Effective Sonic Logos with SoundOut with David Courtier-Dutton
David Courtier-Dutton, the CEO of SoundOut, joins us to discuss the art and science that lies behind some of the most effective sonic logos in the US today. David explains how consistently using brand music creates a Pavlovian trigger: when people hear it, even in isolation, a flood of emotions that they associate with the brand is immediately triggered in the brain. We also learn how marketers can ensure that a sonic logo maps precisely to a brand’s archetypes and values.
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:
David Courtier-Dutton: A sonic logo is either a musical or a voice asset that is designed from day one to be a distinctive brand asset. The ultimate goal is to create what we call a Pavlovian trigger or a signpost to the brand itself.
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer at Bigeye. Thank you for joining us. Discussions about brands’ distinctive assets typically focus on visual and copy elements. The name, logo, colors, shapes, typography, and tagline. The idea of Lovemarks, publicized in a 2004 book of the same name written by Kevin Roberts, former CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi, describes how consumers who feel emotionally connected to brands are more likely to be loyalists. Understanding emotions and how they affect consumer behavior are, of course, topics of enduring interest to all marketers. One of the ways that emotions can be induced is through music. Over the past decade, there’s been a growing awareness of the role that music and audio-based assets can play in branding, especially for global brands, who can develop sonic identities that work across different geographies and media channels. Research undertaken by the international audio branding agency, PHMG found that two-thirds of consumers it surveyed believe music used in marketing is more memorable than visuals – and 60% say music helps them forge a stronger emotional connection with a brand. Today, in addition to TV and radio spots, audio is being custom-designed for apps, electronic devices, domestic appliances, and even vehicles. Instead of traditional engine sounds, BMW’s all-electric i4 plays an interactive soundscape composed by Hans Zimmer, piped into the cabin through 24 speakers for a symphonic experience. Our guest today is a pioneer in identifying the emotional impact and marketing effectiveness of audio brand elements. David Courtier-Dutton is the founder and CEO of SoundOut, the world leader in sonic branding research. Trusted by many leading brands, including Ebay, DHL, Toyota, TikTok, GSK, and branding agencies worldwide, David says that the most important benchmark for a successful music strategy is the brand itself. To talk about how SoundOut matches a brand’s personality and attributes to music and how marketing teams can select music that not only triggers the right consumer response to a campaign but also stays true to a brand’s identity, David is joining us today from his office in Reading, England. David, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!
David Courtier-Dutton: Thank you, Adrian. Great to be here.
Adrian Tennant: David, could you tell us a bit more about your company, SoundOut?
David Courtier-Dutton: Yeah, certainly. So I founded SoundOut 15 years ago now, really as a music testing company, and we spent the first 10 years or so doing just that. So testing music, principally for record labels and radio groups, and mainly in the US market. So we became the market leader in traditional music testing with online panels. We built up our own panel over those 10 years, to three-and-a-half million consumers, of whom about 2 million were in the US market and we had a wonderful run in the US. And then, of course, Spotify came along and the music streamers and the data exhaust from them actually provided a far larger and more compelling data set for record labels to actually test music and work out what was working, using proxy markets, et cetera. So we then expanded into other areas, one of which was branding. So we started working with some brand consultants and learned a lot about branding. And then we bumped into music psychology specifically with Goldsmiths University, and suddenly realized that we had all the elements to actually move into sonic branding. And so for the last two and a half years, really, that’s where our focus has been in the sonic branding market.
Adrian Tennant: So, David, what led you to the world of sonic branding?
