Season: 1   |   Episode: 3

Steve Keller

Steve Keller - The MCA Prodcast

This week on The MCA Prodcast Pat Murphy talks to Steve Keller, Sonic Strategy Director at Studio Resonate, an in-house audio-first creative consultancy, offering support to brands that advertise on SXM Media’s platforms: Pandora, SiriusXM, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

Steve is recognised as one of the leading experts in the field of sonic strategy and identity. With a head for data and a heart for sonic expression, he actively engages in collaborative research projects, exploring the power of sound to shape our perceptions and influence our behaviour.

Steve discusses the role that audio plays in everyday life, and how it can shape our relationship with brands – not just through advertising, but also physically in-store, on social media, through voice assistants or even on-hold! Steve considers why audio is so often left as the last consideration when creating an ad campaign, and reminds us that it should be a priority from the very start.

Steve also talks about a fascinating psychoacoustic experiment he was involved in; hear how playing Hip Hop music to cheese as it aged actually affected the flavour!

Diversity and Inclusion is a focus for many organisations and Steve reveals that it should also be a consideration in audio, as race, gender and age are not only cues that audiences pick up on visually. Steve discusses some research he’s being working on that shows the impact of the voices we hear, and the importance of diversifying those.

Watch Steve’s favourite ad: Coca-Cola – Hilltop

 

Hosted by Pat Murphy

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Pat Murphy:

Hi, and welcome to The MCA Prodcast, your fix for everything innovative in advertising production.

I’m Pat Murphy, and I’ve been working in this industry for more than 30 years, and I’ve seen a lot of changes, but know that there are many more around the corner. Each week on the prodcast. You’ll get to hear from one of the movers and shakers, the best of the best in the world of production for the future. And we’ll dive into some of the key challenges facing our sector today and how we’re best placed to overcome them.

Today you’re going to meet Steve Keller. Steve Keller is Sonic strategy director for studio resonate S XM media’s in-house audio. First creative consultancy offering support to brands that advertising on the Pandora, Sirius XM, Stitcher, and SoundCloud platforms recognised as one of the world’s leading experts in the field of Sonic strategy, blending art and science into award-winning Sonic strategies and creative content for a variety of global agencies and brands. With a degree in psychology and over 30 years of experience in the music and advertising industries, Steve works and explores the ways, music and sound impact consumer perception and behaviour. Steve welcome to MCA’s Prodcast today. It’s so great to have you here.

Steve Keller:

Thanks pat. I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you for the intro. I’ll try to live up to the hype as best I can, but I’m looking forward to conversation with you.

Pat Murphy:

Fantastic. Look, Steve: Most people relish the enjoyment that music and sound brings. I’ve loved music ever since I was very young lad, even dabbling in DJing on the radio for myself. But you have a background and degree in psychology. That must give you interesting insights in the role that music and sound plays in people’s lives and how powerful it can be?

Steve Keller:

Yes, I mean, it’s certainly been powerful in my life. We all have these – I call ’em the soundtracks of our lives – where there are different points that we’ve associated a song or a sound from childhood or special events in our life that, that imprint our life. And we come back to those sounds and pieces of music quite often. And I’ve always been fascinated in what’s happening in our mind and with our physiology, our psychology, our brains. And it’s not that I want to take the magic out of it because even understanding the science, there’s still magic there! But it is fascinating to kind of understand how, if we know these principles we can actually use the music building blocks to really shape perception and cognition and use music and sound in really powerful ways.

Pat Murphy:

Yeah. And you talk about music being the soundtrack to people’s lives. That’s so true. Everyone remembers the very first record they ever bought or, or CD if you’re a little bit younger, of course!

And certain moments in your lives, whether it’s the first boyfriend, girlfriend, or whatever, you always remember the music that went around those kind of occasions. I always remember the very first record that I bought. It was Abba <laugh> back in 1973 and Waterloo. So that was the very first, I even remember the color of the label, the epic label that had on it as well. So yeah, it’s amazing how powerful that is. And it sticks in your mind all this time.

