In this series, DLMDD’s Jed Taylor journeys into the minds of industry leaders across ad-land and brand-land to find out how we can all exploit the powers of music, sound and sonic branding.
DLMDD Meets #1
Executive Strategy Director
J – Hello, Nick! Please tell us a little about who you are and what you do!
N – So, I’m Nick Hirst, I’m one of two executive strategy directors at adam&eveDDB which is a big communications agency in London, although we have clients all over the world. I’ve been here for about 6 years, been a planner for about 18, and before that I was a not very good account man as a lot of us no doubt were at some point! I had a sort of secret second life as a musician I suppose, not a very successful one, but now I have a family, so I don’t as much touring and playing loud guitar anymore.
J – That leads us on to our second question quite nicely, so just to ease us in, what is your connection to sound and music?
N – I suppose, professionally, I think quite a lot of what I do day to day which is advertising is powered by music, though that power is overlooked quite often. Quite a lot of our work is as famous for its music as it is anything else, a good example would be the work we did for John Lewis, one of our biggest clients. In that, the music is often one of the biggest talking points of the campaign, so I think in my day job there is quite a lot of chat around music. The other side of it is that I have been a musician, I’ve toured, played festivals and recorded and all that, usually more at the crappy Transit van end of it rather than at the massive bus level. So, there’s an interesting perspective it gives you on music in advertising communications and in brands because I think a lot of the time the vocabulary is quite limited. There’s somewhat of a general understanding that music and sound can be very powerful when it comes to, particularly, advertising which is what we do, but also branding more generally, but then I think the vocabulary and the expertise is quite limited in these contexts. Musicians that I know who have made stuff for brands think it’s almost the opposite way round, they really understand music but they struggle to really understand what the hell us lot are talking about quite often, so there is quite an apparent gulf between two disciplines that probably need to work a lot closer with each other.
J – So do you think language is a major barrier?
N – I do! Maybe it’s not surprising because it’s hard to talk about music sometimes, it’s certainly hard to translate, I mean, marketing uses language in weird ways anyway, so then to try and translate that into a language that musicians can understand instinctively and compose around is even more difficult. There’s that famous quote about how writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as in there’s two fundamentally different types of language where it’s very difficult to accurately represent one in the other. So maybe it’s not surprising, but we could certainly do better nonetheless.
J – It’s funny because we have relatively consolidated language in design, and it has been claimed that the reason we can’t find anything quite as analogous or useful for sound is because of the temporal dimension, to sound which impairs our ability to round it neatly into discrete units or structures. We’ve done that quite successfully in design with typefaces, set colours, shapes, artistic, cultural or naturally derived reference points, but at the same time, if I randomly scribbled on a piece of paper and asked you to tell me what shape it is, that might be difficult; it’s almost like we don’t have discrete units in sound because we haven’t really tried despite some people’s best efforts.
N – Yeah, I mean it’s easy to talk about visuals in another way isn’t it, the classic old “make the logo bigger” thing sort of speaks to the fact that those of us who are not visual design experts are still able to go “can you move that over there” or “make that bigger and less green” for example, whereas music is much harder; I’ve never heard anyone go “can you take the higher frequencies off the saxophone a bit, it’s too sharp” or whatever. People generally say much more opaque things about music and are far less able to be specific than they can be about design. I don’t know whether it’s because we innately consider ourselves more visual or whether our industry just attracts more visually-minded people, who knows what it is, but you’re right in that there’s a massive difference between how we can talk about visual stuff which everyone has an opinion on and how we talk about music which most people I think struggle with.
J – Now, let’s get onto something a bit more general on branding and advertising, after all, this series is about my industry learning from outside of our direct sphere and of course, this is your area of expertise. Obviously a very broad and hotly debated subject matter, but what do you think is the foundation to a distinct, relevant and meaningful brand or campaign execution?
N – We could speak for days about that! We’re always trying to work it out to be honest, it’s a never-ending battle and no one has really perfected it yet. I think the point of it all is effectiveness and there’s an awful lot of research being done on it at the moment. I’ll try and do the short version of it. A lot of the research being done here at adam&eveDDB is being done by a chap called Les Binet who has written a lot about how marketing communications works, and just as interestingly, doesn’t work. It turns out there’s quite specific ways in which it does and doesn’t work, so for example big, emotional story-telling seems to be highly effective at driving the kind of effects that we want for our clients like long-term profit growth and long term brand success rather than just short-term spikes in sales. If you just want short-term sales spikes then you can just keep running ads that try and persuade you of facts, but those don’t seem to work very much better than that, so you end up spending a lot of money all of the time maintaining the frequency of those spikes. That’s why a lot of our output as an agency tends towards more of the kind of emotional story-telling end because we just know that it is incredibly powerful and effective.
