Eric Singer joins us from sonic branding company Coupe Studios Music + Sound Design. Coupe also produced this special episode for Future of Marketing with sound designer Taylor Marvin adding unique sound design and other sonic sweetening.
In his words, Eric shares:
- The science behind audio
- Audio vs. Video
- What it takes to build sonic brands
Learn more about Coupe Studios, and their work on podcasts, advertising, and film at coupestudios.com
Sonic Branding ft. Eric Singer, Executive Producer at Coupe Studios Music + Sound Design – Future of Marketing
What do you do for a living? What does your day-to-day look like?
I’m in the studio in Boulder, Colorado every day, and we’re a team of about a dozen composers, producers, and sound designers.
We’ve got a seven-studio facility in Boulder. We partner with ad agencies and also directly with brands to create audio for really all kinds of media. I’ve been at Coupe for 17 years. I’m still kind of the new guy. And to answer your question about a typical day, I don’t know that I’ve had a typical day yet in 17 years.
One of my favorite things about what we do is that it’s different every day. We might be working with an ad agency to produce a good old-fashioned jingle for a radio commercial down the hall. Our casting director could be sourcing voiceover talents in half a dozen different languages for a TV commercial that’s getting localized for multiple markets. Hello. And another studio.
We might be creating intro music for a podcast or creating custom sounds for an app or video game. And then we also. Compose music and work on sound for movies and TV shows. Banded audio is definitely our focus, but we also work on, I don’t know what you’d call it, more artistic audio. We tend to work a lot on documentary films and outdoor sports movies, of course, being in Colorado kind of stuff that you’d see on National Geographic or Red Bull TV, things like that.
Is there a specific project that you loved doing or being part of?
There are a lot because the studio’s been around for 40 years. But I would say our favorite kind of project would be when we get to create a full sonic brand for an organization.
So when we think about Sonic brands, the first thing that comes to mind I think for most people is an audio logo. So think for McDonald’s, parapapapa. So, we did not originally write that one. There’s a huge amount of controversy over who did come up with that, but we’ve created multiple adaptations of it for McDonald’s commercials.
We think about these audio logos, they tend to be short, usually under three, seconds, but then there are longer ones as well. Things like that verge on the territory of jingles as a longer-form piece of content. But that’s not all that goes into a sonic brand.
So an audio logo is usually the most visible, for lack of a better word, a piece of a sonic brand. But there are also things like longer-form music and signature voice talent. And then of course just an overall sound aesthetic. So if it’s a brand that has an app, we might be creating sounds for that app that are all cohesive and fit within this universe that represents the brand.
So just as most organizations have a visual brand and often a visual brand book to describe how we use our visual logo. How do we talk about ourselves in terms of language? What fonts do we use? All that stuff that goes into a visual brand book. We create those same kinds of things on the audio side. A really exciting time to be doing this.
Like I said, we’ve been doing it a long time, but in recent years there has been so much more of a focus on this and an understanding of how powerful it is.
What is the relationship between user-generated content and audio?
User-generated content is one of the absolutely most powerful ways a brand can possibly connect with its consumers. And to me, that comes down to two things that guide our approach at Coupe.
And they are, I think, the reason why UGC is so powerful – those are authenticity and credibility. We all know that when a brand is telling us something, they’re trying to sell us something. That’s our job as marketers, right? So if a McDonald’s billboard shows us a picture of the most beautiful Big Mac you’ve ever seen, we know it’s not authentic. We know if we go order a Big Mac, it isn’t going to look like that, so it’s not credible either. But if someone I know posts a pic of The Greatest Burger ever made, I’m gonna believe it. Everything about it. I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than the authenticity of that.
Likewise, with employee-generated content, I’m not really on social media except LinkedIn because I’m old. But I follow a ton of people, hardly any brands, and a lot of the time, the company’s employees are posting the exact same thing, but I inevitably scroll right the hell past the company post. Whereas, I’m so much more likely to engage with something that’s posted by an employee or a user, especially if it’s someone I know either personally or by reputation.
How do you keep up to date with your industry, because it’s such a specific niche? Are there any specific blogs or resources that you recommend for people who are interested in this space?
I still read AdAge and Adweek. Those are the classics. But even as an old guy, I honestly find that they’re less and less relevant. My favorite websites these days are The Drum and Little Black Book. On the podcast side, there are a couple that I absolutely love that I would recommend to our listeners. One is 20,000 Hertz that’s produced by Defacto sound.
