior soundscapes” for cars; the Bentley GT, for instance, draws on “opulent, old world sources” such as the London Antique Clock Centre for its digital ticking clocks, according to Radium, an audio consultancy in Bristol. Research into “psycho-acoustics” by Charles Spence and colleagues at Oxford University suggests that sound affects how we feel about even the most mundane products. The lab found that aerosol sprays were deemed more powerful – and pleasant – when they were quieter, or had a low-frequency hiss. No detail seems too small to overlook. Brands such as Clinique, Spence notes, sift through dozens of prototypes to get a lipstick with just the right opening-and-closing click. “Luxury”, he suggests, “is in the ear of the beholder.”•