German-born audio brand Sennheiser has been about providing a sound experience that’s a cut above for 75 years. The team there believes that when you hear what their headphones can do, you’ll understand the quality. But until now, demonstrating the many ways in which they sound better has been tricky.
Sound quality is intangible and subjective and most of us don’t have the knowledge or tools to judge the difference, so we often end up settling for the mediocre. How are you going to test a new pair of headphones in a store? What songs will push them to their limits?
There are certain tracks like ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears that tick a lot of boxes. But, surprisingly, no track has ever been created with the sole purpose of doing exactly that. That’s the task that MullenLowe landed on when working out how best to let Sennheiser customers ‘hear the difference’.
There are broadly three qualities that needed demonstrating: clarity, richness and soundstage.
The resulting track, ‘Sound Check’ by Tim Cowie forms the centre of the new campaign, educating listeners on the potential of those three qualities. LBB’s Alex Reeves found out more from Stefanie Reichert, global head of marketing execution for consumer business at Sennheiser, and Ben Knight, global creative lead at MullenLowe Open.
LBB> From a brand perspective, where did this project start?
Stefanie> We started working with MullenLowe at the beginning of 2019 as the consumer division for Sennheiser. MullenLowe’s creative team developed a strong call to action: ‘Hear the difference’. We worked through a strategic analysis on where we are positioned as a brand, how we differentiate ourselves against competitors. And the core of who we are as a brand has always been - all the way back to 1945, when we were founded - about brilliance in audio quality. And that led us to create that call ‘hear the difference’, which you see now on pretty much all communication elements that are going out.
Then as we were working through how we cascade all of those things down to the different touch points, Ben joined this quest. We said we need to help the consumer to understand how you hear the difference. And that's how we ended up with the piece that you have on the table.
LBB> And how did that turn into the idea for the perfect track to demonstrate sound quality?
Ben> The brief was how do we improve the experience you get in retail in particular of listening and testing headphones. So when you walk into a typical store where the average person will buy headphones, the experience is often listening to music. You put the headphones on, fingers crossed everything's plugged in and working, but when you put them on, you're just listening to a track.
It became really obvious that there was no way you could teach or show sound quality through telling people, you have to demonstrate it. And it had to come through in a track. The idea of making a music track was when we realised there's no such music track that does this.
LBB> That’s so surprising! You said that Toxic by Britney Spears is one that people often use right?
Ben> Yes. Toxic was one of the best tracks to sort of do most of it, but it can’t do everything. We looked at playlists and we have tracks that are great to demonstrate bass and tracks that are great to demonstrate sound stage, but in general there wasn't one track that did everything.
Equally, it’s genre. I personally don't like Britney Spears. So if I put a pair of headphones on and it's got Britney Spears playing, I'm not really going to enjoy the experience. Steffi, myself, and Tim [Cowie, the track’s composer] were discussing genres. That's why the track is quite genre-less. You can't really place it anywhere.
LBB> With that in mind, why did you select Tim Cowie as the composer to collaborate with?
Stefanie> The point of who we use was a little bit of a conversation for us because in our business a lot of brands tend to use well-known celebrities. And certainly it potentially would have been a clear decision to say we need to have the biggest music star that everybody knows, but actually we take the stance that we'd rather not. We need to have somebody who has super credibility in understanding music and audio, and that doesn't need to be the superstar because then [the campaign] would be coloured by the perception that people have about this individual and the music that this person has put out.
There was a conversation about this and it comes all the way full circle to who we are as Sennheiser. We are not a brand that hinges itself on celebrity endorsements. We know ourselves pretty well, what good music is. We’ve been doing this since 1945. All we have been doing as super nerds in the audio industry is creating transducers for headphones and microphones. So we want to stay neutral and service the artistic industry. We don't want to pick one and say “you're the chosen one that endorses our brand”. We shy away from that sort of superficial, logical choice that other brands would have taken.
As a sound designer, Tim understands how to neutralise the taste question. And I think he brilliantly accomplished this by having these classical elements, which allow you to see that brilliance in music craftsmanship by these musicians, combined with the electronic. I yet have to find somebody who does not like the track and this is people with a vast variety of musical tastes. I think we found the right artist, who approached that from a very scientific level.
LBB> What’s Tim’s background and why did that make him so right for this project?
Ben> He’s found himself working more as a sound artist rather than a musical composer. He'd be working with visual artists quite often, creating soundscapes for digital art pieces. He loves playing. He showed me this amazing box of gadgets and wires that he plays with, making music. He's really experimental.
Having a conversation with him, that blend of expert and novice, is where this whole thing came together. My probably slightly annoying questions I was asking him about how things work, were actually what probably unpicked really how we could demonstrate each of those different things. And then how do we put it into a track?
LBB> What were some of those difficult discussions about understanding how sound works?