David Courtier-Dutton: It was almost accidental in that we were introduced by a very smart guy called Professor Daniel Müllensiefen, who at the time was working as scientist and resident at adam&eveDDB, which is a large agency here in the UK. He’s also head of the Music, Mind, and Brain Master’s course at Goldsmiths University. He’s a very well-respected music psychologist, worldwide, and talking to him, we realized that between us, we had the recipe for a really powerful personality matching tool, whereby we could get a brand to define that personality, measure music, and actually measure the match between the music and the brand. So we started working with Daniel and then some of his master’s students. And then we had interns from his course, and then we hired some of his students and created this wonderful tool called Brand Match, that matches a personality of music to the personality of a brand. And we excitedly ran off and met some sonic branding agencies about four years ago and showed them the tool and they were all amazed and then nothing happened, the market wasn’t ready for it. Sonic branding at that point was far more creative and subjective. And so we put it on a shelf and then about, three years ago, Daniel got involved in a project with a major supermarket group and pulled us in to do some research with him. And that was the first sonic branding project we did And then over the next year, we did three or four more projects, first with Daniel and then, having met sonic branding agencies, with them. And that has just snowballed to the point at which now we’re probably doing, three or four projects a month. It just continues to accelerate.
Adrian Tennant: That’s excellent. Well, your company published the SoundOut Effectiveness Index in June of 2021, which offers readers a deep dive into what makes a sonic identity effective for consumers and ranks sonic logos in the US and the UK. So David, could you first define what you consider a sonic logo to be, and perhaps what it’s not?
David Courtier-Dutton: Yes, certainly. There’s often a lot of confusion around this. And still when I talk to people about sonic logos, even in the advertising and branding world, you know, they don’t actually really understand it. So I end up having to sing – and I can’t sing! So I sort of sing the Netflix “ta-dum” and they kind of get it then, or the McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it.” But really, a sonic logo is either a musical or a voice asset that is designed from day one to be a distinctive brand asset. So it’s not a soundtrack to an advert or whatever. It is something that the brand decides alongside the visual logo, they want a distinctive brand asset that is an audio asset, and it is typically designed and made to last for a minimum of three, five years. So it’s a long-term brand investment rather than a marketing investment. And it should effectively be added to all audio interactions with consumers. So you might still have your big commercial there with a different soundtrack, but then it should be pumped at the end, or sometimes it’s watermarked through the middle or at the beginning. And the key to a sonic logo is – regardless of what it sounds like – the ultimate goal is to create what we call a Pavlovian trigger or a signpost to the brand itself. So what you’re always trying to achieve with a sonic logo is people hear it, even in isolation and immediately all the flood of emotions that they associate with the brand are triggered in the brain. But you have to create that association. So it’s absolutely a strategic rather than a tactical brand asset. People don’t necessarily understand that at the beginning of the process, but they do by the end. And it is to be used in conjunction with other music, other sounds all the way through a brand’s lifestyle. So you leave that to the marketing department, they work on the music and the sounds that go with the commercials to help do the storytelling. But the sonic logo is always hammered in place at the end or at the beginning to create that brand reinforcement.
Adrian Tennant: You mentioned that if it’s considered a brand asset, it probably belongs to a different budget than a marketing or advertising campaign. Is that fair?
David Courtier-Dutton: Yeah, absolutely. So we hear again and again that in terms of investment in brand and marketing, you know, whether it’s 60% branding, 40% marketing, 50/50, 60/40, it doesn’t really matter what it is, but it absolutely lives in the brand investment department, not the marketing investment.
Adrian Tennant: For the SoundOut Index, you ranked US and UK brands’ sonic logos on a matrix for effectiveness, which you defined as their intrinsic quality excluding any brand association. Can you explain the research methodology you employed to arrive at the results published in the index?
David Courtier-Dutton: Sure. So, first of all, we did the data collection process. So we tested 150 logos across the US and the UK market, with all consumers – so it was 150 logos, 200 consumers per logo, so 30,000 consumers in total, and we tested those logos for things like appeal and recall propensity to buy, personality matching using Brand Match, and then from that data, because we’ve mapped the emotional DNA of music using half a million consumers the year before, we could reconstruct the ratings against over 212 different brand attributes from that data set. And then we segmented the results between people who were aware of the brand association and those who had no awareness of a brand association. So we were actually measuring the intrinsic qualities of the logo with those who weren’t aware of the brand association, and then also measuring ratings where people almost make that brand connection and therefore were polluted in a way by the personality and the identity and the appeal of the brand as well. We then went through a whole load of data science and analytics to actually work out what was driving propensity to buy and what was driving the ability for consumers to better recall the logos and identify what factors, whether it was the melodic nature of it, whether it was particular attributes that drove those logos far more strongly as a brand-building asset or far more strongly as a marketing asset.