Steve Keller:

Yeah. I, and for me as a child I grew up in West Virginia, which is a, a state that has a lot of coal. So there was a lot of coal mining. And as a kid early in the mornings, I would hear the, the train whistles as the coal mining trains would move through the valley. And to this day, whenever I hear that sound, when a train approaches an intersection, and there’s a particular sequence of notes that are used to, to communicate that they’re coming into an intersection, it takes me right back to when I was a kid and, and hearing the trains in the early morning.

Pat Murphy:

Absolutely look so many marketers and agencies, they focus on the visual representation of an ad and the copy that accompanies it. But so often music gets left to last in the process of making an ad. Why is that, do you think?

Steve Keller:

Yeah, it’s, it’s fascinating to me that particularly, you know, in ads that are audio visual, you know, the audio is set at least 50% of the multisensory input that, that you’re getting. And yet we spend all of this time thinking about the shoot, the actors that we’re going to have the colours, the background, and then we get into editing and it’s, ‘I guess we need a piece of music underneath this. Let’s throw something in and see what sticks’, or maybe there’s a voiceover announcer that’s added later because there’s a script and that hasn’t been thought about before. And when you know how powerful music is when, you know, you can change that visual narrative in an instant simply by changing the sound underneath it. It’s always surprising to me that still, this is a, a habit that we have in the advertising and marketing industries of not thinking about the Sonic implications of advertising early on.

Pat Murphy:

I saw you wrote in an Ad Week article that brands need to harness the power of audio to compete. How do they kind of take steps to get this right then?

Steve Keller:

I think you know, there has to be an intention behind it. You know, my title as you mentioned in the introduction is Sonic strategy director and folks often ask me, what does that mean, Steve? I mean, it’s a cool title, but what do you really do?

Pat Murphy:

It’s a great question. First of all cool title, right? But also what is Sonic strategy to people who don’t know, explain what that means?

Steve Keller:

The simplest way I’ve come to explain it is that my job is really blending sound science with sound art, to help our clients make sound decisions. And this ladders back to your previous question. And I think what we need to do is begin to think about the decisions we’re making about sound. Why would we choose this piece of music? Why would we choose this voiceover? Should there be sound design, should there not be sound design? And we can use science to inform the creators that work with sound how they can use sound to get to particular outcomes that we’re looking for. And that’s the strategy piece. And we know from research, when you get it right, it has a powerful impact. And if you’re not paying attention, you can get it wrong. And it can have just as powerful, a negative impact on a brand if you’re not getting it right.

 Pat Murphy:

So at what point in the process of making an ad, should clients be thinking about their Sonic strategy or audio strategy?

Steve Keller:

Again, as we mentioned earlier, do it in the beginning, don’t leave it to the very last. Start thinking about Sonic KPIs for a brand. Brands have KPIs for everything. And it’s kind of surprising to me when I will talk to a marketer and I will say, well, what are your KPIs for audio? And the eyes will get right as if ‘I can actually have a KPI for audio?’. And yes, you know, what are the behaviors that you’re attempting to move your consumer to? What are the perceptions of the brand you’re trying to reinforce? How is your use of sound building brand equity? How are you managing that? So I encourage brands to, to develop a set of Sonic KPIs that really can drive how they’re thinking about sound and measuring those, those outcomes. And that’s only gonna happen if it’s at the beginning of the process, as you’re thinking about everything else, that’s going into a campaign.

Pat Murphy:

So it’s the question at the very beginning, which is ‘what is the role that music plays in your advertising or this particular campaign’, is that correct?

Steve Keller:

Yes, exactly! Or a voice. And we can also speak to how the use of music and sound begins to create an identity of the brand. There’s, there’s a lot of talk about Sonic identity, Sonic branding. I think a lot of brands don’t realise that they may have already inadvertently created a Sonic identity. It’s simply an experience of a brand that someone has. So if you begin thinking about the way you’re using sound to express your brand identity, the same way that brands think about visuals in expressing their identity. So they’ll build, you know, colour palettes, they’ll have a visual logo they may have a particular look or feel they have brand guidelines and standards around all of that. So they’re consistent. It’s simply applying that same type of thinking and strategy to sound, what are consistent uses of sound that can create a Sonic palette that when someone hears it, even if they’re not looking at the commercial, they’re aware, ‘oh, that’s this particular brand’ or using a Sonic logo, which is similar to a visual logo, a short little motif, or set of sounds that brings your brand top of mind.