Ben> I think probably the most annoying one was when he was trying to explain soundstage to me. He said, “you know, when you hear left and right?” I said, “well, yeah, but everyone can hear left and right. I get that. But what do you mean?” He was talking about the bandwidth of what headphones can do and how the drivers work. I was confused. We had to bring it down to: good quality headphones can make you either feel like you're sitting next to the musician in the recording studio or make you feel like you are in the concert at that moment. It's almost like a visual experience to be able to place where the musicians are around your head. Then when I was sitting down with him in his studio, he was playing me stuff so I can move it around here. I can make things come backwards, forwards. Then I got what he meant.
Richness was a little easier to understand because I'd heard of the terminologies of bass and midrange and treble. But everything was an experiment, so he would turn up the bass, so it would distort the trebles or we would play with midrange and it would be great, but all of a sudden it was flat. There was a brilliant learning curve, but equally experimentation before we shared with Steffi the successes of when the work was starting to come together and the track was starting to work.
LBB> What moments from the studio do you remember particularly clearly?
Ben> When we were talking about the three different demonstrations and playing with how that works, there was a little leap of faith. With the saxophone, there's a moment where they use it like a percussion instrument, so it's just the clicks of the keys. And Tim was trying to explain that it doesn't sound like this in real life and how it would sound through his electronics. So it wasn't until we were actually in the recording studio and all of a sudden the hairs on your arms standing up because you can actually really hear like the breath coming through. I was hearing this sort of drumbeat. And I was like, “what is that?” And he said “that’s just the saxophone keys”. Using these lovely experimental techniques with the trombone and with the saxophone, it was fascinating. I've not heard them before. While we were in the studio, he would hide those in the track and say, “listen out for this.” The whole demonstration is coming to life while you're in the studio.
The final track
LBB> Covid must have drastically affected how this project shaped up.
Stefanie> The plan was to bring it to retail and we have various in-store retail executions around the world, where tracks can play, which all sort of shut down immediately. As soon as everything was done, retail collapsed. But we all know why. And so we wanted to kick it off at SXSW. We had a wonderful engagement planned that was all under the headline of Hear the Difference. The track would have been implemented there as a demo track and come to life for the first time.
Obviously SXSW did not take place. But we pivoted very quickly. We put it online. We had media partners to talk about the story of how we hear the difference and really put that content out digitally.
As Ben explained it was triggered by bringing the education to a shopper in retail. Now, in the end, what we have done is really using it for awareness-driving.
We realise that if retail stays as it is right now, there's so many other forms and touch points we can implement this in. We are now talking about bringing this inside of the box. So imagine, we are going to kick off a project soon where we talk about our unboxing experience. So you buy headphones from Sennheiser online, you get them shipped to you, you unpack them. And here comes a beautiful track that you should listen to, sort of like your ear cleansing before you even get into anything else.
We obviously have it on our own website
. We will be doing more to link to this content from different product pages to bring that education on how to hear the difference and how you can test your headphones’ quality to a broad audience. Quite frankly, we don't know where retail is going. Some markets have opened up a little bit and that's where the track will come to life. But probably not to the extent as we originally planned.
LBB> At the centre of this idea, originally, was a retail environment where people are trying on headphones. That’s not totally Covid friendly all over the world, so it must have taken some thought.
Stefanie> It's interesting. We were wondering how retailers are responding to this sort of active trial and it's all over the place. Some retailers just opened it up and we see in some markets, consumers not being shy about grabbing the headphones and doing what they've done before. Others are putting boxes over their installation. So it varies. And we expect that it will continue to shift as countries go on and off and on in lockdowns.
Ben> From a customer experience point of view, if you're in the market for wanting to get a new pair of headphones, there's a monument when you're researching, which is also where that digital platform can actually really benefit us, because if you’re researching brands and Sennheiser is in your repertoire then you can go and test the headphones you've got on your head right now, and you will be putting them to the test. So if you're having a slightly substandard experience listening to it, or struggling to hear the clarity, it's because of the headphones you're wearing, not because of anything else. So it can also help you make that decision between Sennheiser and another. In a way, that pivot into the digital platform for us is really helping to help people make that decision.
LBB> What are the biggest lessons you’ve taken from this?
Ben> Tim always talked about really listening. Because I was asking him a lot about headphones. And he said when you put headphones on it's escapism, but really it's about being able to learn to listen, really hearing what is coming through. So I've found myself replaying songs back with my Sennheiser headphones. I was actually noticing the difference in songs and I was able to pick out certain aspects of it.
Understanding human music creation versus electronic music creation, experiencing first hand musicians, playing not the final track, but the elements of it. As a person that's not inside the industry, to be able to experience that was a great learning and a great experience. To see how we can bring human elements into this purposefully and keep it there.
I've obviously learned a huge amount about music creation, curation, ensembles, you know, even the musicians that Tim picked were there to demonstrate certain aspects. I don’t think I'll be making my own music any time soon, but I definitely learned an awful lot about the process and about listening, more importantly.