It’s not necessarily about marketing. In fact, it’s usually not, but they do have a couple of episodes specifically about sonic branding.
For anyone who appreciates a really well-produced creative podcast, that’s one I would highly recommend. Another one that’s more generally about advertising is called Talking to Ourselves. Omid runs an agency now out of Atlanta with Shaquille O’Neal as his partner, and he talks to the smartest people in advertising. I’d highly recommend it to anybody who wants the insider view of big-time, very creative advertising.
What is something surprising that you’ve learned in the last couple of months?
I’m gonna go even more recently than that. Something I learned last night with my kids.
We were talking about Jurassic Park. They’ve been watching the animated series, and we started talking about the sounds that are in the Jurassic franchise. And I learned that among the various sounds used to create the dinosaur noises in Jurassic World are the sounds of tortoises mating.
And this shouldn’t have been that surprising to me cuz we play that kind of trick all the time with what we do when we’re working on, let’s say a soundtrack for a ski film and there’s an avalanche that takes place in that film. Even though it’s a documentary we have this idea that a documentary is real – everything about it is real. And of course, that’s always the intention with a doc, but we do take liberties with sound.
For the sound of an avalanche, we’ll certainly have in there the sound of an actual avalanche. And you have to remember that in a lot of film production, there is very little, sometimes no sound, actually being captured on set. Imagine a shot of an avalanche that’s being taken from a helicopter. There’s no way you’re gonna capture any real sound of that. So we will play around with different layers of sound.
So maybe there’s a real avalanche sound that we have in our library that’s playing a role, but then underneath that, we will play with other things to create a feeling. So what do we want the viewer to experience when they look at that avalanche that’s chasing the skier down the mountain? We want to give this sense of fear, anxiety, and panic.
So we layer in things underneath that avalanche sound that are buried too deep in the mix for you to consciously register what they are. They can affect you on a really visceral, primal level. So we’ll put in things like a jet engine, a roar of a tiger, bury them, manipulate them, play around with them so that they just create the emotion that we want to convey it.
You can’t believe everything you hear.
How did you even get into this? What path did you take?
Yeah, so I studied communications in college and I thought I wanted to be a radio DJ and I quickly realized that it’s very hard to make a decent living on radio, but through radio, I started getting voiceover gigs, which is way easier and way more lucrative than being on the radio.
So I started doing VO and then I did some marketing and PR work. And then I had a very drastic shift in careers and ran off to Europe and played three seasons of American football living in Germany. And then I came back to New York and got a job with NFL films and started doing production.
After that, I moved back to Colorado and was managing and producing the band Meniscus, and they were recording an album here at Coupe Studios. The album took nine months to mix, so I was spending a lot of time here, and ultimately that led to me getting a really entry-level job here – basically working the front desk, making coffee, getting lunch orders for people together, stuff like that.
And half a dozen years later or so, I worked my way up through really no particular skills of my own, just incredibly good timing and the grace of our founder Scott, who brought me in as a partner eventually.
Is there anything you feel marketers in general or maybe even people who are interested in your field should stop doing?
I’m gonna give an answer that you’re gonna hate and probably most people listening are gonna hate but hear me out… TikTok.
There are a couple of major objections that I have. Mostly it’s the privacy concerns also that so much of the content is just making us as a society dumber, and not to say that all the content there is bad. Some of it is not only good, but really important in terms of social justice and other areas, and it’s obviously become a huge tool for marketers.
But, to me, the keystroke logging, sharing of our data with the Chinese government and other privacy concerns are too much for me to take, and I just refuse to believe that we can’t develop a new platform that can do all the things that TikTok does well. And then some. We could build a better platform than that.
Yes, it’s a hot take. It’s gonna be very unpopular. So sorry. I took a big risk there and I’m surely going to pay for it.
What is something you want marketers or brands to do more of?
Okay. Safer question.
No surprise here. I’m gonna say, I think people in the marketing space should start paying more attention to audio. It’s so often an afterthought. This usually happens when we’re working with an ad agency rather than with a brand directly. When we’re working with a brand directly, we’re able to guide the process more so that audio does get the attention it deserves.