Adrian Tennant: What does effective mean in the context of sonic branding for the report?
David Courtier-Dutton: There is a lot of confusion around this, but actually I think it’s really simple. If you accept the fact that the sonic logo’s core goal in life is to trigger the brand association as a distinctive brand asset, effectiveness actually should be 99% defined as how well it does that. Not how well has it done it, but how well intrinsically it is at driving that. Because we start with appeal. People have to like it. If they like it, then it is easier to recall. So recall is a fundamental tenet of effectiveness. If you can’t recall something, you can’t recognize it. It’s just simple logic. If you can’t recognize it, then you can’t attribute it to the brand. So recall, this is really the foundation of her effectiveness. And if you produce something that people find really easy to remember, then that will accelerate your route up to brand attribution and we know there was a very strong correlation between appeal and recall as well. So people really have to like it. Appeal also drives propensity to buy as well. The more you like it, the more likely you are to attribute value to the brand and end up buying it. But, in terms of effectiveness, how quickly, when that goes into the market with a million dollars of marketing budget behind it, will it find brand attribution with a meaningful percentage of consumers.
Adrian Tennant: So let’s talk about the top-performing sonic logos for US-based brands. David, which brands performed best overall?
David Courtier-Dutton: Ah, so again, a simple question, but a complicated answer! So how do you rank the best performing sonic logos? Is it the one that most people recognize? I mean, there’s an argument to say that yep, the best logos are the ones that have achieved mass-market adoption by consumers. Or is it the logo that intrinsically, even though it’s only been released last week, is actually the best sonic logo? So I mean, you can look at the best brand attribution in the US market. The three top ones are Arby’s, Goldfish, and Auto Zone. In terms of the best personality match – so this is just looking at people who aren’t aware of the personality, so this is the intrinsic quality – Colgate is fantastically close in terms of personality match, Pandora, fantastic personality match, Duracell as well. So not ones you would imagine, but in terms of how they’ve been created to resonate with the personality of the brand at the best. Ones that people love most, I mean, some people just want the logo to be popular and everyone to adore it, and that adoration will reflect on the brand. You know, with Goldfish, Farmers, and Netflix, people love the Netflix logo because they love the company, they love the service. And that reflects on the logo. Propensity to buy? Red Robin, Chili’s and again, Netflix. So they’re best at driving purchasing that’s more to do with the intrinsic attributes of those logos. But then overall, if you average all of those four, give them all equal weighting. The top three are Arby’s, Goldfish, and Farmers. And although Netflix does well across most of them, and one would always think of Netflix potentially being the number one spot, the reality is the Netflix site logo is a million miles away from the Netflix personality. If you think of the “Ta-dum”, it’s quite scary, it’s quite downbeat. Whereas Netflix is fun and exciting. And so Netflix is really just held back by a very poor personality match.
Adrian Tennant: That’s fascinating. Interesting as well that quite a few of those were fast food or QSR brands. Was that surprising to you?
David Courtier-Dutton: No. I mean, another finding of research is that companies in some sectors are far more successful with their sonic logos than others. And the reason for that is that when you hear a sound, it is situational. So if you are buying insurance or looking at an insurance ad, it’s not really exciting, you’re not massively engaged, it’s all quite dull, however exciting they’re trying to make it feel. And the sonic logo, when you’re not in a heightened state of emotional expectation or enjoyment, the logo itself will not be associated with a mood or feeling that actually is conducive to you remembering it really well. Whereas if you’re at the end of the day, you’ve got a beer in your hand, and you click that Netflix button, you’re in a wonderful open “I’m about to enjoy myself.” And then you hear that “Ta-dum” and you go, “Yes! Here it comes!” But in terms of fast food, again, fast food is serving a basic human need, eating, when you hear McDonald’s , you imagine you’re satiating yourself with a lovely burger or whatever it might be. So we find that finance brands, insurance brands really struggle to make a big impact, however good intrinsically their sonic logo is, they do find it hard to cut through because they’re just not well placed as an industry to do that. Whereas, if you look at streaming services, fast food, retailers, all of those have far higher success rates and also the advertising is normally far more so blanket advertising. They do have a far bigger advertising budget and therefore they have the ability to get their logo out there more often, more frequently with consumers. And that helps as well.
