Blowing our own trumpet A special edition of Soundings devoted to Sound Strategies’ work and expertise
Before the music starts – Michael Spencer explores the changing audio environment. Paribas – managing change. An extended Web Audio Briefing case study. How the French financial services group is ahead of the game but not quite hitting the mark . Sound Strategies News – Liverpool University Management School … Campaign’s Digital Viewpoint feature.
Before the music starts
We were recently invited to participate in a major BBC conference about the future of media. A rewarding occasion indeed, but one that also prompted a frequent explanation of the arena in which Sound Strategies plays a leading role. We felt therefore that it would be worth revisiting this subject in the context of this Newsletter.
Sound Strategies advises on managing aural environments, whether real or virtual. Despite the logic of ‘aural environment’ as a concept, there is little by way of a lingua franca that enables conversations about the subject to progress smoothly without frequent explanatory detours. It becomes tempting to define our work in terms of what we do not do rather than what we do. Example: we do not provide CDs for retail outlets to fulfil their background music requirements.
The new concept of a personalised audio environment has gained credence through the widespread use of the iPod and multi-function portable telephones. Michael Bull’s book Sound Moves (Routledge, 2007) examines the phenomenon in detail. It signals a radical shift in the way people use sound. Prior to the advent of the personal stereo, virtually all managed aural environments (i.e. those over which humans exercised some choice or control) were implicitly designed for communal and communicative purposes. Nowadays, many people use sound as a means of personal isolation – to block out the wider soundscape over which they have no control.
These changes affect the ways people relate to music, whether in the background or foreground. Ironically, increasing choice in terms of available music tracks is going hand in hand with reducing awareness in terms of sensitivity to the everyday sonic landscape. People hear more but they listen less. The mass media often unwittingly prolong this vicious circle by shouting louder and reducing audio content to ever-more-simplistic cliché statements: visual, verbal or musical. Over-familiarity breeds contempt. These are some of the issues that Sound Strategies engages with.
Why are they important?
Because every aspect of business, from corporate communications to marketing to research and development has to progress through and within an audio environment, often – especially with marketing – exploiting sound, music, speech and hearing as a critical success-defining element. They are not mechanistic issues with singular, off-the-shelf solutions to easily-defined problems. There is no longer a universal market serving a mono-culture via prescribed media. In many situations the people involved might not even be aware that the audio environment in which they are working is hindering rather than helping.
Our detailed findings show that staff achieving even a small increase in contextual awareness, understanding and sensitivity to sounds and music can pay sustained dividends in terms of better communication, innovation and more effective marketing.
So our aim, backed with academic and psychological research, is primarily to help you make better and more informed choices about the sonic environments you create whether unwittingly or knowingly; we can show you how to integrate the use of sound into the whole of your positioning programme both at strategic level as a brand driver, and operationally in retail spaces, reception areas, call centres or websites. In this way we ensure that you reap maximum benefits from your audio environments – everyday sounds, music, speech – where they become a positive element integrating with the rest of your corporate communications policies.
Michael Spencer Managing Director
Paribas – managing change (Web audio case study)
We set ourselves a challenge to discover a global financial institution which found ways to exploit audio/video media on its corporate and client-facing websites. And we asked ourselves what we thought would be the questions a corporate communications executive might ask in relation to an audio presence on the web:
How can you present financial information in audio form and why would you want to?
Our website visitors only want to check the balance on their accounts and transfer funds, where does audio come in?
Who would want to listen to a spoken version of their banking assets?
We are a serious financial institution. Why should we allow our image to be denigrated by loud music?
… to which we had to admit initially to being mostly in agreement.
So we found ourselves at first applauding the fact that banking websites are largely a silent presence. (Of the 86 sites visited, 30 percent had some kind of audio element, but of those, only a handful had anything more than an occasional podcast or an interview with a corporate executive – often accessible only by subscription.)
Many corporate websites seem to have been created in the image of their archive storage facility; conceived probably by librarians whose view of the web does not differ radically from their view of a reference library.
This is pre-Web 2.0 thinking, however.
The few Web 2.0 pioneers in the banking world are realising – albeit hesitantly – that providing information, no matter how well catalogued, is simply not enough. There needs to be a context in which that information is accessed and understood. And the context has everything to do with the world beyond banking. However, it can be managed by the company, provided it has access to the right kind of creative and strategic expertise.
Podcasts are appearing with ever-increasing frequency, as if someone had had the idea to switch on the radio in the library foyer. Podcasts are being used to humanise the people who run the bank. From the evidence to date, most are delivered by executives who appear delighted (if not always one hundred percent comfortable) to tell the story with their own voice. Some podcasts are mediated by interviewers and prefaced by excitable rock music in the manner of an up-to-the-minute TV documentary. In others, the microphone or video camera appears merely to have been pointed at the stage of an anonymous conference centre…
Nine months ago, BNP Paribas’ only evidence of audio was a computer-generated voice reading out corporate financial statements. Last week we identified six different audio/video sources on the BNP Paribas website. Clearly, a PR sea-change is taking place. The company has begun to appreciate the importance of multi-media channels in consolidating its brand position – almost alone within the financial services sector. The press page, for example, has all recent news releases available in print and audio – in French and English. Elsewhere, staff reports and interviews are available in audio or video formats, the most impressive being videos where staff deliver the same introduction in the site visitor’s chosen language. The multi-media commitment cannot be faulted, although the results do not always work as well as they could. One of the most prominent of the inserts is a video interview with the CEO on the investors/shareholders page. He is asked a seemingly off-the-cuff question, prompting an extended answer which he is clearly reading from a script on his desk. The effect of informal spontaneity quickly dissipates. And thus the PR and emotional capital is lost.