But oftentimes when we’re working with an ad agency, we’ll see the boards for a TV commercial, let’s say, and it is obviously very music-driven. So why is it that music is the last thing that people think about, and sometimes in those cases, it might be a few hours to: “Hey, we need a piece of music to edit, to, can you get us options in the next couple hours?”
Yeah we can, but that’s not how we do our best work. So I’d love to see us paying more attention to not only music but audio in general.
One of the things that I talk a lot about when I speak about sonic branding is the science behind audio. Hearing affects us more quickly than any other sense. It engages before vision. It affects us more deeply and embeds itself in our memory far more deeply than visual media do. There’s been a huge amount of research done on this.
One of the studies that I like to cite was conducted at the University of Lester in the UK. They discovered that brands that use music that’s aligned with their identity are 96% more likely to be remembered by the consumer. That’s huge, right? But we know this, right? Intuitively, we know that, that’s why we call them earworms.
There was another study that was done by Ipsos a few years back, and this study was not intended to be about sonic branding or sound at all, but what they did was they covered 2000 some different television commercials and they measured audience responses in terms of how different brand assets affected brand impact.
So they looked at things like packaging, shape, color, and celebrity endorsers. What they found was that Sonic brand elements outperformed every single other metric they looked at, including the huge items like visual logo or slogan. Another thing that they found is that brand assets that leverage the power of the brand, like characters, and Sonic Brand cues deliver more attention than assets that are borrowed from a wider culture like celebrities. And I think that’s an important thing to consider when you’re weighing the costs and benefits of either licensing a popular piece of music or creating a song that’s truly ownable. And we work with brands on both of those.
Sometimes there are cases where licensing a song that’s really popular right now or was really popular 40 years ago for that matter – that can be a really effective tool for the brand.
But in general, if you can create something that’s ownable, the science shows that it tends to be a much more powerful way to reach the audience.
I love the science behind that. When you dig a little deeper and you think about, okay, why is that hearing engages us so quickly and so deeply? And it’s an evolutionary thing, right? So if you think back to our past, if we’re out there in the wilderness thousands of years ago, you hear the sound of a twig snapping behind you.
You’ve gotta react instantly to that sound or you’re out of the gene pool, so we’ve really been genetically selected for being primed for audio.
One more science geek-out fact. Another reason that it affects us so much is that it’s our first sense.
So when we’re in the womb, before we’re even born, our first contact with the world is sound. We hear our mother’s heartbeat. We hear our mother’s voice and not only do we hear these things before we experience any other senses, but we actually learn to interpret meaning out of those sounds so we know that a heartbeat that’s slow, 60 beats per minute. We know that mom is in a relaxed state. When we feel an elevated heart rate, we know that she’s not.
What does the future of marketing look like to you, especially from an audio perspective?
Yeah, so one thing that we’re seeing in the very near term is advertising in podcasts, ad spend next year on podcast ads is predicted to be over 2 billion in a category that was barely on the map before.
And the cool thing to me about advertising in podcasts, particularly when you have the host doing the read, is that it’s almost another version of user-generated content, so I think back to my youth growing up, listening to Howard Stern, he was the pioneer of this. You hear a regular commercial on the radio on Saturday from 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM, and most of us tune it out. But when Howard personally tells you about a product, you listen a lot harder.
Beyond that trend, I think also in the near term for audio marketing, we’re gonna see some really cool things coming out with interactive audio ads platforms like Alexa, but also other platforms where you’ll actually engage with an ad by talking back to it.
As long as we’re talking about Alexa, custom skills are another area that we work with brands on a lot as our invocation words, so that’s something that’s probably too technical to get into today. But if people are interested in talking more about that, they should get in touch with us and we’ll take ’em to school.
I think that one of the biggest benefits of using audio for branded content is that it fits so much less intrusively in people’s lives. To engage with video content, you need to stop what you’re doing and look at your phone or your screen. You can listen to a podcast or other audio content on your commute while you’re out for a run, while you’re thinking you’re multitasking, but probably doing a bad job of everything.
It’s interesting just to see how the podcast space has grown because back in the day, people are like, Oh, a podcast. Weird. And now, if you have a podcast, it’s the coolest thing in the world. And then as it grows, obviously there’s gonna be more competition and the quality will improve.