I like to tell people it’s not rocket science, but it’s still science. You know, you, we, we just have to reframe how we’re thinking about sound and that’s the first step I think to moving away from treating it as if it’s something that’s not important.

Pat Murphy:

You made a very good point, just a little earlier that an audio strategy is not just about the music. It could be about the voiceover, or it could be about something else that’s in there. That’s very specific. I mean, voiceovers, you know, ones that are very, very well known can also have a massive impact, correct?

Steve Keller:

Yes, exactly. And again, this just all goes to this point of, of recognition.

And I’ll also mention that, we’ve been talking about sound in the context of adverts <affirmative>, but if you step back and realise that on the consumer journey, there are multiple touchpoints that can be audio where you can communicate. So we’re not just talking about Sonic strategy for your advertising, whether it’s on television or a streaming platform or radio or social media, we’re talking about it in the context of the environment. If you have a store, what does that sound like? It might be in the context of an application, the UX or the UI, maybe the product itself has a sound. What happens when you call and God forbid get put on hold? You know, I know brands that have been pretty particular with how they’re shaping sound, but call and a call center, get put on hold. And the music that you hear has taken you to an entirely different universe that has nothing to do with the brand. So, you know, in thinking about a Sonic strategy, it pays to kind of map out this Sonic ecosystem of sounds and think about how are you building a holistic impression of your brand there, and it’ll inform everything else that you’re doing, including how you’re using sound in your adverts.

Pat Murphy:

You, you mentioned to me last time we spoke about the sound of the product and one particular case that you mentioned the was the effect of playing hip hop to a block of cheese for six months. I mean, that completely sounds bonkers. What can you get out of doing something like that?

Steve Keller:

Well I think there’s, there’s two things here that I’ll mention. So we have when we’re thinking about sound one side of the equation, which is a part of the science that we call psychophysics, which is really about how all of our senses work together to give us a unified perception of reality. And so what we found in studying psychophysics is that we can actually hack one sense with another. And so with sound I’ve been involved in research and brand activations with something we call Sonic seasonings where I can impact your sense of flavor of piece of chocolate, Let’s say. Make that chocolate taste sweeter or more bitter just by changing the sound that I’m putting in your ears, not the chocolate that I’m putting in your mouth.

So that’s psychophysics, there’s another branch of science called psychoacoustics and psychoacoustics is really looking at the physical properties of sound and how it interacts with the environment.

Steve Keller:

And so the cheese activation that we did for Cheezit that you mentioned is really diving more into psychoacoustics than psychophysics. So we looked at what would be the impact of the use of sound and more particularly vibration on microorganisms that are developing as the cheese ages. So there’s been research studies on this and we devised a methodology where we use transducers to create vibrations in the cheese drums, as it was aging. We used hip hop music that was used in the original study, a particular rhythm and pace played that to cheese for six months. And then we did a randomised blind taste test and – believe it or not – there was definitely a different flavour a different texture and a different aroma of the cheese that was aged to this, these hip hop tracks as opposed to the, the cheese that was our control cheese. And they used that cheese to create a special edition of Cheesit, it called ‘Aged by Audio Cheesit’. It that you could get get online. I love that. And then we had a hip hop playlist that that people could listen to.

Pat Murphy:

I love that. That is the wackiest use of, of audio. I think in product I’ve ever heard,

Steve Keller:

Wacky is my middle name. <Laugh> Steve wacky Keller. They called me.

Pat Murphy:

That’s great. You must have so much fun every day in your job.

Steve Keller:

Oh, I do. I do. And I appreciate the fact that you know, the, the folks around me tolerate my, my wackiness and the, the interesting experiments that I try to come up with.

