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Flash! Why retail marketers should be thinking about light and sound

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Why do we have such a fascination with light and sound? Perhaps it’s because they are two of our built-in senses that generate such strong emotions. I’ve been dabbling with both mediums since I was around seven years old. I would use my Dad’s old reel to reel tape recorder and tape different pieces of music and then I would have my Dad hook up different coloured lightbulbs on a wooden board that I would flash on and off with switches to the music. Yes, I did this when I was seven!

I experienced my first laser light show in 1977 when I was 11, it was called Laserium and showcased in the London Planetarium – it blew my mind. I’d never seen laser light before and being one of the purest forms of visible light was so beautiful. Laserium was a laser light show you sat and watched, where abstract imagery was choreographed to music under an 80ft dome, this cemented a bond for me with the two mediums.

© Laserium

It’s hard to imagine, but way back in 1977 there was no such thing as an affordable computer, certainly not in the home. No 3D animated graphics, no computer art, no flat screen panels, no LEDs!, so seeing a light show using lasers that danced magically to music was something people had never experienced before. Today in entertainment you’ll mainly see lasers at a night club or festival where you’ll be emblazoned with laser beams over your head as you party the night away.

We need to start with a little science. As humans, we can only see the light in the electromagnetic spectrum referred to as ‘visible light’. There is of course light in the invisible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, infrared and ultraviolet but humans just cannot see it.

Visible colour spectrum

Different wavelengths in the visible spectrum are perceived as different colours which are measured in nanometres, and each of these can trigger a powerful emotional response. For example, colours in the red area of the visible colour spectrum are known as warm colours and include red, orange, and yellow. These warm colours can evoke emotions ranging from feelings of comfort, love, passion and power to feelings of anger, rage and hostility. There have been many studies in colour psychology and colour therapy including how colour can influence consumer purchase.

In the world of shopper marketing, light and colour plays a very important role in engaging the consumer, for example, attracting them to a display or an area in-store. Most of us at some point will have seen flashing or animated lighting in-store. How many of you have been attracted to a display even when you didn’t know what the display was advertising?

The advances in low voltage, high brightness LEDs have paved the way for designers and creatives alike to incorporate them into point-of-sale. Low cost integrated LEDs that can be powered by a small lithium battery for example can flash constantly for over a year – great for that Christmas twinkling effect. The use of LED lighting can be taken one stage further to engage and attract the shopper and now with individually addressable LEDs in strip form, they can be made to change colour, appear to animate in line, sequence back and forth simultaneously or to animate and change colour when programmed in a specific manner.

The use of matrix pixel panel displays to advertise product using pixel-based imagery is now commonplace such as large-scale indoor and outdoor advertising displays. There are so many other different lighting technologies and techniques that can be utilised for POS and in-store marketing including neon, neon LED, OLED and EL, so I won’t go into detail about all of them here!

RGB pixel panels create a stunning video wall at the Louis Vuitton store, Changi Airport, Singapore.

© 2020 Simon Carrington, Spark

Simple yet effective use of LED back-lit shelving in the Xbox zone of the Microsoft Store Sydney.

© 2020 Simon Carrington, Spark

Another innovation that has recently become quite popular in-store is the holographic LED fan. This is not a real hologram created by laser light, but a fast spinning fan blade that incorporates a strip of addressable LEDs that by our persistence of vision, tricks the brain into seeing a 3-dimensional product image and message suspended in mid-air. The fans can also be arranged as a matrix display where multiple units are programmed to generate one large 3D display which produces the ‘floating’ 3D image on a much grander scale, a whole shop window for example.

Hologram fan array creating a large-scale 3D visual effect.

The art of noise (and I’m not talking about the band)

I don’t think there’s anybody on the planet that doesn’t like music, whether it be classical, jazz, rock, soul, pop, electronic, dance, grunge or heavy metal. Music and sound are intertwined in our human makeup. Sound, as well as light plays a massive part in how our brain forms different emotions. For example, whenever you’ve watched a movie that had a sad scene in the storyline, you would have noticed the visuals being accompanied by a soundtrack that would have been scored in such a way to stimulate the brain in generating an emotional feeling of sadness or foreboding.

This is achieved by the composer’s score, and nine times out of ten by the use of minor chords in that particular piece of music. Simply put, major chords you can call ‘happy chords’ and minor chords are what you can call ‘sad chords.’ It’s all to do with the way the brain perceives the sound. How sound in a movie affects a person can also be tested in a simple experiment. Try watching the classic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with the sound muted, it isn’t nearly as scary or thrilling! This is because without the screams and the shrill of the strings from Bernard Herrmann’s classic score, the shower scene becomes almost lifeless and certainly not as frightening.

Shower scene from Psycho – try watching it without sound

Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext (

So how can sound and the shopper marketing experience work together? Sound is an easy way to attract a consumer’s attention. There are many ways to utilise sound in point of sale, from cost effective motion activated sound chips, to a high-tech digital assistant that can be helpful and engaging, answering verbal questions about a particular product and even offering suggestions about other products in a particular range.

Generic motion activated miniature sound-chip.

Sound can also be used to stimulate the shopper to purchase. Several articles have been written on the subject, one of these in Psychology Today explains how playing loud music can overstimulate the shopper leading to more impulse purchases. For example, you wouldn’t expect to venture into a youthful clothing store and hear classical music, but by the store playing the latest tunes at a high volume on a really good sound system, extends the dwell time of the youthful shopper and also attracts more to shop in the store from the surrounding areas. On the other hand, hearing gentle laid back music such as soft jazz while shopping for homewares is more effective in assisting with retaining dwell time.

Combining the clever use of light and sound can help deliver the ultimate shopping experience.

By engaging the talents of designers who are accustomed to working with light and sound in a creative project, stunning immersive shopping experiences can be brought to life. The consumer will always be on the lookout for the next best shop or entertainment experience, so think about how you could utilise light or sound in your next creative project, store fit-out or POS activation.

Simon Carrington is vice-president of design, Asia Pacific for Spark