Whether it’s an office, restaurant, store, or any place of business with more than a handful of people in the same room, an often overlooked component of audio branding is the aural environment. Most of us aren’t even aware of it. In fact, many of us make conscious and unconscious efforts to drown it out. If you’re in a crowded public place, you’ll see many people doing just that with headphones – they have music playing, they’re conversing with loved ones. A person wearing headphones is not always antisocial. Sometimes they just don’t like how you sound. Some businesses play music in an attempt to drown out sound. Once you venture into the game of sonic escalation, you not only risk increasing the anxiety levels of everyone in the venue, you also risk damaging the hearing of both your patrons and your employees. A typical restaurant averages 80 decibels of sound. To put that in perspective, you’re at risk of hearing loss after prolonged exposure to noise at 85 decibels. Noise has also been found to significantly reduce productivity. More on that later.

If you run a business where you invite the public into a physical space (restaurant, shop, event venue, etc.) you should ask yourself three questions about the sound of the space.

-How much of it is accidental?

-How much of it is desirable?

-How much of it can be designed?

I was in a restaurant recently with a group of colleagues. They were asking about audio branding, so I used the restaurant as an example. We were in a middle-eastern restaurant (which I will not name because I actually love the place apart from its sound).

Visually it was very well laid out, culturally relevant, and very on-brand. Sonically, it left much to be desired. The only sounds, apart from customer conversations, were the loud noises from the kitchen in the back. This is just the sort of noise that people like to tune out with headphones. Instead of kitchen noise, customers should be immersed in on-brand, or in this case, culturally appropriate sounds. In a restaurant with a more international flavour (pun intended), this is especially important because most restaurants aren’t able to diversify their sound. If you run a more traditionally western restaurant, there isn’t as much of an opportunity to enhance your aural environment (and subsequently your brand) with music. In a fast food restaurant, you’ll probably hear contemporary pop music. It’s much harder to take ownership of music that’s already heard by the masses. It’s not as impactful and doesn’t create a unique experience. In addition, the right music in a specialty restaurant gives an increased perception of authenticity.

If we were to provide this restaurant with a multi-sensory branding report card, it might look something like this.

Sight: A – looked great

Sound: F – noisy kitchen, no music

Taste: A – food was unique and tasted great

Smell: D – the place didn’t smell like the food, which was odd

Touch: C – the restaurant was a bit cold, which may have contributed to the lack of smell

I’m a huge fan of Indian restaurants, mostly because of the food, but also because of the environment. I can’t speak for all Indian restaurants, of course, but out of all the ones I have experienced, the aural environment has been spot-on. The kitchen is almost inaudible, conversation flows comfortably, and the music is culturally appropriate.

Appropriate music not only enhances the experience, but also sales. A study entitled What Does Your Brand Sound Like?, authors Johansson and Moradi experimented with congruent and incongruent background music and found that appropriate background music increases sales by 31.7%.

Also important to note that people tend to match their pace to the music they hear. You can use music to slow or quicken people’s pace as desired. Don’t believe me? Ask a DJ. Good DJs are masters of reading crowds and setting their pace. If you want people to stay, slow down the music. If you want them to leave to make room for new customers, play something faster. Depending on your business, you may even want to adjust the music to the time of day. In the broadcast world they call this dayparting.

There’s a famous study that was done in a British wine store where they tailored in-store music to the desired sale. They found on days when they played German music, they sold three times more German wine. On days when they played French music, they sold four times more French wine.

Another thing most business owners don’t consider is the sound of the space. Let’s put music aside for a moment. I’m talking about how the structure and surfaces of a room react to sound. Part of the reason the Indian restaurants sound so good is they tend to have carpeting. I know a lot of people don’t care for carpets. They’re expensive, hard to clean, and often perceived as being dirty. But their greatest benefit is their control of the sound of a room. Carpet is soft, and it absorbs sound. If you have mostly flat, reflective surfaces like stone, glass, wood, and tile, sound tends to bounce all over the room. This results in a loud environment, or an environment that is perceived as loud. In terms of decibels, it may not actually be that loud, but you’re hearing everyone else’s conversations bouncing off the walls, floor, and ceiling. What’s worse is sometimes the music gets turned up louder to compensate which, again, results in an escalation of sound overall, and increased risk of anxiety, hearing loss, and lost revenue. The right aural environment makes people stay longer, and they longer they stay, they more they spend.

Shared workspaces are becoming more and more common. Because they cater to a wide variety of businesses and business people, they tend to have a very neutral look. They have little colour, bare walls and floors, and often high ceilings. I was recently shown a meeting room in one of these spaces. It looked great, but sounded awful. It was very hollow sounding – almost like a bathroom. I remember seeing a conference phone in the middle of the table and thinking I would hate to be the person on the other end of that call.

Open concept spaces are also very in-fashion these days. While they can be aesthetically pleasing, they can be very oppressive aurally. The combination of the reflective surfaces and the many voices bouncing off of them lead to distraction, irritability, and in the end, reduced productivity. In fact, studies have shown that workplace noise can reduce productivity by two thirds.

Funny enough, as pointed out in Julian Treasure’s book ‘Sound Business’, more open concept offices allow room for three times more workers. You could theoretically be paying three times as many people for doing a third of the work that could be accomplished in a sonically comfortable environment.

Of course, there are many environments where volume is welcome and expected, such as sporting events, night clubs, and concert venues. But there are many businesses that want to be quiet and intimate that simply aren’t. If carpet isn’t your thing, put something on the walls to absorb sound. If you’d rather be more decorative than utilitarian with your walls, try the ceiling. It’s the last thing anyone looks at. You can also rearrange the furniture, or put up some shelves. Some of the quietest public, indoor environments are libraries and furniture stores. Libraries tend to have carpeting, but they also have shelves of books, and since those books are not all the same size, they form a surface that is uneven, and therefore non-reflective. Furniture stores not only have shelves and carpeting, but most of their merchandise is soft and curved.  

Branding can’t be limited to logos, typeface, and colours. Sometimes it’s more subconscious and requires a multi-sensory approach. The visual branding landscape is very cluttered. If you want to get an edge and increase profits, start paying attention to the way your environment sounds and what it’s doing to your brand and your profits.