Adrian Tennant: So it’s about fame, one of those important brand attributes from the Ehrenberg-Bass school of thought, correct?
David Courtier-Dutton: It is. I think it’s exactly that. Yes, fame becomes a self-serving virtuous circle in a way.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with David Courtier-Dutton, founder and CEO of SoundOut about the many dimensions of sonic branding and testing. Well, in consumer research, we typically cross-tabulate quantitative survey data by ethnicity or racial identity, age or generation, gender identity, and region. In your studies, do you see significant variations in consumer response based on these kinds of demographic variables?
David Courtier-Dutton: The short answer is no. And I think we have to unpack it a bit because if you think of sonic logos, you don’t typically get hip hop rap sonic logos and bubblegum pop sonic logos. They all essentially are fairly similar in terms of their style. So if you remove the sort of genre element of sonic logos, we find that music used in the context of brands in terms of sonic identities is really, it’s a universal language, and so if you take away brand association that could introduce bias, brand music is without prejudice. It doesn’t discriminate. And we saw, we cut the data every which way, by sector, by ethnicity, by age, by income, by job, by everything. And in terms of the emotional response, it is the same across the board. And we find that in all our studies all over the world. It does differ by territory, so that we get very different responses for instance, in Southeast Asia than we do in South America. But Europe’s all pretty similar. So you have to remember that sound, you know, it works through an interface that is unique: the ear. And the ear is directly connected to emotion. And so when we’re measuring responses, we’re actually just measuring that instinctive human, emotional response, rather than anything that is impacted by gender or ethnicity or whatever. It acts the same on everyone in the same way.
Adrian Tennant: One of the areas of your research that I think a lot of listeners will find really interesting is your analysis of how musical qualities such as timbre, melody, register, and duration can impact the effectiveness of sonic logos. Could you explain a little about what you’re finding?
David Courtier-Dutton: Yeah. So we haven’t dug deep into all of those yet although we’re currently doing some more work with Goldsmiths on timbre and instrumentation at the moment, but at the high level and using our research with the 150 logos we’ve tested, it’s quite easy to see some patterns in the data. So number one, melodic sonic logos trump non-melodic every time, and although we don’t know why that is, I would suggest that it’s because it’s far easier to like a melodic logo than a non-melodic logo. And we know from our research that if people like it, they can land the brand attributes. It’s easy to remember. So melodic works really well. That said, you can have, obviously back to Netflix, you can have a successful non-melodic logo. Doesn’t mean to say it won’t work just means you’re going to have to spend a lot more on marketing and advertising to fuse that brand logo connection. The other, this is almost up there with “if you put your name in the sonic logo, people will remember it more closely”, of course, but the longer a logo is, the more effective it is as well. So if you have a sonic logo that’s 10 seconds long, it gives people more time to actually feel the emotions and connect with it, and so the longer logos are generally more effective. That said, on a practical level, I don’t think I can’t think of anyone who has a 10 second sonic logo. It’s turning into a sonic anthem at that point. You don’t have 10 seconds in a commercial or whatever to play a sign-off sonic logo, so it is constricted by the realities of marketing, but the rule is, the longer it is, the more chance it is that it will be effective.
Adrian Tennant: We focused on effectiveness for this discussion, but we know that personality is a really important consideration in branding. What does your research reveal about the role of sonic logos in developing or supporting a brand’s personality?
