Is 'share of ear' the next brand battleground?

Marketers have a whole new engagement challenge on their hands as sound becomes the new medium for consumer interaction, writes the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson

Sony’s new R&D unit Future Lab recently unveiled the prototype for a kooky new product — headphones designed to be worn around the neck, so users can still hear the world around them. Introduced at SXSW Interactive, the Bluetooth-enabled gadget, dubbed Concept N, also features voice control and a camera. 

It’s an interesting development, considering the backdrop of Chatbots, Siri, Amazon Echo and Siri currently proliferating in the headlines. Verbal dialogue is becoming an increasingly common mean to request and receive information, shop, and interact with interfaces.

Sound and verbal dialogue is becoming the new medium for our digital interactions. And that poses an interesting challenge to marketers who are still grappling to achieve meaningful engagement with people who are already multi-screening. Will "share of ear" be the next thing we try to measure?

It’s an important question because these audio interactions will likely be an additive layer, not an either-or for our screening habits. Big Screens, Small Screens, Tablets, Apple watches — and all of them multi-screened at once — have chipped away at our attention spans. What will happen with all this stimulus?

A retailer I recently spoke to pitched Millennial attention spans at 12 seconds and Gen Z currently at 8 seconds. To put that into relief, the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. The sheer volume of information Gen Zs are able to simultaneously create and consume is already baffling to many brands. So it will be interesting to see how marketers deal with the additional stimulus of sound.

There’s no doubt that sound in general is becoming a "thing," or focus, among marketers and creative looking to connect with consumers in new ways. Hence, perhaps, Cannes Lions’ addition of Music as its own awards category this year.

Brands have been experimenting for a while with the impact of sound in synesthesia. Many of the booze brands, in particular, have been quick to use sound to create brand experiences, using sound to enhance a flavor or sensation. Artists such as Andy Thomas, an Australian digital creative, have been working on projects like "Synthetic Nature" which turns sounds into Kandinsky-esque digital zoomorphs, explosive, warped, and writhing synthetic organisms made of noise. REIFY, the New York-based Art meets Tech company, has started combining 3D sculptures with music data to create moving visualizations of music tracks.

Sound is being used more creatively in sport and relaxation — used for its immersive powers. In New York and Los Angeles, people are gathering for "sound baths," group experiences where participants focus on the vibrations of tuning forks and singing bowls. Sound is also being used in exercise to create more immersive experiences. See Selfridges’ new pop up with yoga studio Yung Club, which describes itself as the "first 225° immersive yoga, light and sound experience. Our seasonal, sound-reactive, 3D visuals transform exercise into entertainment."

Sound and Music Equipment, as a luxury category, is also being elevated and intellectualized in the wake of the Beats by Dre phenomenon. Sound system brand Sonos has embarked on a series of creative brand activations, including a "Sonic Garden" that translates the data from plant growth and recordings of water and air to create an immersive, interactive installation. It also staged a residency at New York worker hub NeueHouse, exploring "artistic and musical curiosities" and the "intersection of music, art and technology."

Wearpro Mic claims to be the GoPro of sound, allowing consumers to easily record 360 videos that sound as good as they look. Apple, in its move in to luxury, has also started selling uber-luxurious Devialet Phantom speakers in its retail stores. And launched at CES this year was Prizm, a new cognitive speaker that learns your music moods and habits, anticipating what you’d like to hear and at what volume.

As VR continues to proliferate, sound will no doubt become more sophisticated in experiences, used in conjunction with haptic suits (as we’ve seen with VR themepark The Void) to add new layers of immersion.

The opportunity and the challenge for marketers falls in the manifestation. In other words, whether sound is used for exclusion and isolation, or whether it becomes as an extra layer of information and distraction for consumers to interact with on top of their screens.

The former will make it easier to create emotional connections and the latter will make it exponentially harder.  

Lucie Greene is worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson.

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