Sound Branding – Interview with Karlheinz Illner

Posted on October 23, 2010

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I recently had the chance to meet with Karlheinz Illner founder of KARLHEINZ ILLNER MARKEN & TONKULTUR, an international brand expert in the field of Sound Branding and Acoustic Identity.
We are all familiar with the main dimensions of branding, however Sound Branding and Accoustic Identity are often forgotten though they have an obvious emotional impact on the perception of a brand and a dimension that is largely under utilised in the hotel industry. Karlheinz kindly agreed to answer my questions. Very insightful and fascinating.

Can you explain briefly the concept of “Sound Branding”?

Sound Branding (Audio Branding, Acoustic Branding, Sonic Branding) is the process of development, implementation and management of Sound Branding Elements. It includes all sound elements that are exclusively composed and produced for a brand. The key elements are: sound logo, brand song, sound icons, brand score, brand hookline, brand voice and even soundscapes. These elements should reflect the brand values and brand personality in their acoustic dimensions and should acoustically distinguish a brand from its competition.

In addition the concept of „Instore Music“ or „Background Music“ is important. This means to create a unique music program for brand shops. This is like „the DJ of the brand“. In a creative process the brand values are translated to a music program. This consists of already existing songs available to all people. The key challenge is to select the right songs, like a DJ.
In contrast to Background Music the Sound Branding Elements are exclusively produced for one brand. However, it is possible to combine these two concepts and integrate Sound Branding Elements into Background Music.

In one of your blog post you said “Overall, sound branding leads to more purchases with a higher value and brings additional value to the brand by strengthening its individual image.” Do you think this can be applicable to the hotel industry?

Well selected Background Music leads to more purchases if the music (including soundscapes) creates a positive atmosphere, hence customers stay longer in the shop and therefore the likelihood of a purchase increases.
The same concept can be applied to the hotel industry. It is key to to identify the different customer touch points in a hotel, to define where it adds value to the customer experience – it doesn’t make sense to have sound in every corner of the hotel.
The second step is to create a unique music program for the hotel brand. The program should have an emotional character which reflects the brand values of the hotel.
An additional step would be to produce individual soundscapes and to integrate Sound Branding Elements of the hotel brand. This creates a unique atmosphere, however; this has to be done in a very professional way, you must always keep in mind to please the customer and to create a positive atmosphere, not an annoying one.
A Case which reflects the power of an individual music program is the Buddha Bar in Paris. The music created not only a special – a unique – atmosphere, it also attracted more people to the bar and restaurant, it generated additional revenue by selling thousands of Buddha Bar CD compilations (http://www.buddha-bar.com/new/en/musique.php) and it generated PR for the restaurant worth hundreds of thousands of Euros.

In resort exotic destinations, the selection of music is usually inspired by the locality, local culture. How do you manage to associate a hotel brand with a type of music when no particular local culture is there to inspire you (and avoid the elevator type of background music)?

The first question is: do you always want a local culture in the music? The answer depends on the hotel brand and on the communication strategy. And still if you want to communicate a specific character with music it can be done by the selection of the a) regional style of the music b) integration of individual produced soundscapes c) integration of Sound Branding Elements.
I will give you an example to make it easier to understand this concept: a hotel chain which chooses Jazz as its main style of music because it has its roots in New York City and the values of Jazz reflect the brand values of the hotel. Now the task is to select jazz songs which fit best to the certain customer touch points at the hotel (e.g. lobby, restaurant, wellness area). In a second step a soundscape and Sound Branding Elements are produced and integrated into the music programm, like a watermark to establish in a very subtle way a unique acoustic atmosphere.

Are you aware of a hotel brand or independent hotel which have used sound branding successfully?

No ! Only sound installations.

What would be your first recommendation to a hotel working on its background music strategy?

To define their brand in a professional way because that’s a major mistake many corporations – not only hotels – make; they define brand values like: high quality service, customer first, friendliness….these are values which are part of every hotels mission statement there is nothing what separates you from your competitors. That’s an experience we make over and over again. But you have to define emotional attributes which make you unique!
That’s the very important first step. If you don’t know where you want to go you end up in the middle of nowhere and that’s how the background music of most hotels sound.
Based on a professional brand definition and positioning you can develop a music strategy and not only a music strategy, the interior design, the architecture and the whole style of the hotel must reflect the brand values and that is the only way to build a unique and strong brand in the mid to long term perspective.

What is a very common mistake hotels usually make when choosing their background music?

They choose generic music, often from a supplier which offers certain music streams (best of 90s, 80s, 70s, 60s and a mix of it). As a result the music sounds very similar inside of the different large hotel chains. Two weeks ago I stayed 4 days at a Maritim Hotel. The music they played sounded like a 24 hours shopping or adult channel – very cheap! It’s such a shame there is so much great music out there it’s just a question of the appreciation of the quality and power of music. If you understand that, you will invest in that powerful and emotional tool.

Web agencies are usually advising hotels against using music on their websites. What is your opinion on that matter? Does music increase the time a consumer spends on the website and do you think it can influence its purchasing habits?

In any case it has to be done in a very subtle way and always give the user the opportunity to turn it off. Whether it increases the time a user spend? If he or she likes it I would assume so, but I haven’t seen any specific research for hotel websites which can prove it.

What hotel chain would you love to “brand”?

Essential for me would be the willingness of the management to approach this issue in a professional way. If this is guaranteed that would be a truly challenging task and a great opportunity for the hotel to make a difference. In addition it would give the hotel great input for PR and opportunities to communicate in social media, e.g. „First hotel with their own Sound Branding & soundscapes“.

The most successful and memorable advertising campaign are often music based. Why is that?

Music affects the unconsciousness of our brain and we can look away but we can not close our ears. And music creates emotional reaction therefore we mainly like or dislike music. This adds up to the power of music. Combined with images it has even a greater impact as George Lucas once said: „50 % of the success of Star Wars comes from the music“.

What project are you currently working on?

A Sound Branding project for an international FMCG, a showroom music programme for a German based car manufacturer (including music programme and soundscapes – fascinating!) and a national Sound Branding project for a mid-sized company.

Thank you very much.

Fabrice Burtin – October 2010

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