But again, it’s all driven by how can we use sound in interesting ways for marketing, and it’s not just about Sonic identity or Sonic marketing. It can be experiential activations for brands. Like the cheesit piece that I mentioned or work that we did for Propel that leaned more into the Sonic seasonings or bringing installations to life sonically that can give people little moments of surprise and, and delight in interesting ways.

Pat Murphy:

Look, when you were at school, right. You didn’t kind of grow up thinking ‘I’m gonna go be a wacky kind of audio kind of guy’. No. How did you get to where you are today?

Steve Keller:

Oh, pat, that’s a story in and of itself. Let me try and keep it really short. I think as you said, this was not anything that I envisioned doing. I didn’t even know it existed. I mean, music’s always been a part of my life. We talked earlier about the importance of music when I was a kid, I took piano lessons and I picked up a guitar, wrote songs in high school because it was a great way to meet girls. But I never thought about that as a career.

So when I went to uni, I studied psychology. I was always fascinated by you know the way, not only our brains work, but our behaviour and what was behind what we did. My plan was to go onto grad school, but while I was sitting out having myself a little gap year before I, I headed on I was still playing music in coffee houses and dabbling in songwriting, and it wasn’t an ‘a-ha’ moment. I just gave myself permission to do something a little different instead of heading on to grad school wound up in Nashville. And in that process was doing a lot of music for commercials and found that I just loved advertising and branding. And then I ran across a book by a fella by the name of Daniel Jackson, one of the first books that was written on Sonic branding,

Pat Murphy:

Read that. Great book!

Steve Keller:

That was my a-ha moment. It was like, ‘this is everything I have been built for’. The psychology, the research music, sound, entertainment, marketing, advertising, all rolled to one. That’s where I set my course. And I haven’t looked back since.

Pat Murphy:

Thinking about the current advertising landscape, which clients do you think are doing it pretty well right now?

Steve Keller:

Well, I think there’s always room for improvement, but I think the brands that have really used sound in ways that are  powerful and iconic – I think of brands like Intel when they came up with their Intel bong, those five notes, BU BU BU boom, boom. Composed by my friend Walter Vertziva. You know, what was interesting was Intel had a strategy where they didn’t sell these chips themselves, if you stop and think about it, none of us have ever gone to the store and bought an Intel chip, but they were inside computers. And they struck deals with computer manufacturers that were using their chips to cover part of the media buy. If these advertisers would just put their visual logo and their Sonic logo at the end of their ads. And so we started to hear it everywhere, particularly in the late eighties, their early nineties.

There was a piece of research done that was maybe every five minutes. The Intel audio logo was heard somewhere in the world. And they captured the Sonic landscape so much that you couldn’t help, but think of Intel, that’s a, an example of a really great classic use of an iconic logo.

You know, I think MasterCard is a really interesting current case study. Roger, Roger Manir the CMO of MasterCard has been really committed to looking at the multisensory branding of MasterCard. And so they’ve developed a particular set of notes that are used at the point of payment to give you a positive feedback. Once you’ve spent your money and put it on that MasterCard, they’ve done a series of events around the world where they’ve done everything from popup restaurants, where the MasterCard audio identity is infused into music you’re hearing in the background, to putting it into themes that are heard in sporting events, last year at Cannes they debuted the first MasterCard album with artists that had written material on the album that used their Sonic DNA, their little motif. So that’s another example of a  brand.

There are other classic old jingles that we think of you know, the Jingle’s gone out of fashion, but it’s, you know, we still remember those.

Pat Murphy:

I was definitely gonna ask you about that. Because, you know, I grew up listening to lots of jingles, not just, you know, radio ID jingles, but also the jingles that they used in advertising. And now of course, they’ve kind of gone out of fashion. It’s kind of Sonic IDs now, is it just all the same thing? Really it’s just creating a musical logo, isn’t it?