You’re right. I’m always grateful to people producing podcasts in the way that you are, and that pay attention to audio quality. Cuz I think we’re still in this sort of, I won’t say an early stage of evolution, but there are still podcasts that are getting thousands of listeners, tens of thousands of listeners that have crappy audio quality. And I think as the market matures exactly as you just said, we’re going to see the quality increase.
What do you feel marketers tend to struggle with?
Something that advertising and marketing have always struggled with, frankly, is understanding the target audience and speaking to them. Your generation is fixing this, but we still have a long way to go.
We’ve got this long history in advertising of male writers writing incredibly sexist copy. It’s crazy.
As content creators, we need to bring in people who talk the talk and walk the walk, and I think that we have to solve it in two different ways. We need to learn how to talk to people who aren’t exactly like us, but even more importantly, we as an industry need to start hiring people who aren’t exactly like us. If you are trying to sell a product to 20-somethings, you should probably have some 20-somethings either on your team or at the very least, weighing in really heavily on your strategy and execution.
And the same goes in reverse. If you are marketing a retirement community, let’s say, it’s gonna be really hard if your whole team is under 30 years old. I think Ageism is a thing in advertising for sure and becoming more if we don’t get smart about who we’re hiring and who we value as content creators.
Good point. Why not have your target audience in the same room as you? What is a book, a podcast, or a person that you feel shaped your career? What was the turning point?
I feel like I should pick a podcast here, but I’m gonna mix it up and pick a book. It’s called Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris.
It’s a series of interviews with well Titans like the title says, and it’s everybody from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sean White. So you know, you’ve got actors, business people, authors, musicians. It’s across the board just people who kick ass at whatever they do. It covers all kinds of stuff. But the biggest thing for me, personally, was realizing that nearly every person in that book has a meditation or other mindfulness practice. It is just an incredibly helpful tool. For becoming better able to observe your own thoughts and feelings and not fully identify with them.
That totally changed my life and improved my life professionally and personally more than anything else I have ever done.
Where do you get your inspiration?
The number one source of my inspiration is my chronic insufferable insomnia. 90% of my best ideas arrive between like midnight and 5:00 AM but more than that, though, that’s a tongue-in-cheek answer. I think the real answer here is that it’s the people I get to work with every day.
Our composers, producers, and sound designers blow my mind every single day. We all love what we do, and we show up every day knowing that we’re all going to give 110% and kick ass for our clients and for each other. And there’s no competitiveness. But there is definitely a culture here of bringing your A-game to every project you touch because you know that everybody else on the team is coming in guns blazing.
We love to quote the motto: “good enough isn’t around here.”
I think we all just know how lucky we are to get to make a living doing what we do and to do it where we do it. Other people in this space are almost all located in New York or Chicago or LA or in other huge markets, and to be able to do audio on a global scale and work with the size clients we do and live in Colorado, it’s pretty awesome.
How do you wind down from a long day of work – other than meditating?
I’d love to give some deep spiritual answers, but I’m gonna be real with you right now… I smoke a lot of weed. I am in Colorado. I’m in the music industry. I feel like I’m not going too far out on a limb to reveal that here.
What are you excited about or looking forward to?
I’m excited about everything. I’m a highly excitable person. Let’s see, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Broken Bells. Two of my favorite bands are about to drop new albums. That’s exciting, right? Staying with music… If you know anything about music, the history of music that essentially everything we all listen to these days comes from New Orleans. Without New Orleans, we have no rock and roll. We have no hip-hop. We don’t even have country. We don’t really have anything but bluegrass and chamber music, and those of us who make our living in music owe that city, and particularly the black musicians of New Orleans, everything. We couldn’t make a living doing what we do without them. And right now we are in the early stages of launching something that is going to give back to that community, not through charity, but through putting them to work, and doing what they do.
It’s probably too early for me to talk much more about it, but I’m gonna ask you to come back on the show when it’s ready to go if you’ll have me.
That’s something I’m excited about doing, but I’m just as excited about something that I’m just gonna watch and that is seeing what your generation and my kids’ generation are gonna do with this powerful platform that we as marketers and advertisers have.
We have the power to shape culture. We always have. We can steer national conversations, international conversations, in new directions. We can steer things in the direction of progress and more social justice. Sure, our job is to sell stuff, right? But we’ve got the power to enlighten people, not just to entertain them or to get them to buy more.
I think a lot of people are getting into this business for the right reasons, and we have the power to change society for the better.
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