Top Gear Syndrome: Why the automotive industry still sounds pale, male and stale
Michele Arnese, Global CEO and Founder of sonic branding agency amp, explains how elements of how a brand 'sounds' may be reinforcing gender stereotypes, and how small changes and a bit of bravery can avoid that.
A few years ago, BBC Radio 4 published a car advert spoof entitled All car, All man, All Man car. Car of Man. Manly car. Man. Men. Me.
The voiceover – progressively more ‘manly’ explained:
“I am me. A serious man.
Moving through fields and towns. Capable of financing a small family and transporting them from A to B.
The features of this car are interchangeable with my masculine provider identity.
Shielding. Understated. Silver.
Humiliating to other fathers.
Totally unnecessary to my family’s requirements.
I am the owner of A Serious Man Car, 4x4 Edition.”
The spoof is a highly inflated parody of the ‘hyper-masculine’ nature of the automotive industry. Despite this, it does point to the fact that many industries are still riddled with what we’d refer to as 'Top Gear syndrome'.
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Cars, tech, gadgets, watches and the like are seen as being made for men and these sectors’ creative and marketing strategies are often organised accordingly. The performance car market is one example of an industry which has historically been owned by people who design and market their product for people exactly like them.
Today, the goal to make advertising more inclusive is at the top of every marketer’s agenda. For automotive, it’s also a great opportunity for brands from a commercial standpoint, as women’s influence in the marketplace is only increasing.
Sound could be a top-class antidote to 'Top Gear syndrome'
Currently, more than a third of cars in the UK are registered to women, and not only are they the key influencers in purchasing decisions but more often than not, women are the end-user too. Furthermore, women have a third of the world’s wealth under their control. They are a sizable economic force, adding $5 trillion to the wealth pool globally every year – and outpacing the growth of the market overall.
Our research at amp suggests that if applied right, music and sound can be the missing link to a more inclusive approach. In other words, sound could be a top-class antidote to 'Top Gear syndrome'.
A road to opportunity
Automotive is already miles ahead of many sectors in their use of sound. Our Best Audio Brands 2020 ranking showed that the sector has the highest percentage of brands that have embraced sonic identities to some extent. And it’s true that when listening to a car advert on TV, we often immediately know what is being sold to us by the music, without having to look at the screen, because it uses sound that has distinctive qualities that differentiate it from other industries.
In partnership with Cyanite, an artificial music intelligence company, we analysed the music used by automotive manufacturers and categorised it by mood and genre. The findings were that the sound of automotive is dark, using classical elements best described as ‘cold, distant, masculine and technological’. It suggests that elements of the automotive brand ‘sound’ might still be falling into convention, and with it, accidental gender-bias.
The lack of differentiation within the sector leaves many brands’ sound, often unfairly, trapped under the stereotypical pale, male and stale classification.
One reason for this might be the tendency for automotive brands to stay within their established comfort zones when it comes to choosing music. Ford, for example, who put the single product brands such as the Focus or the Mustang into the foreground, have far bigger diversification in the sounds that they use but that doesn’t always translate into more diverse musical genres. Whereas Honda on the other hand, uses a variety of genres but it never strays into the “unknown”. The lack of differentiation within the sector leaves many brands’ sound, often unfairly, trapped under the stereotypical pale, male and stale classification.
So, how can brands tread the sonic gender-bias gap, and use their sound to promote inclusivity?
There’s actually a significant opportunity here for brands, if they actively seek to break the mould and the category conventions they’ve grown used to. The same way automotive ads can stand out if they portray something other than a sleek car driving at night through a mountain terrain, so too can brands stand out with a fresh approach to sound; to venture away from what we expect them to sound like - cold, distant, masculine and technological.
Our analysis with Cyanite does suggest that some brands are starting to explore this. Yet it’s an area we hope more brands will delve in to.
The brands shifting gears
In our analysis, Mercedes Benz, for example, was found to use a great variety of musical genres in their marketing. Beyond that, they are willing to be experimental, using everything from Electronica and Rock to Classical, Hip-Hop and Metal. By touching on multiple genres, they are more likely to appeal to all genders in some capacity. And by being perceived as more daring and edgy, they are much more likely to stand out from the crowd.
As audio technologies continue to grow in popularity, we move closer to a screenless future, where sound becomes very important.
Differentiation is increasingly crucial, especially as audio technologies continue to grow in popularity and we move closer to a screenless future, where sound becomes very important. Today, brands have the opportunity to be heard on multiple touchpoints, from voice assistants to in-app interactions, and point-of-sale transactions.
Sounding the same as other brands is no longer a feasible option, especially if those brands are offering a similar product. A coherent audio strategy, which complements visual, social and cultural equity is essential to maintaining or establishing a competitive advantage.
For example, using sonic DNA - or the audible expression of a brand - Mercedes Benz has crafted a raft of musical ingredients based on its distinct brand identity that can be distilled into varying pieces of music and tailored to the platform and touchpoint it will be viewed on.
The more owned assets a brand uses, the more adaptable and efficient its sonic identity becomes. This is because the brand is able to customise its assets to different touchpoints more easily, while remaining recognisable no matter the context.
Mercedes Benz has crafted a raft of musical ingredients based on its distinct brand identity that can be distilled into varying pieces of music.
A holistic approach using Sonic DNA also increases consumer connection. The more frequently people are exposed to your sound, the stronger the feelings of recognition and familiarity with the brand, creating a deeper connection with the consumer. Pair that with bold, unique qualities that cut through the noise and automotive brands are likely to accelerate into first place.
It’s often by being bold that we create meaningful relationships. Brands that are willing to explore different and new soundscapes, that are more willing to leave the confinement of automotive conformity are more likely to leave a lasting imprint on their audience and expand into new ones as well.