Online retail had already been experiencing massive growth before the arrival of COVID-19 — and then the pandemic hit. According to recently published data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index, the abrupt shift to quarantine and social distancing measures accelerated the rise of e-commerce by about five years. Unsurprisingly, the same trends behind the surge in digital shopping have led to a rapid decline in sales at brick-and-mortar retailers. For example, fashion retailers were forecast to lose $640 billion in sales by the end of 2020.
In order to remain competitive, department stores and other “nonessential” retailers must move quickly to set up digital storefronts and develop omnichannel marketing capabilities. While many brand elements easily translate to the digital environment, retailers also have the opportunity to implement new customer outreach tactics. Among these, sonic branding — which relies on audio channels to engage would-be shoppers — has become increasingly important for 2020 and beyond.
Traditionally, brick-and-mortar retailers have had two avenues to speak with shoppers. The first is through telephone. When customers call with questions about hours or inventory, they often interact with a human representative or automated recording. The other is through in-store audio systems. Many retailers share announcements about seasonal sales or product releases and play music that reflects their brands’ personalities and adds to the ambiance of the shopping experience. (Some outlets like Old Navy even make their store playlists available on Spotify.)
Auditory interactions aren’t limited to just telephones and audio systems, however. They also include commercial jingles, digital ads, telephone hold music, website interaction sounds, among others. All of these touchpoints create a sonic brand: the unique soundscape that reinforces a retailer’s tone and personality. As shoppers shift online, retailers will need to explore how to best connect with customers who can’t touch, taste or smell the products they’re buying. Distinct sonic branding presents an opportunity to connect with them in the absence of other senses.
How Retailers Can Hone Their Sound
As retailers begin to explore sonic branding, they should start by conducting a thorough analysis of all the auditory channels through which customers experience their brands. This could include platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify and iTunes; voice-activated devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa; marketing channels such as television, radio and podcasts; and toll-free phone numbers that customers might dial to receive assistance. Social media also presents a unique opportunity for retail businesses to sonically connect with customers.
As retailers assess each channel, they should focus on these four attributes:
- Accessibility: Retailers will want to make sure their audio messaging is multilingual, especially if their audiences are global. Where applicable, retailers should use subtitles to ensure that audiences who can’t hear their messages can still receive them via text.
- Artistic quality: If retailers are relying on spoken messages, professional voice talent is essential. Likewise, music and other sound effects will reflect brands’ attitudes and personalities. Retailers should professionally craft these elements and align them with brand elements used elsewhere.
- Technical requirements: All audio should be normalized to broadcast standards of -3 decibels with a noise floor below -60 decibels. Room tone should be minimized, and equalization should cover the full spectrum of frequencies.
- Documentation: Retailers’ brand standards should ideally be documented in a style or brand voice guide. If existing documentation doesn’t cover auditory channels, they should update it as they begin to implement sonic branding.
When retailers have a distinct brand voice, it’s possible to achieve a strong emotional connection with audiences. But first, they need to know what kind of emotional relationship they want to create. Do they want to inspire feelings of health and sustainability? Do they want to convey toughness? Or could it be that they want to build a reputation for being fun and lighthearted? Whatever retailers’ branding goals may be, sound — with its incredible ability to evoke an emotional response — can help as they meet customers online.
David Ciccarelli is the founder and CEO of Voices.com, the largest marketplace for audio and voiceover products and services in the world with over 1 million business and voice actor registered users.
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David Ciccarelli is the founder and CEO of Voices.com, the largest marketplace for audio and voice-over products and services in the world with over one million business and voice actor registered users. David is responsible for setting the vision, executing the growth strategy, creating a vibrant culture, and managing the company on a day-to-day basis, and he's frequently published in outlets such as The Globe and Mail, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal.