The Four Golden Rules of Sound


Whenever sounds are applied to enhance customer experiences and wherever a soundscape is designed and deployed, I recommend that it should always be created in accordance with the following four Golden Rules of sound.

1. Make it optional

The backlash against music in public places (with consumer groups like PipeDown in the fore) is fuelled by the resentment that arises from being given no choice. We know that the people's irritation with noise increases dramatically when they have no control over the sound source. It follows that we must aim to give people a choice about any sound we inflict on them.

Obviously this is difficult to do in a physical space - though not impossible. Zones with different sounds are one practical solution, as educational establishments with silent reading rooms have long understood. If we can't offer truly optional sound, the next best thing is to target our sound as carefully as possible, so that we upset the smallest number of people. For spaces with a very tight demographic and psychographic user profile, this is not too difficult. Some shops, bars, clubs and restaurants know exactly who their customers are and what they like; in many cases the sound (usually music) acts as a filter, attracting the ‘right' people and warning the ‘wrong' ones to go elsewhere because this is not for them. Buddha Bar and Abercrombie & Fitch are two good examples.

This approach can work in more generalist spaces if music is used as part of an overall zoning policy. For example in a large mall there might be zones for younger and older customers, and music could be a form of signposting to help nudge people in the right direction - maybe club music in the former section and jazz standards in the latter.

The problems arise for generalist spaces that can't or won't operate this kind of zoning. One person's signal is another person's noise, and nowhere is this more true than with music in public. Whatever you play in a mass-market space, you will upset someone. I strongly suggest two actions. First, err on the side of caution: it's better to inject no sound that the wrong sound. There is nothing at all wrong with the sound of people shopping! Second, research carefully before you deploy. Do not let the smooth patter of a music-streaming company persuade you that your customers will naturally love smooth jazz and r&b classics, because they just might loathe them. Use focus groups to ascertain attitudes, and create pilot sites where you run proper quantitative tests that measure the effect of the sound on people's behaviour (see Golden Rule 4).

2. Make it appropriate

Once you've defined what sound would work best for your brand and worked out the most effective way for its application, you will have no trouble in making sure that all the sound you inject into your spaces resonates with your own organisation, brand, products, values, image, practices and so on. This is the first crucial test of appropriateness: is this sound right for us?

The second, of course, is: is this sound right for its context? This is where we explore all the four modifiers in the SoundFlowTM model, taking care to ensure that whatever we design fits with the space's function, acoustics, people and values.

3. Make it valuable

There are far too many shops playing music because they do it next door. I suspect that the world would sound rather different if they all asked the question: what is the value of this to our customers?

Sound can be hugely valuable. It can warn us of danger (smoke alarms); it can inform us of events or of opportunities (radio news; in-store announcements of special offers); it can reduce the boredom of mundane tasks (music in factories); it can entertain, move and inspire us (music); it can guide us (zoning; travel announcements); most of all, it's our primary connection with other humans conversation).

When designing a soundscape, all you need to do is ask how sound can add value for the customer. If you can't answer that question, silence is golden.

4. Test it and test it again

When it comes to measuring the effects of sound, it's what people do that matters, not what they say. This is particularly true when the sound in question is music, because everybody has an opinion about music.

I have found that only two kinds of research into people's opinions are useful. First, it's interesting to run focus groups of customers (or, for larger audiences, customer segments) to understand what sounds they like - not just music - and what they dislike. Auditory ‘mood boards' and specific sounds and music tracks can be used as stimulus material. Second, it can also be useful to research the right demographic groups in larger numbers in order to get quantitative corroboration - but this should not be done by asking questions about the experience of the sound itself. All of this research helps tells us what not to include in the soundscape.

Once we have designed a soundscape or playlist, research questions should be focused on measuring what we're actually trying affect - for example brand affinity, emotional state, general satisfaction or purchasing intentions - and not what people think about the sound. We test the effects of the soundscape by alternating our proposed soundscape with no sound, or the old soundscape, and measuring the differences in effect, not asking people if they like it.

These rules might appear obvious, but it is surprising how many businesses fail to observe them in their application of sound, thus potentially endangering their brands and revenues.

Julian Treasure
Author of the book "Sound Business"; Chairman of The Sound Agency; BrandSoundTM strategist;
Conference speaker



Julian Treasure is author of the book ‘Sound Business’ the first map of the exciting new territory of applied sound for business, and he has been widely featured in the world’s media, including TIME Magazine, The Economist, The Times, UK national TV and radio, as well as many international trade and business magazines. His TED talk on the effects of sound has been widely viewed and highly rated.

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