I think the question of relevance sort of has to be divided into two, whether you are talking about brands or ads. Largely brands can be very relevant to people, advertising however is mostly not that relevant to people. At best, advertising is somewhat tolerated, and I think we just have to make our peace with that. If you kid yourself any other way, you’re going to make some strange decisions about what kind of ads to make. People are interested in stories and stuff that’s entertaining, they don’t care too much about what those things are, if there’s a 30 second video, a 60 second or even a 2-minute video that’s funny, they’ll watch it. Whether it’s had millions spent on it or whether it’s something we’ve made for 10 grand, it doesn’t matter, they sort of don’t care. So, I think there’s a lot of intricacies around it, but we always come back to the primacy of emotion, storytelling and starting out the recognition that most people at best aren’t that interested and at worst are actively trying to avoid whatever we have to tell them. It’s quite a good place to start really because you aren’t in denial or kidding yourself and can focus more on being entertaining and telling a good story.
J – Like you said, brands can be immensely relevant to people, particularly in as far as our reinforcement and expression of self goes, how do you regard the role of advertising in the emotional resonance we find with brands and our sense of identity?
N – Well…I reckon, and the research seems to show, that most brands don’t have much emotional resonance at all. If you think about the sorts of brands that you might see walking around a supermarket, with most of those, at best they kind of speed up the shopping process. You think, I kind of know Kellogg’s, they’ve not poisoned me before, I bought them last week, so I’ll go with them again. If there weren’t brands, shopping might take 6 times as long and it would feel riskier. Most of the time, people don’t care about brands that much. There are definitely exceptions of course, I mean I am a sort of Apple fanboy I suppose, I have quite a lot of Apple stuff, so I would say that for certain categories, the importance of the brand is more pertinent. For example, fashion, and other categories where people are using brands to deliberately say something about themselves, then it is immensely important. Tech is like that to a certain extent, I walk around with my Bowers & Wilkins headphones and I think as well as them sounding nice in my opinion, I think I like that they say I properly like music, I think I would feel a bit silly being seen wearing Beats headphones. There are certain brands that do that, and I think advertising’s role in that context is to have a minor effect in a minority phenomenon, but I certainly think advertising can strengthen or create certain emotional associations with a brand. Particularly when thinking about the attitude or style of a brand, take BrewDog vs Stella Artois vs Guinness, advertising through its use of language, style or cultural references can make one beer seem posher and another cooler or whatever.
J – Alcohol is an interesting one, people may call me out on this but in a lot of cases, particularly between say lagers, the differences are minimal, the brand is very important in how product differentiation is derived and contextualised. Somewhat akin to perfume as well, the brand is really front and centre, and pretty much essential to navigating that category.
N – Definitely, people generally can’t tell. If you did a taste test, you generally have no idea what you’re drinking.
J – Off the topic of music slightly, but something I feel I had to ask someone about. I had a friend, also in the world of brand strategy, tell me not too long ago about how he finds people’s shopping lists fascinatingly insightful in how we regard brands. People often list products by type or by brand and it’s really interesting to see where people say toilet roll rather than Andrex or Green & Blacks instead of chocolate; something is definitely happening there. Do you ever notice this subtle gap in the way we organise brands cognitively?
N – I think that’s definitely interesting, and we often talk to clients about how substitutable those things are. I mean like Heinz beans, Coca-Cola….Pepsi probably, those are the kind of brands that people will ask for by name and they’re often the kind of brands that if you’re a parent doing shopping, they’re often the kind of things you feel like your kids will reject unless you get the branded version. I think there are other brands where I think that probably isn’t so relevant and it’s more about product and price; I think sometimes we have to be realistic about the extent of the role that we can play. There’s a lot of work being done at the moment around brand loyalty, even brands like Apple, that have their own proprietary ecosystem and bring out products completely unlike anyone else’s until they get copied, even then, most people don’t consider them to be remarkably different or unique. So largely, people think brands are pretty interchangeable.
J – Continuing on the topic of the intersection of brands, advertising and identity, where do you see music and sound having a role in nurturing this complex and as you say, interchangeable connection?
N – Well, I suppose there’s two ends to answering that question, on the one hand, I think like anything, it can kind of confer certain associations onto a brand at a really basic level can’t it. I mean the music that British Airways for example use in their advertising has become far more than just an ad soundtrack, it’s become a part of the brand and it feels utterly appropriate to them and embodies certain expectations of what you expect from them as a brand. Even if they aren’t at points being their best, as all brands will find, it just feels grown up and sophisticated and traditional in ways that you can’t quite put your finger on that they will do things to make the rest of the experience consistent with that intangible value. I think if used cleverly and consistently, music can have that sort of effect and I think it comes down at least in part to genre and the associations that come with the sounds of certain genres. But I suppose at the other end, if you accept the point of view that with brands, most people aren’t paying attention most of the time, I think it’s one of a number of ways you can make your brand stand out and more memorable. I think in some cases it’s not much more than that in a world where attention comes at a premium with lots of things competing for it, it can be a very powerful way to shortcut attention towards a brand, that is if you use it consistently and it is distinctive. That is just as important, if not more important than whether it can confer or speak to an identity on a pure brand level, I think.
J – Unlike say, asparagus, our love of music is relatively universal, tastes might differ but most people in one way or another like music. I would argue that it is fairly closely aligned to our sense of self as both a formative and emergent part, do you think it is important that the way we use music in the context of brands be rooted in this relationship and in how we use music every day and do you think brands do this adequately already?
N – I think almost universally in the world of brands we don’t understand or acknowledge how music works because, to my point earlier, there just isn’t the vocabulary or the research to talk about it. I’ve heard Les Binet who works here say that music can account for about a third of advertising’s effectiveness in terms of its financial payback, so given that, comparatively we don’t understand it perhaps as well as we should. But I think people sort of know it instinctively, so if you take a brand like Levi’s which in its heyday was a really powerful brand that inspired devotion and loyalty, others might say different, but people would certainly wear it as a badge brand and be proud to do so. Levi’s approach to music was incredibly deliberate and they would go out of their way to find bands that were I think mainly guitar bands, though not always but usually at least kind of on the cutting edge, you could sort of imagine them all playing at the same venue. The agency behind that was BBH and they had a guy there who basically operated as an A&R guy who would be out there finding the right music for the brand, so they clearly understood the importance of that relationship, it wasn’t just a couple of people scrawling through Spotify playlists; they really thought about how to catch a wave before it broke into the mainstream and how that could confer the right image onto the brand.
J – Do you think that gave Levi’s a sort of “sound”?
N – I feel like it did. It would be interesting to systematically look at it almost from a sort of semiotic perspective but if I think about archetypal Levi’s advertising it tended to be ‘proper music’ in massive inverted commas, it was the kind of stuff you could imagine listening to on vinyl. Often it was guitar music but not always, though even Flat Eric was kind of towards the Indie end of electronic music, so there was a kind of quality to it, you could sort of imagine it coming out of the same label almost.
J – That actually speaks quite well to a question in the world of sonic branding which is how tightly does a brand need to be aligned to their sound? Do they need a suite of assets and a logo that they have tight rules around to ensure consistency or can they be a little more like Levi’s crafting a looser but very relevant “sound” around them that you just sort of know when you hear?
N – I think loose is exactly it in Levi’s case, you could imagine someone a little less deft at what they were doing writing down all the rules of a Levi’s ad stating the inclusion of distorted guitars etc, but then they couldn’t have done Flat Eric which was brilliant. I don’t know how methodical it was but I think when you have a group of people who have worked with a brand for a long time, they just sort of “get” what is right and what isn’t for that particular brand. You’re always trying to balance aren’t you between what feels just familiar enough to be listenable and what feels fresh and surprising and not just like the same old thing again and again, which is true of anything in culture and definitely true of advertising and that’s what Levi’s did, even if they were pushing at the edges of what they do, it always feels recognisably them.
J – Well that’s interesting because you know, if it involves sound, creates value and it is recognisably them then that’s sonic branding isn’t it?
N – Exactly and I think the thing most people do, myself included, is hear the term sonic branding and think “oh yeah you mean like a little 3 second sting at the end of an ad” but that’s not what Levi’s did and they had probably one of the best sonic worlds surrounding their brand. I think Stella Artois did this well too, I think they used the same composer for the most part, but they were able to craft a sound, look and feel around their brand that was loose but distinctive and recognisable.
J – There is a bit of a trend in our industry and surrounding industries to attempt to quantify things as much as possible, which has its advantages, but do you think a tendency to be able to reduce creative work to numbers makes it less easy to be able to take a looser more ethereal approach like those of Levi’s or Stella Artois?
N – I think the answer is yes, you do lose that ability. You often get it when you’re about to launch a new campaign and everybody wants to write down the rules of that campaign for the next 6 executions which is an entirely laudable intent because of course you do want to have some ground rules to ensure you are consistent over the next 5-10 years ideally, but it’s a really hard thing to do and I think you do end up making mistakes and accidently boxing yourself into a corner. You know something like John Lewis, you just do it a bunch of times, look back and go ok, we’ve now set a precedent to work to. Levi’s I think would have found it very easy when briefing a new campaign to just bring along 5 Levi’s ads and go “well, you sort of get the idea”. That’s much much easier than going “our music is always ‘fresh’ and ‘slightly edgy’”, because whatever rules you write, that’s often going to rule out some sort of brilliant idea. Some things just can’t be pinned down that much. As with everything, you can really overthink it!
J – Appreciating the value of both a tighter and looser approach to crafting brand sound or a piece of advertising, what do you see as most fundamental in gauging the needs of a particular client and which approach would be most beneficial to them?
N – Another of those million-dollar questions. I think the first and most pragmatic answer is to simply spend a lot of time talking to your clients. The only way of getting started with this I think is to ensure that there is a fairly solid shared understanding of what the brand is. And that depends on so many things, take McDonalds for example, that’s a huge, global organisation with thousands of people executing on its behalf, lots and lots and lots of touchpoints, lots of product ranges and I don’t know how many pieces of creative they make every year, we make some of them, other agencies do others, I don’t even know how many agencies they’ve got! It would help them to have just a thing you can replicate like their sonic logo, it can be varied in its execution but they’ve done a really good job of making those 5 notes, played on whatever instrument undeniably McDonalds which is good when you have a very diffuse organisation. For Levis or Stella, and in this case we’re purely talking UK here, that was probably 5 – 10 people involved in those, who could all meet in a room and talk about whether something is right or not, so I think operational factors mean that the rules of the road in certain contexts are completely different and therefore require different solutions. I don’t think there’s any strategic argument to say why McDonalds shouldn’t have a looser brand world, I think it’s just about what’s practicable.
J – And finally, to round us off. In short, and not too much detail or we’ll be here forever as there is no right or wrong way of answering this, what would your ideal sonic branding execution look like or seek to achieve?
N – I suppose there’s two things really. Firstly I think it would have to work in as many places as possible in order to let people know effectively, where you are, and ideally, all of the lovely things they think about your brand too. The strategic argument for that is of course the more people think they see, hear and feel your brand, the more salient you’ll be, the more you’ll come to mind and the more people will buy you. So there’s a really straight line there of being recognisable wherever you appear and selling more stuff, so that’s good! Then secondly, with my briefing creative people hat on, I kind of think flexible as possible is good, whenever we are trying to create something, we are trying to introduce new ideas and make what we do as fresh and interesting as possible; I think it would be amazing if you had a sonic logo that you could re-arrange and people would still instantly recognise it. Flexibility gives creative people the room to tell whatever story they want to in that particular context which is important as far as long-term effectiveness goes but we will want to make sure that you hear it and still understand the core of the brand it relates to. That’s quite rare I think, brands often get quite fixated on using one particular recording or arrangement in case it breaks consistency and isn’t recognised. It’s hard enough creating campaign executions that stand out so telling us “4 seconds of your 30 second ad has to be this thing” and it doesn’t go at all with the rest of the music and sounds like a crash edit isn’t going to benefit anyone. It’s about balance, sometimes the rules around sound work and it’s just an agency being precious about their work and sometimes it can create a real barrier and afterwards you’re left wondering whether actually you could have been a bit looser about it.
J – Finally, stupid question. Can you make a sound that you think somewhat reflects you as a person?
N – I’m an incessant table drummer so….*drums on the table a bit*.