The Sound Of Luxury
Robb Report Singapore|November 2021
Designers are engineering aural sensations – a supercar’s roar, a grande sonnerie’s chime – to drill deep into your subconscious and leave a lasting impression. Then you’re hooked. Who knew noise had become so valuable?
Lucy Alexander
NOTHING ABOUT THE feeling of driving a Lamborghini is accidental. According to Maurizio Reggiani, the marque’s chief technical officer, the sensation springs directly from the noise of those 12 screaming cylinders. That high-pitched roar triggers excitement, a key component in a precisely calibrated chain of events that takes your ears, the car, then your stomach from zero to 100 in a little over two seconds.

“When you are in a super-sports car, the sound becomes part of your emotions,” says Reggiani. “It becomes part of your perception of speed. If you hit the gas, you expect to hear a tremendous sound that tells you you are accelerating really fast. In an airplane, when you hear the engines run, you think, ‘OK, my God, now we’re starting’ and after that you start to feel the acceleration. This is exactly the conjunction between what you hear, what you anticipate your body will soon perceive and then what you actually experience.”

The sound of luxury has moved from abstract concept into strategically manufactured reality over recent years, as more and more brands at the highest end of various industries, from champagne to haute horology, attempt to use our aural cavities to seduce us into a subconscious sensory relationship. Why? Because emotional connections are deeper and harder to break than logical ones. But what makes sound emotional? Is a feeling real when it’s been engineered by a scientist or implanted by a marketing consultant? And what form will sensory branding take in an increasingly digital world?

Daniel Jackson has been pondering these questions for longer than most. Indeed, it’s a factor of sensory branding (the field extends to scent, taste and tactility) that the majority of us will not consciously perceive its existence because it is subrational. Jackson, who started his agency, Sonicbrand, in 1999, works with clients including Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, YSL and BMW, as well as mass-market companies for whom he builds logos in sound. Aural branding hit the mass adoption phase about two years ago, he says, citing an Ipsos report that found that audio cues are significantly more effective at capturing consumer attention than visual logos or slogans. These mnemonics, such as the McDonald’s I’m lovin’ it ditty or the Netflix two-stroke drum beat, are now a mass-market must-have.

The approach is completely different at the luxury level, says Jackson, where the practice is not about advertising campaigns but making the sound of the product and the store environment as alluring as possible. A few years ago, Harrods, London’s iconic emporium, commissioned Sound Agency to do an aural overhaul. At the time, “every department was playing unrelated audio”, says Fran Board, the sonic-branding consultancy's creative director. “There were clashes. It was not communicating Harrods’ brand and quality.”

The agency installed a series of soundscapes, ambient background sounds that, Board says, do not “distract you in the way that music might”. In the glassware department, the agency recorded the melodic tones made by the various vases and decanters and used them to create a soundtrack. Now customers peruse sets of crystal tumblers while listening to “the manipulated sounds of glass”, says Board.

She describes soundscapes as aural wallpaper – pleasant but barely discernible. For luxury brands, the aim is the imperceptible seduction of the customer; the incentivisation of purchase via the subconscious. “Soundscapes make people feel happier, calmer and more relaxed,” she says. “People enjoy their experience and are more likely to come back. Chances are that will have an impact on the bottom line.”

The sounds of products also induce emotions that are often a learnt association with the perceived quality of the item. For example, think of the feeling of anticipation triggered by the pop of a champagne cork.

(And while on the subject, the sound of champagne being masterfully opened should not be an obnoxious pop, says Andy Myers, a master sommelier who works with famed restaurateur José Andrés, but a pffft, an exhalation “as quiet as a lover’s sigh”.)

An air hiss is also used by Apple in its packaging to create a sense of drama, says Jackson. “When you open the box for the first time, the way the air sucks out of it has been designed to sound like that,” he says. “It sounds very well-engineered.”

We are often happy to pay more for a product we believe has been precisely crafted, and companies will go to great lengths to reinforce this impression audibly. Jackson recalls advising a luxury-car manufacturer to add extra motors to its electric windows after customers complained they didn’t like the existing uneven tone. In terms of performance, the motor was perfectly adequate for smoothly raising and lowering the windows, he says, but uniformity of sound enhances our perception of quality. According to Jackson, the premium that customers will pay for a product that sounds really well made more than compensated for the cost of the superfluous motors.

The windows are a perfect example of how sensory branding penetrates our belief system at an unconscious level. If you merely tell people that extra-special engineering has gone into a product, their rational brains may doubt your veracity. If you make them hear it and feel it, they are much more likely to trust the evidence of their senses.

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