David Courtier-Dutton: You’re absolutely right. Personality is fundamental in branding generally, leave aside sonic branding. I mean, we all know that consistency is a key rule of branding, so consistent brand assets – whether that’s your logo, your tone of voice, your font color – the same is absolutely true for a sonic logo. And the reason is, is because consistency breeds authenticity, authenticity leads to trust in the brand, and an increase of trust in the brand leads to increased brand equity. So it has to be consistent on a personality level. And music doesn’t contain colors or anything. It purely communicates emotion. And so the emotion that you were communicating with your sonic identity, sonic brand, and the personality of the brand must be closely aligned to actually deliver true brand value and to make your sonic logo capable of rapidly being linked to the brand itself. The other thing we’ve found in the research is that the closer you start with your sonic logo, the closer that is to your brand personality on day one, the more rapidly it will actually gain brand attribution. And also the higher the ultimate personality match you will achieve with the brand itself. So on every single project we run with every brand in the world, personality is a large part of that study because they get it. It’s rule 1.1 of branding, really, consistency.
Adrian Tennant: Well, one framework that many marketers and creatives use in brand development is the 12 brand archetypes based on psychologist Carl Jung’s work on personality. Brand archetypes have proven enduring because assets can be designed in ways that are relatable as personality traits that we as humans recognize, either consciously or maybe subconsciously. David, I know you’ve done some work with Massive Music that leverages your research resulting in the world’s first data-driven sonic branding tool. Could you tell us more about that?
David Courtier-Dutton: Data that we collected to create the tool was really quite massive. We involved half a million consumers around the world, and we tested hundreds and hundreds of musical assets, sonic logos, sonic anthems, mainstream tracks, and got consumers to rate each one against 212 different brand attributes. So we ran each track through about 20 times and we asked them to rank against the ten attributes each time. What we then were able to do – using data science – was map the correlations between every attribute and every other attribute. So happy and cheerful always rated up and down in tandem, happy and sad in opposite directions, but then there’s happy and sophisticated and sad and trustworthy and all this. So we ended up with about 40,000 different correlations, and then, from that, we were able to collapse all of those down into a limited number of attributes that mapping back could capture the personality of a brand. So what we have in Brand Match, which is what the tool is called, is effectively an archetype tool, but it enables you to define literally an unlimited number of archetypes because we mapped the entire emotional DNA of music. So, regardless of the personality, we can do that very precisely. That’s great. Works really well when we’re working with brands to actually get them to define their personality and then measure the music against that. But for many brands, particularly FMCG and others, they’re already wedded to their own archetype systems. So whether that’s Jungian, whether it’s NeedScope, whether it’s Ditko, whether it’s Razzers in India, and it’s really useful for us to speak their language. So we’ve used brand experts in doing this. We’ve given them our list of 212 different attributes. And we said, “Just pick three or four of those attributes for each of your, in this case, Jungian personality traits, whether you are the Explorer or the Caregiver, now, which of the three or four attributes within our attributes that you think absolutely belong in that particular segment?” They do that and then, because we know all the correlations between all the other 212, we can automatically – using statistics, data science – map every single attribute to one or more of the brand archetypes and weight them accordingly. So, because we’ve done that for several different archetype frameworks so far, what it means is we can give them all the results, using our technology and Brand Match, but then be able to map them very precisely to their framework, whether it’s Jungian, NeedScope, whatever. So it’s essentially just an extension of what we’re already doing. Then I think that more as a sort of dumbing down, but it’s actually, a way to speak their language and say, “Your new sonic logo is absolutely an Explorer primary archetype with a secondary Magician, or whatever it may be. And this is what we worked with Massive Music to enable them to actually use this with clients and they use it very effectively in every project they do now, this ability to map to any archetype framework has worked really well in a number of projects, and I think will do, going forward.
Adrian Tennant: How does an agency typically interface with Brand Match?
David Courtier-Dutton: In terms of how they work with us, what they normally do is they plot us in as their research partners, especially sonic branding partner. And then we typically then have 45 minutes to an hour directly with the client and we talk them through it and we explain the methodology behind it. And then, when we’re actually running the project, we send them an online link for them to define their brand using 14 Brand Match attributes, that map back to the 212, and that then becomes the benchmark for them. And that’s what we measure all the music we test against. When we test the music, we test the music against the same 14 attributes, and then it goes through all the number crunching, and then we can calculate the match to the brand personality itself. But, yeah, as you say, a lot of brands do like archetypes.
