For top-flight car and watch brands, every single tick and rumble is an opportunity to provoke an emotional response. Here's how they do it.
Ten years ago, Andrew Diey, the founder of sound design company Radium Audio, was asked by luxury car brand Bentley to do an unusual job. The firm asked Diey to come up with sounds for indicators, alert systems and heads-up displays for the company’s Continental GT model.
It was the first car to be released following Volkswagen's acquisition of the British brand – and for its first grand tourer automobile, Volkswagen would not leave anything to chance. To add an extra feeling of luxury, every interior sound had to be custom-made.
To understand what was expected of him, Diey went on what he calls the “millionaire’s walk” around the car company’s factory in Cheshire. Greeted by a concierge in a green Bentley uniform and a top hat, he was taken through Bentley’s very own museum of luxury British cars – and he got a taste of what the brand is all about.
“It let me get insight into the head of a Bentley driver,” he says. “The end user is someone who has hit a certain level of success and rewards themselves with a Bentley. When designing aspects of the car, you have to account for that psychological element. You have to convey the satisfying feeling of: ‘I have made it.’”
Take the indicator: on cheaper cars, a device called the flasher relay, in which a piece of metal goes up and down, causes the indicator’s familiar click-clock. A sound too “plastic”, and not “I have made it” enough, explains Diey. So the designer went to a clock warehouse in Glasgow and recorded thirty different clock chimes to work on.
According to Diey, hearing a grandfather clock or a granddaughter chime, instead of a generic click, provokes a highly positive emotional response from the user. “Those sounds evoke craftsmanship, and paint a picture of comfort and effortlessness” he says. “They are like small pieces of art that influence the overall feel of the car.”
Working on his recordings, Diey tweaked and balanced the chimes until they satisfyingly conveyed the feeling of luxury that he was after. A sound he describes as “clean, unfussy, and to the point.” His perfect clock tick was then put on a Bosch computer chip, which was fitted on the Continental GT so that it can play the sound directly out of the car's speaker system.
This link between sound and emotion is at the heart of a studyconducted by researchers Ana Tajadura-Jimenez and Daniel Vastfjall, from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which highlights that businesses, such as Apple, Armani or Ferrari, increasingly try to pull their customers' emotional strings when designing products. These brands aren't just concerned with the physical aspect of the product, they're also trying to create a sensory experience.
That is why Bentley designers are not only concerned with optimising engine performance, but also with what the user can hear inside the car. Tajadura-Jimenez more recently co-authored another study, focusing specifically on the psychology of emotional sound design. She explains that sound can cause emotional sensations that influence our perceptions – and ultimately, determine how we judge the quality of a product.
“Many factors play into the meaning that a listener attributes to a sound,” she says. “The most obvious one is the physical property of the sound – a loud sound, typically, is associated with annoyance. But equally important are the context of listening, and the listener’s expectations that stem from that context.”
In the context of a luxury car, she continues, the user will expect comfortable and pleasant sounds for information signals such as indicators. Those can be made, therefore, to be harmonious and not too high-pitched – something that is typically associated with annoyance. Diey's granddaughter chimes, in that light, were spot on.
For Tajadura-Jimenez, sound designers need to be aware of those psychological and emotional dimensions of sound – what she calls “emo-acoustics” – to design effective auditory displays. And they have. As early as 2010, BMW developed a system called Active Sound Design to test sound-optimisation in the BMW 635d, in an effort to overcome the infamous “diesel knock” – the rattling sound emitted by a running diesel engine.
BMW’s designers came up with a more “sporty” sound to replace it. In doing so, they consistently kept in mind that it was crucial to allocate the right dosage of sound in different driving situations. Too much sound with too little engine power, they reasoned, would challenge the user’s expectations and cause a negative psychological response.
Four years later, the company applied the same theory to its BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe, this time working on the sound of the door closing, which is caused by the collision of different metal components as the door hits the frame. In the original model, designers deemed the sound too light – something that may cause consumers to subconsciously perceive it as structural weakness in the car.
As they studied the audio footprint for the closing door, they noticed an imbalance between low and high frequencies. So they worked on an acoustical design for the door, twisting and tweaking latches, buffers, panels and seals. The new car for the series was made so that a clear thud would follow the door closing, making it sound more crisp and precise.
Since then, BMW has extensively researched the impact of acoustics on its clients, collecting feedback from over 800 subjects on dozens of sounds. One of the main scientific reference for such designers is independent researcher Rudolf Bisping’s early reportfor acoustics journal Acta Acoutica, which concluded that perception of sound quality in a car’s interior can be directly linked to the user’s impression of powerfulness.
A sound designed to be as pleasant as possible, indeed, greatly improves the listener’s perception of how powerful the car is. For luxury brands, this is crucial: by provoking a specific psychological response to a given sound, they can contribute to their clients’ overall appreciation of quality in the product.
Edward Ludford, senior product manager for the Continental GT at Bentley, says: “We design the car thinking about optimising its performance just as much as thinking about creating the luxury experience. The idea is to create the perception that you are sitting enveloped in a cocoon of luxury.”
To do so, continues Ludford, Bentley creates a complete sensory experience. In addition to commissioning the design of alarms and indicator, the company, like BMW, has designed specific sounds for doors closing and latching that he describes as “a reassuring reminder of quality.” Other senses are involved, too: the leather carpets were given a specific smell, and the veneer coverings and thick carpets appeal to touch.
Touch is another aspect of design that luxury brands are exploiting to create a particular emotional experience for users. Bentley designed all the rotary dials on the switchboard, such as volume knobs, to be diamond-shaped, in contrast to traditional knurls, which are square-shaped. This makes the dials more grippy, says Ludford, and gives an increased feeling of control. “The dials aren’t slippery, like normal ones,” he says. “They are also part of the sensory experience. They give this added perception of precision, and therefore quality.”
Designing a polished touch experience has become a priority for other brands as well. This summer, luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet, for instance, developed a new tool to refine the feel of its devices. The ChronoSim simulator recreates a traditional watch case, but with a virtual movement, letting designers adjust resistance parameters for operations like pulling, pushing and turning the crown, or re-setting dates and hours.
Using augmented reality, the technology can simulate the sense of touch by giving detailed haptic feedback for each operation. This digital tactile information translates into sensorial output that allows the operator to instinctively feel how the watch will sit on the wrist. This lets them design an optimised sensorial experience when crafting the winding stem, the crown, or the chronograph push pieces for future products.
“With our watch designs, we want to trigger emotions the owner doesn’t find elsewhere,” says spokesperson for Audemars Piguet. “And the perception of touch is very important for that. Our watches have their own signs of recognition, and the way they sit on a wrist is one of them.”