Alexander Jutkowitz
Chief Executive Officer
Hill+Knowlton Strategies U.S.

Since oral traditions don’t leave marks like cave paintings do, we’ll never be sure exactly when one of our ancestors first turned to another and said, “You’ve got to hear this.” But humans have been telling each other stories for at least 9,000 years, and probably for tens of thousands of years before that.

In the shorter history of modern capitalism, however, sound has taken a backseat to visual vocabularies as a storytelling tool. Aside from a few noteworthy jingles, when we think of iconic messaging, we tend to think of images—logos, clever print campaigns, compelling video. In fact, if you want a video campaign to work on social in the digital age, audiences better be able to follow along on mute.

The earth is shifting under us, however. For the first time since the Golden Age of Radio in the 1930s and 1940s, sound is just as important as sight for brand storytellers.

Pure Sound Formats

The last 20 years have been all about how to play on screens large and small, but listen-only media are providing opportunities for brands to engage audiences using the primal emotional power of human voices, song and sound.

Podcasts like Serial have made waves for their addictive storytelling, and one large survey even showed that the percentage of people who listen to a podcast each month has more than doubled from 9% to 24% over the last 10 years. Unfortunately, in their rush to broadcast something, many brands are posting unedited, uninspired interviews that lack both the storytelling chops and distinct sonic identities of successful unbranded podcasts.

Meanwhile, out on the sonic frontier are the digital personal assistants. By 2030, the consultancy Gartner estimates that 30 percent of searches will occur without a screen—in other words, by voice, and probably via something like Siri or Alexa. Because consumers speak to their assistants, and their assistants speak back, many people have come to regard these helpful technologies as friends. That creates incredibly high expectations for developing unique, engaging and authentic voices for these platforms.

Thinking in Sound

For marketers who know their “look and feel” inside and out, but haven’t thought much about how sound should travel across emerging platforms, a few focusing questions can help start to build a comprehensive sonic content strategy.

What does your brand sound like?

Once upon a time, we learned what a brand sounded like from television or radio. But we’re surrounded by speakers now, in the form of earbuds and in-home digital assistants. What we call “audio branding” must integrate seamlessly into an always-on sonic landscape.

Audio branding includes everything from audio logos (Intel’s instantly recognizable “bingggg…bing bing bing bong”) to complete pieces of music (Coca Cola’s brand anthems). It’s the most mobile part of your brand, in the old-fashioned sense that it’s likely to travel across every platform you’re on.

Anticipating the sprawl of audio branding, Bose, the high-end speaker and headphones maker, has set aside $50 million to invest in startups that will help integrate contextually relevant sound into augmented reality experiences. For now, augmented reality is primarily a gaming tool. But if it expands further into everyday life, marketing opportunities will follow. Brands that haven’t thought as hard about what people will hear in their AR headphones as they have about what they see in the goggles will be at a disadvantage. 

Who does your brand sound like?

Call it the Alexa effect: The voice that appears consistently across your content universe is the “person” consumers either like or don’t. Your brand’s voice must spark instant recognition and deliver factual and emotional information.

The quick solution to creating a distinctive voice is to hire a celebrity. (Is Morgan Freeman available?) But that’s a mistake in the digital world. Brands must be able to adjust their voices as needed, without losing the power of the message.

Having a new and distinct voice is one of many reasons EBay’s “Open for Business” podcast series works so well. The sound puts one in mind of NPR’s Radiolab, partly because of host and entrepreneur John Henry, who possesses the kind of buoyant, deep-but-not-too-deep instrument that’s a dream for listeners.

But Henry is only part of the show’s success. The funky music that punctuates the narrative at all the right moments, the pertinent background noise where appropriate, the diversity of the sonic landscape, and most importantly, the smart and interesting content that’s tailored perfectly for its audience forms a brand that could stand up with a different host. That kind of flexibility is key at a time when consumers constantly crave something new.

How does your audience discover your voice?

Investing in owned voice assets, as well as those designed to play on other platforms, is vital to a sonic content strategy. Gartner estimates that companies that get ahead in redesigning their digital experiences to accommodate visual and voice searches will increase digital revenues by an astonishing 30 percent by 2021. Part of the reason for that? The winner-take-all nature of voice search, in which digital assistants only read out the first result.

Designing a digital sound experience requires optimizing the featured snippets that appear in search results for voice SEO, thinking about UX in a whole different way as you anticipate the day your own website will be mostly voice-driven, building chatbots that actually chat out loud and integrating voice data into AI platforms.

Tackling one task at a time is better than doing nothing, but the real value comes from considering your digital sonic experience as a whole and providing users with one consistent experience.

If all this reminds you of the movie “Her,” in which a professional letter-writer falls in love with his smoky-voiced digital assistant, you’re on the right track. Voices have been on advertising’s back burner for hundreds of years. But as screens give way to speech, your marketing plan has to sound as least as good as it looks. 

Alexander Jutkowitz, CEO and founder of Group SJR and CEO of Truffle Pig and Hill+Knowlton Strategies U.S., is one of today’s leading evangelists for the shift in marketing and communications toward integrated content and strategy. His work for clients in a wide array of fields proves that brands who tell their own stories innovate faster and inspire enduring customer loyalty. Jutkowitz has more than 20 years of experience in strategic communications—as a political pollster, digital architect, brand strategist, and content creator in over 30 countries. He is the author of The Strategic Storyteller.