What’s Your Frequency? Finding a Clear Voice in a Sea of Noise

Down where the water is dark, far from the din of human activity, there’s a sound that reverberates for thousands of miles. A beautiful song our ears can’t discern. It’s the voice of our biggest underwater friend—the whale.

All whales, or cetaceans, communicate by “singing” a series of whistles, grunts, clicks and groans. These songs set them apart from other marine life (or any intelligent life, for that matter). In fact, each species of whale has its own language, while individual pods even have their own unique dialect and culture. But there’s one underwater voice in particular that’s sparked a wave of scientific studies and some uniquely inspired stories over the past several decades. He has a special song of his own—and it’s not just other whales listening.

The “Loneliest” Whale in the World

During the Cold War, a network of underwater microphones monitored the activity of Soviet submarines. When those hardened military engineers installed the rigs in the 1950s, they probably didn’t expect to capture one of the strangest cultural and scientific phenomenons in American history. And they definitely wouldn’t expect it to be about whales.

Most whales sing their song to the tune of 15-to-25 Hertz (Hz). Humans can’t really hear a tone so deep and rumbling. In fact, most of the whale songs we’ve heard are a sped up version of the original audio, since most audio equipment simply can’t play it back at that range. This might be news to the Regular Joe, but to William Watkins, an expert of marine mammal bioacoustics, it was just a part of the everyday job.

In 1989, Watkins and his research team picked up quite a peculiar noise with the help of the hydrophone network: a whale, likely a blue or fin whale. Now, they had heard other whales. A whole sea’s worth. But this one registered at a frequency not typical to blue and fin whales. Its song came in at a never-before-heard 52 Hertz, far higher than the norm. They picked it up again in ‘90 and ‘91, checking in periodically with their odd new friend and tracking his journey. He was far too intriguing to ignore, so they followed him for the next 12 years. Watkins died in 2004 and left behind the Lonely Whale study, which was published in the Deep Sea Research journal shortly after his passing.

If the study had been about any other whale, it would’ve been forgotten; but there wasn’t anything ordinary about it. To the public, it was about a whale without a mate or a friend because he sang off-key. A lonely whale without a friend. And his story took the world by storm. The research team was surprised, to say the least, when they discovered to what extent their study had caught fire with the media. Major publications picked it up, each with their own spins. Public interest grew, people were talking, and mostly they got to wondering: If his song was at a different frequency, could any of his whale friends hear him? Was he, in fact, lonely?

Songs were written, documentaries and movies planned, and a whole lot of art created. The social impact lasted more than a decade, and it seemed everyone who read the story of “The World’s Loneliest Whale” connected with it in their own way. But how could an animal who just happens to speak differently create such an empathetic, human response? Despite what the public wanted to believe, the reality was far different. According to experts in the field, the whale probably isn’t lonely at all. In fact, his singing is similar to a regular blue whale, so many of his fellow whales can hear him and maybe even understand him. He just sounds a little weird. And while scientists continue to refute the “lonely whale” claims with these facts, the mark he made on the general public is lasting still.


So what’s with all of this hoopla about whales?

There’s an old quote (credited to a Hopi Native American proverb or the Greek philosopher Plato, take your pick) that states: “those who tell the stories, rule the world.” Unaware of the empathy we felt for the apparent loneliness of another species, the whale and his story, for a time, ruled the world. The driving force was the staying power of the conversation, and it’s this kind of organic cultural impact that marketing storytellers should emulate.

With more brands ripping each other off, and as more lazy, unoriginal, click-baity content is force-fed into the web, what we now see on the surface is nothing more than one big, unoriginal blob (no offense to blobs). The anomaly of the whale sends a clear message for modern storytellers and brands everywhere: stand out. Sing your song a little differently—try it a little off-tune even—and people will notice. The industry has shifted away from quantity-focused content marketing because it’s harder than ever to keep an audience attentive and focused these days. Humans on the web have “evolved” to spot crap content, and the loudest voice in the room isn’t always the one people are listening to.

Original, quality, meaningful content is always the way of the future, so...

1. Embrace Your Oddities

Everyone remembers Old Spice commercials. You can probably recite by memory your local radio ad song from childhood, fifteen or more years after it aired. People talk about the ambitious Super Bowl commercials more than the actual game itself. Why do these things stick around, and others ultimately don’t? Because they broke outside the mold and engaged an audience in a fresh, exciting way.  

No one thought auto insurance and comedy would ever go hand-in-hand, but Geico made it their calling card, and it led to mainstream success. Every major insurance company tried to mimic this bold, new, weird campaign style. But as the online market grew and content became more and more accessible, it didn’t take long for audiences to sniff out disingenuity. And it’s clearer now more than ever that what audiences crave above anything else is a damn good story.

2. Speak Human

It’s absolutely vital to know your brand’s demographic inside and out. No brand should know them better than you. Establish a tone of voice that appeals to their traits, and craft your words to cater to their wants both now and in the future. What do they care about? What drew them to your brand in the first place? What kind of noise is out there that could distract them from you? Your brand’s content strategy should be built around answering these questions.

Connecting with your people is all that matters in the end. You support them, and they support you. But lasting relationships take time to build; and in order to truly affect individuals instead of just pushing a brand, you need to nurture that relationship by listening. Then, future content can grow around the dynamic between your brand and your audience, and a trust will solidify.  

3. Make a Lasting Impact

The story of the Lonely Whale stuck around for over a decade. Heck, we’re still writing about him now. What made that story so memorable? What can make yours stick around? A lasting impact needs a truly genuine story. No fabrication, no pandering, but something that’s worth the empathy.

And don’t forget, while you’re telling that impactful story, playing safe will just get you lost in all the noise. It’s okay to be a little weird sometimes.