Adrian Tennant: Excellent. We started this conversation by identifying sonic logos as important assets that can help differentiate brands from the competition. But you’ve written that, based on your research in audio branding, while distinctiveness does increase the propensity to purchase on a standalone basis, it’s not an attribute that represents a meaningful impact, positive or negative on driving recall. Can you unpack this for us?
David Courtier-Dutton: Yeah. So this, this was I suppose controversial is too strong a word because I didn’t think it is that controversial, but it was unexpected and it’s something that flies in the face of common thinking in branding that you have to be distinctive for distinctiveness sake. Otherwise, you can’t stand out. How can you possibly stand out if you’re not distinctive? But sonic branding is different in that, as I was explaining earlier, the ultimate goal is to get brand salience: to hear the logo and be able to name the brand. To get really strong recall – which as we said, is that it’s the first step on the ladder – there are key attributes that drive strong recall and these attributes things like catchy, happy, positive, uncomplicated bundle all of those into a signage logo. It’s really easy to remember, but the attributes that are most closely correlated with distinctiveness are very different. So if you want a distinctive sonic logo, you want to make it courageous, determined, cool, daring. And they are very far away from catchy, happy, positive, and uncomplicated. In fact, they’re almost diametrically posed in that, so the attributes that drive distinctiveness actually act against those that drive recall. So if you create a really distinctive logo, it’s very unlikely to deliver what you need to deliver strong recall, but the attributes that drive distinctiveness are actually quite well correlated by those that drive propensity to buy. So I think what we’re saying is that, on a marketing level – yes, you want distinctive audio assets. But on a branding level, actually, distinctiveness – it’s not negatively correlated, it just has no positive value.
Adrian Tennant: David, what’s one finding from your research so far that seems counterintuitive, or upsets accepted wisdom as it relates to brand development and strategy?
David Courtier-Dutton: So I think distinctiveness is the biggie. But I think when we look at the results of people that were familiar with the brand association, people who are not familiar with the brand association, we see that the perceived personality of the sonic logo is often radically different between those who make the brand connection and those who don’t. So the personality of the sonic logo is ultimately consumed by the personality of the brand. And I’m going to say Netflix again, because when you ask people to define the personality of the sonic logo of Netflix, where they’re familiar with the Netflix brand association, which about 80% of people are, you got a very different personality than you do if you ask people who aren’t aware of the Netflix brand association, I mean dramatically different. So the purpose of the sonic logo is to create that Pavlovian trigger, and so you shouldn’t get too hung up about whether or not the personality of the sonic logo or the sonic logo itself is going to be in three years. If you do your job right, the sonic logo will become the brand. Just like when you look at the Apple visual logo you don’t look at it and go, “Oh, there’s a juicy apple.” You just think, “Global technology company.” The logo itself is sucked dry of its own personality and becomes that trigger. And so people need to focus on the end goal, which is that we want to create this Pavlovian trigger, rather than completely obsess about whether they like the logo or all the different aspects of the logo. And I think that is lost in a lot of sonic branding work at the moment. People get obsessed with today and how people will feel about it tomorrow – when in fact, they should be obsessing about how quickly is this going to achieve brand salience, and what can we do with it to get to brand salience quicker at less cost?
Adrian Tennant: Great advice. David, if listeners would like to learn more about SoundOut, explore Brand Match, or connect with you, where can they find you?
David Courtier-Dutton: We are at www.SoundOut.com and a lot of our clients come in through our contact form on the website, funnily enough. It’s a pleasant surprise when they do, but we monitor it closely, and you always get a response from the appropriate person. So, yeah. Do get in touch.
Adrian Tennant: David, thank you very much for being our guest today on IN CLEAR FOCUS.
David Courtier-Dutton: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much, Adrian.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, David Courtier-Dutton, CEO of SoundOut. You’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeyeagency.com. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.