Steve Keller:

Yes. It’s, it’s the same thing in the sense of – you know, whether it’s a Sonic logo or a jingle – these are properties that create memory structures. You know, when we’re a kid, we learn our ABCs. You know, I learned it to the little tune, ABC, D E F G. And there’s a reason for that because it’s easier for us to remember those melodies sometimes than to remember the little facts or the verbal pieces of, of information, the memories, the, the music helps it stick. So whether we’re using an audio logo, that’s a, you know, like a short pieces of, of sound or longer jingles where very often the jingle will have a brand name or a brand claim. All of those things are designed to work themselves into our brain so that we remember them a lot a lot faster, a lot easier. We react to them quicker. And again, as I said, the jingle’s fallen somewhat out of fashion but it’s still a pretty effective tool. And, and there are still some brands that’ll lean into that nostalgia of a jingle and play them on occasion.

Pat Murphy:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I love them, personally, always have done. I’ve collected jingles for many years.

Advertising agencies – over the recent years, they’ve kind of let people go, who had the specialist music knowledge within their departments and, what would you give as a one piece of advice to marketers? You know, that skill is not necessarily at your agency anymore. How can they kind of get hold of somebody who’s gonna be able to give them that specific music strategy? Is it you, is it somebody else or, or do you do different things? Is it, how, how would they go about that as a first piece of advice?

Steve Keller:

You know, I, I think certainly advertising agencies are really good at thinking creatively. You know, I’m a strategist at heart. I love advertising strategists. These are the folks that, you know, can take obscure data points and weave them together into an interesting insight that brands can, can use to capture consumers hearts and minds as it were. But agency approaches to music and sound have Ty typically been related to commercials. They’re not particularly holistic. And as a result, they’ve never really developed the, the skill set that it takes because it’s not simply about a music supervisor finding the right piece of music. It’s really thinking about all these other elements that we’ve talked about. So there are Sonic branding companies, Sonic identity companies that exist out there that if you’re looking for a Sonic identity, they’re probably best suited for that.

There are some companies that are, are realizing the power of sound, particularly as we’re moving more and more into worlds where we’re interacting, using our voice. So we’re, we’re not just pushing buttons on a touch screen. We’ve got vehicles now that because they’re electric, they don’t make sounds, but that’s a safety issue. So as governments have started to say, your vehicles need to make some kind of sound. Automotive manufacturers have gotten really good at beginning to devise sounds for their electric vehicles that are part of the branding, but also part of our emotional connection. Because if you think about an automobile, how many times have you loved that, that particular sound of, of the engine and the power that you feel when you press on the gas, when you don’t get those sonic cues, it, it changes that perception and that feeling.

So automotive manufacturers are working really hard to produce that sound in artificial ways. But in ways that still trigger these, these reactions.

So Sonic identity companies you know, folks like me that exist in other companies, whether it be in a media company, a platform company, or even at some agencies that are starting to get hip to bringing folks in who are specialised here, not necessarily the broadcast producer, which would’ve been the title at the old agency. But there are often Sonic strategists or sound being part of the strategy that that brands are thinking about now

Pat Murphy:

On the agenda for many marketers right now – very important thing on the agenda – for many marketers is DNI diversity and inclusion. And I hadn’t thought before I spoke to you the other day that you can have diversity in audio.

Tell me more about that.

Steve Keller:

Yeah. I mean, when we think about diversity, very often, we think about diversity and what we see. But the reality is, is that we can perceive ethnicity and race in a voice. Now, the question becomes where do those perceptions come from? And what do the sounds of people’s voices trigger in us?

Pat Murphy:

And it’s, and it’s not just race either. Is it it’s kind of gender and it’s age, age as well, gender,

Steve Keller:

Gender as well age. There, there are a lot of things that we pick up with yeah. In, in cues, but I’ve been particularly attuned here in the states to how we hear, how we perceive race in voices, and particularly with black voices.

