by Marguerite de Villiers. As marketers, we sometimes underestimate the power of sound. It is so much more than background noise; it is rhythm and rhyme with reason, melodic moments that trigger memories, soundtracks to shared experiences, and a sonic space we live in.


We live in a world of sound. We are alerted by alarm clocks, car alarms, police sirens. Our mood is influenced by soothing sounds of rainfall, eerie background music in scary movies, aggravating sounds of people chewing or clicking pens incessantly. Our memories are invoked by Christmas carols, love songs, nursery rhymes. We live in a realm of sound that we experience differently from one another. We construct sounds; imagine them; experience them; and process them. We create our own soundscapes.

Culturally, oral tradition depends on memory: it enables people to recall and remember stories, events and information. Sound here is a device used to store and recover verbal data. Social scientists are able to trace thought patterns, reasoning frameworks, information transfer systems, and knowledge-preservation techniques by looking more closely at a community’s oral traditions — its music, storytelling, and verbal teachings.

The challenge for us as marketers is to construct soundscapes that are relevant to the consumer’s sociocultural contexts. Here are some examples.

1. Fuelling associations in a flash

Several are harnessing the excitement and unexpectedness of flash mobs. There’s been several, and they’re well-documented on YouTube.

Locally, an Engen garage in Cape Town surprised motorists with a flashmob performance of a popular local song, Burn Out by Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse. It used, to its advantage, the already-favourable associations people have with this song to create a shared experience of sight, sound and performance.

2. Effective echoes

Have you ever heard that syncopated rhythm of pop, pop, pause and been able to identify it as the unmuffled rumblings of a Harley Davidson? It is a trademark sound that we immediately associate with a brand before we even see it. It triggers a specific association and evokes particular responses when we hear it.

Marketers sometimes refer to this effect as the ‘sonic boom’ — the ability to connect with a consumer through the use of sound. The Sound of Porsche made use of this sonic boom in its innovative sound-driven campaign that allowed consumers to interact with the brand in a new way.

3. Evoking emotions and invoking ideas

Music is often used as a tool to evoke emotional responses, or to invoke physical reactions. On a quiet night, a restaurant might play slow music to relax consumers and encourage them to extend their consumption. During a busy shopping time, some stores play up-tempo music to create a chain reaction of sped-up purchases, shortened queues, and increased volumes of shoppers.

For many South Africans, Johnny Clegg’s music is the soundtrack to our lives. We are instilled with a sense of pride when Impi echoes in the rugby stadium; we tear up when we hear Great Heart and are reminded of the movie Jock of the Bushveld; we crave a beer when we hear Osiyeza (The Crossing), and we mourn our troubled past when we hear Asimbonanga — a song written for Nelson Mandela while he was in prison. Woolworths drew on this shared musical experience in what was meant to be part of its Operation Smile Christmas Campaign, but changed into a tribute to Madiba after his passing. This provoked deep-rooted memories and emotions, and further entrenched a connection between consumers and the Woolworths brand.


Marguerite de VilliersMarguerite de Villiers is an anthropologist at strategic marketing consultancy, Added Value.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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