Interview: Sound Designer Max Kickinger about how personalized sound branding can improve sales

In my wrap-up post about the MC2012 conference in june I mentioned Max Kickinger, a professional sound designer, or, better: sound brander. At the MC2012-Salzburg, he gave a very insightful and entertaining presentation about what professional sound design is, how it is being done and, most important, how it can majorly contribute to making your company stick out and being remembered in a positive way.

Copyright Max Kickinger, all rights reserved!Sound branding, to me, is one of these (actually not so) little aspects of marketing that sourrounds us every day, yet we never think about it. Things like the famous Nokia-ringtone come to mind, which was omnipresent until a few years ago. Nowadays, if a certain ringtone sounds, five people in the same room instinctively reach for their Apple smartphone. Just two examples of what soundbranding can do.

Max Kickinger was kind enough to give us a pretty detailed interview in which he explains the concept in detail and stresses the importance of audible recognizability for all sorts of companies – including mass customization ventures!

FTP: Max, at the MC2012 you presented the concept of soundbranding. Since certainly not everybody is familiar withthe exact implications of that term, can you, as a professional, give your definition of what sound branding realyis – and what it is not?

MK: Sure! Soundbranding is a process of defining, creating and implementing a unique and recognizable soundprofile for a brand. Just the same as brands are used to do in the visual domain. Like most brands have a distinct typefont, colors,images and so on, we believe that every brand should have it's own sound. Having your own sound is an indispensable part of every brand.

FTP: What can sound branding do for a company? Do you deliver more or less a recognizable jingle?

MK: Well, it goes far beyond a single piece of music. Finding the right music in particular, for example a jingle, is an aesthetic process. Defining a Sound Identity for a brand is a much more strategic objective for the brand. This means defining ground rules how a brand deals with it's sound. The basic questions are: where does a brand sound, how does it sound and in which situations silence is more appropriate. We make sure, that everyone dealing with the brand has the framework for the right sound at the right time.

FTP: Can you give/ do you know of any numbers/ examples of how soundbranding notably increased sales/revenues for companies?

MK: Just think of T-Mobile Soundbranding for example. Their Soundlogo consists of two notes and is in it's shortest under one second long. With just one second of sound we, the consumers and listeners learned a whole set of values and propositions the brand stands for. Not that I am saying, that this comes all out of the Soundlogo itself, but the brand acted accordingly to combining it's sound to it's values. Something like this has to be built up and doesn't come overnight – so at first it is an investment into your brand, that pays of when it lowers your cost of music in the following years.

Times are getting more complex. I think brands create orientation in a complex world. Having your customers recognize you in this world pays off for every brand. So I think it‘s not easy to say how much money let‘s say T-Mobile made by having a distint visual identity, but I can tell you it would be less if they hadn‘t. It‘s exactly the same with the sound.

FTP: And how does the process work? Imagine I would ask you to sound brand my MC company, producing, say, customized handbags?

MK: It would be a pleasure. The process workes in modules. First we analyse your brand soundwise. Where does your brand already sound and what does it sound like. Then we take a look at other brands in your market segment, because we sure don't want to sound like they do. Once we've done that together we work on the question "What do we want to sound like?" After these Soundworkshop there will be the creative compositional brief for the composers. In most cases this would be me or a team of talents, that are just perfect for a particular music style. Of course everthings gets documented in the Sound Guidelines and stored properly in your own Sounddatabase. So that everyone working on and with the brand is involved and informed how to get the right sounds for the right occasion. From that point on, we accompany your brand to check if everything works smoothly.

FTP: How important do you think sound branding can be especially for our readers being interested in or professionals on the mass customization market?

MK: It think brands are about the experience. First and foremost music is somehow the customisation of your life. Many people show who they are, by playing you their favorite music. Brands can open up to this and deliver customized music experiences for their consumers, that just fit's their taste perfectly. Of course also in a formal approach, that allows you to be still recognizalbe as a brand soundwise.

FTP: Are there differences between a traditional company and an MC one in terms of sound branding? Do you recommend / have to take a different approach when it comes to designing and establishing their sound brand?

MK: I think every brand or company has it's unique DNA. And companies can be a very complex thing. In every case the process of creating a Soundbrand is of course defined by the brand itself and in most cases it is only as good as the brand knows who they are and what they stand for. We make sure, that our process works fine in finding what makes your brand special and build something, that is unique to you. Of course there a numbers of possiblities, that you can open your Soundchannels for your customers. Just look at the example Nokia Own Voice. People can record there own and others voices for the commands of the navigationsystem on their mobile device. It's just a perfect example of how customziable sound and product go together.

FTP: Many MC ventures are small(er) ones. Do you think sound branding can lead to a significant competitive advantage for small companies (MC and traditional alike)? Are the costs worth it, at that stage, so to say?

MK: Even the smallest companies have sound – think for example of your voicemail on your telephone. Even if you are a one man or woman brand. When it comes to costs it of course makes a substancial difference if you hire us for a whole soundbranding or for creating the right tonality for your voicemail.

FTP: What do you think about mass customization in general, will it be "just a trend" or become the business model of the future?

MK: I think mass customization is a huge opportunity to give your customers the chance to be a part of your brand. In the end it is a good proposition to make, since you as brand always try to be a part of your customers life as well. So why not open up and give your customers the chance to do that? I think as a brand now more than ever you have to be relevant or useful to your customers and I see a huge set of opportunites for the mass customisation market to play a role in this endeavor.

FTP: Max, thank you very much for this interview! It will be interesting to follow development in this field and I hope to write about some MC related projects of yours in the future.

More information about Max Kickinger and your options when deciding to get your own sound branding can be found on the official company website.

About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.