And during the pandemic after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement it, it pushed me to begin to think about how I was hearing the world. And so I, I spent a lot of time studying this phenomenon learning from academics particularly Jennifer Stover, who wrote a book called the Sonic colour line where she asked this question, you know, ‘what if race wasn’t just something that we saw? What if it was something that we heard?’ and looking at these, these cues and what I discovered in just beginning to do some observation, looking at advertisements, listening to the voices that were chosen was that when ads were directed towards a general market the voices that we heard were predominantly white, it was almost as if we were saying the general market is white. And by extension, the voice of America is white. And particularly in the pandemic, the commercials that we were hearing were often voiced by white voiceover actors. And now we have a pandemic that’s affecting the black community with a greater degree of significance, but we’re not hearing these voices. So that gave me the impetus to get involved with, with trying to change that. Working with Studio Resonate here, doing some research around how we hear voices, the impact of race sonically on ad favorability and effectiveness, and trying to build a business case for diversifying the voices that we hear, because in a very diverse world, it should sound diverse. It shouldn’t just look diverse. And of course, that begins to beg the question then you know, as we identify different voices, what is the sound of a black voice? What is the sound of a white voice?

And there are sensitivities certainly as we unpacked  this, but what I’ve found in this work is it opens up these discussions in really interesting and unique ways that that allows us to maybe you know, push a little further down the field, closer to a, to a goal by coming at it with talking about how we’re hearing each other, the sounds of our communities, the sounds of our advertising and how we can have a cultural impact by just being more sensitive to the voices that we’re casting the diversity in our rosters. And then certainly the diversity of talent in writing the commercials or developing the AI for the voice Assistants.

Pat Murphy:

I mean, that is food for thought you’ve just kind of left us with there.

And it’s soon time to wrap up. I wanna ask you one last question, which is what is your favourite ad of all time? And I’m guessing it probably has some music in it. <Laugh>

Steve Keller:

Wow. My favourite ad of all time!  This is gonna age me, but there was a Coca-Cola ad that came out with a bunch of folks on the side of a hill, started on a single person. I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. And as the camera panned back, you saw this crowd of people talking about harmony and love and peace and drinking Coca-Cola,

Pat Murphy:

Steve, you’ve given me the goosebumps because of course I’m old enough to remember that ad of course. And it was such a, an iconic ad of its time. Brilliant ad.

Steve Keller:

I think what I love about that ad is, is not only the simplicity and the beauty of it. It’s also the cultural impact because that piece of music was written as an ad for Coca-Cola. But it became so popular that popular groups of the day recut it as, as a song, they just simply removed Coke, but when you heard it, you couldn’t help. But think of the brand.

And that to me is the power of, of music and sound when it’s done right. And it becomes iconic and kind of woven into our cultural identities and the zeitgeist of the world around us. That’s what every brand is, is hoping for, that kind of top of mind, salience to own a Sonic property, to own a Sonic space in a way that no other brand can own it.

That’s really what Sonic strategy is all about.

Pat Murphy:

Steve <laugh> I’ve gotta tell you. I wish I was there just to hang out with you, you have a few beers and talk some music stories <laugh>

Steve Keller:

We will get together one of these days. I’m sure pat we’ve these conversations have been wonderful and I can’t wait to have a few pints with you and share some more stories.

Pat Murphy:

Look, we’ve only covered a small part of the many interesting and evolving topics around the world of sound music, audio, and Sonic seasoning, the psychology behind how music plays a key role in influencing behaviour. There’s so much more we could talk to you about, it’d be great to get you back sometime soon on this prodcast, Steve, so thanks very much for joining us today.

Steve Keller:

Thank you, pat. Happy to do it – anytime. You know where to find me!

Pat Murphy:

I want to say a big thanks to Steve Keller for taking the time to talk to me today about the world of music sound and advertising. Wasn’t that great?

To find out more about the MCA Prodcast, please head to theprodcast.com where you’ll find details of all of my guests, links to their favourite ads and full transcriptions of all of the episodes.

If you’d like to feature on the prodcast or have any comments, questions, or feedback please email me at prodcast@murphycobb.com.

I’m Pat Murphy, CEO of MCA – do come and connect with us on LinkedIn or Instagram. All of which the links are in the notes for this episode. We’d love to hear from you.

Thanks again to my guest Steve Keller, my team at MCA Stefan and Caroline, and to my production team at What Goes On Media. Thanks for listening. Catch you soon.

 

Steve's Favourite TV Ad