Elsewhere we discover a corporate video (un film institutionnel – see note). This is the sort of high energy, attention-grabbing assertive presentation which would normally constitute the centre-piece of a landing page. Instead it hides modestly at the bottom of the page d’acceuil under a link called ‘multimédia’. Why? Why did Paribas invest so much time and energy in something which cannot do the job it was obviously intended to do because of where it is placed on the website? At 3’20” duration it is in fact too long for a landing page video and the message (delivered by on-screen text only, no voice-overs) is over-laden with facts and statistics which eventually wash over the viewer with little or no differentiation.
The Paribas corporate video is a good example of how impeccable PR intentions can be diluted by the imperfectly understood functionality of sound and image. It is divided into half a dozen ‘chapters’, focusing on each sector of the bank’s business and ending with its international tennis sponsorship. This kind of content organisation will seem logical and sensible to someone wishing to print a list of attributes and accomplishments, CV style. But in video format, it simply does not work. There is no variety of texture or perspective and no sense of narrative, climax or resolution – essential elements in a medium dependent on the passage of time for its impact.
The effect is exacerbated by an unrelenting rock music underscore edited perfunctorily in line with the subject-matter chapters. The music remains at a constant tempo and highly compressed volume level throughout, but veers randomly across retro-punk, heavy metal and current techno styles, suggesting confusion as to the target demographic. It also makes for bizarre conjunctions with an image collage of banking personnel in suits, sitting in offices, on the telephone, opening doors, etc. The problem with banking is that the activity is not really photogenic – but a more creative approach might have resulted in a better interplay of image and music.
In fact, what we have is a typical pop video approach which unfortunately lacks essential pop video attributes: a sequence of striking original images closely edited to a consistent music track, with lyrical narrative, based on a musical (not an information content) structure. If it were 30 seconds long, it would have a much greater impact and would sit well as a landing page start-up.
It is easy to understand how many of the individual creative decisions were made in putting this video together, but what the exercise appeared to lack is any sense of awareness of how video and music media work in practice and how, strategically, they can combine to the benefit of the brand.
Sitting alongside the corporate video is a condensed, animated version of the annual report, Video of the Year 2007 (see note) which, at 5’30” long attempts an even greater feat of emotional engagement in the face of a blizzard of facts. But one has to wonder whether the person who commissioned the corporate video ever spoke to the person who commissioned the video of the year, such is the degree of overlap and lack of promotional differentiation.
This time there are voice-overs in several languages. In some ways more effective than the corporate video, the script attains a degree of narrative cohesion which focuses the attention. And the image compilation is more varied in both content and pacing. The style is typical of the emerging corporate video, employing unsynchronised techno music underscoring plus overlaid electronic ‘swoosh’ effects delineating each new scene. These are often accompanied by a spiky, swirling visual, giving a sense of thematic unity to the work. An emerging video/audio logo in fact, but completely ignored elsewhere on the site, and having no visual relationship at all to the company’s well recognised graphic of birds/stars on a dark green background. Where was the strategic planning?
Having watched the video several times in various languages, we attempted a content/image/emotion recall. The repeating ‘swoosh’ sound/animation remains in the memory, partly because it appears several times. But it would be hard in the long term to make any connection with the brand. Interesting facts are also recalled: Paribas among the few financial institutions to operate in both global macro- and micro-economic developments, a second life chat-room for potential recruits, humanitarian support post-Hurricane Katrina, tennis, investment in renewable energies, top ranking places in a number of different corporate and financial sectors, international acquisitions, a focus on youth – but some seriously uncool posed photographs of executives…
Perhaps this is good recall for such an exercise. Though we also remember a constant confusion of images, music and speech vying for attention and an off-the-shelf soundtrack which, on its own, would render it indistinguishable from hundreds of other products and brands across the entire retail and corporate sectors.
Away from these presumably key multimedia elements, we came across a rather more modest but potentially much more effective contribution. The core values page is headed by a wonderful animation of the company’s four key values: responsiveness, creativity, commitment and ambition. A simple primary colour background with each of the words tumbling out in a host of different languages, fonts and sizes accompanied by multi-lingual voice-overs (done with beautifully varied expressiveness) and a minimalist music sound track using live orchestral instruments and a subtle hint of contemporary techno rhythms. Done with flair, understanding and artistry. Add to this an animated version of the Paribas logo and the company would have an impressive andflexible multi-media PR tool. It would be fair to say that Paribas has embraced Web 2.0 possibilities with energy and commitment. According its own reporting, the results have been impressive increases in young retail customers and in recruitment. The website appears to be ‘growing like Topsy’, with new elements added almost monthly, presumably commissioned from a variety of design companies. But the lack of any overall sense of audio or visual coherence means that much of the impact quickly dissipates and few lasting impressions remain.
The links are to the French language version of the site. In the English language version, at the time of writing, the on-site links are mistakenly reversed and external links do not function.
Sound Strategies News
Liverpool University’s Management School is discussing collaborative research projects with Sound Strategies, recognising the growing importance of the audio environment to marketing and retail operations.
The UK’s leading advertising journal, Campaign, has invited Sound Strategies to contribute a feature in its Digital Viewpoint series.