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28 JUL. 2016

Sonic Branding: How Owning a Sound Identity can Build your Brand

Benjamin Noyes

 “Xbox: on.” 

Anyone who’s picked up a black Xbox One controller before already knows the sound that comes next: the crystal clear whoosh is impossible to forget. As an avid FIFA player, simply hearing it brings out my competitive side, just as the old Electronic Arts audio logo did pre-2010: "EA Sports… It’s in the game."

When we talk about branding, we tend to focus on what we see: the brand name, the logo, the packaging design. As digital touchpoints for brands multiply we inherently consider new possibilities for consumers to see, share and experience our brand online. But the reality is that each of these identifiers builds towards a single, common goal: to build brand perceptions.

There is another powerful human sense that we, as brand builders, sometimes overlook.

What is Sonic Branding?

According to Colleen Fahey of Sixieme Son, a European leader in audio branding and sound design, sonic branding is “the art of creating a brand’s distinct audio identity that expresses its personality and values, while providing a coherent audio vocabulary for all of the touch points.” Building a strong sound identity includes three basic steps – analysis, creation, and integration – but it is a niche capability that takes years to master. The required balance between musical and strategic considerations for a sound identity must strike a chord with stakeholders and consumers alike.

Sound Identity is comprised of 3 levels: the Musical Territory, the Sound Identity, and the Audio Logo. A brand’s Audio Logo is its most precise form of sonic branding.


Diagram courtesy of Sixieme Son

Brands from Apple to Expedia to Michelin have all tapped into building their brands through music and sound. But how does it have impact for a brand? 

Why is it effective?

As human beings we constantly take in stimuli subconsciously from the world around us. We hear thousands of things every day – a crowd cheering, high-heels walking, the Air Con blowing – without even focusing on them.  Yet when we hear a crowd cheering, we expect something exciting or boisterous; when we hear Air Con we feel cooler and more relaxed.

That is why a sound identity is so effective. As Fahey also mentions: “Sound is fast and memorable. It’s processed bio-mechanically, straight from the eardrums to the auditory cortex sitting right next to them in the brain.  It works to convey meaning, enhance emotions and create memory. When pairing a visual logo with a sound logo, it doesn’t just make the logo twice as recognizable or memorable – they multiply each other.”

Consumers can be exposed to sonic branding in the background and still be impacted by it. While much of “push” marketing requires consumers to sit still, read, watch, and digest marketing materials, an auditory imprint is absorbed subconsciously in the brain. The allure of this subtle tactic is that it can be introduced to the consumer in places other than branded channels, making the possibilities quite limitless. 

The specific attributes the audio identity evokes will be customized depending on the brand itself. While one brand will choose a light, upbeat sound, another may choose something more deep and mysterious.

Where do we hear it?

Sonic branding is most easily identifiable in commercial channels: television ads, radio commercials, in-store, etc. But many of us hear sonic branding without even realizing it, whether it’s the haptic feedback from a mobile app (a sound or vibration that indicates an action has been completed) or your friend’s iPhone buzzing with the familiar Apple ringtone.

Touchpoints for sonic branding are extensive, and can include any of the following:

  • TV and Radio Ads
  • In-store applications
  • Websites, Social Media Pages/ Channels, Apps
  • Mobile or Computer alerts, Ringtones
  • Events / meetings
  • Corporate videos

How is it implemented?

McDonald’s Tagline

McDonald’s’ iconic tagline “I’m Lovin’ It”, which began in the year 2003, is recognized around the world in dozens of different languages (not always with an on-brand transliteration). The simple three-note Audio Logo is synonymous with the brand’s golden arches and primes consumers to experience a certain emotion when they think about McDonald’s.

Apple’s Ringtone

Apple’s ringtone is ubiquitous around the world.  Rather than using sonic branding to lift its brand or retarget consumers, this use case is more about asserting leadership – when a phone starts ringing, you know immediately if it’s an iPhone, no matter where in the world you are. Apple’s ringtone falls into the Sound Identity category.

IBM’s Watson

IBM has been leading new breakthroughs in data-driven technology and machine learning with Watson, the smartest computer in the world. Its new Watson advertisements show Watson interacting with a number of high-profile celebrities, always with a series of classical, refined music playing – an example of Musical Territory.

Case Zoom-In

With business around the world using sonic branding to mark their territory, it should come as no surprise that some cities are doing the same. (For the full case, read here.)

Take the city of Atlanta, Georgia in the southern Unites States as an example. One of its brand challenges is that it can be perceived as encompassing only characteristics of “the traditional South” – which could take away from the appeal for some young professionals or tourism businesses. So they engaged in a thorough rebranding, a process that leveraged sound identity.

The city’s sound identity is rooted in Atlanta’s warmth and hospitality, its authority and dynamism, and its unique and rich musical heritage. The distinguishable rhythms and cheerful vocals tell the story of a city bursting with diversity.

Well-received on the B2C side with six different culturally adopted scores deployed for six different languages in 2015, and a glittery “Buckhead” special edition that is fresh, young and hip, the sound identity was successfully leveraged in the B2B context as well and has been used in convention booths and promotional videos to boost attendance. 

Conclusion

Sound is nostalgic. It can be an inspiration and it can be a lullaby. It is what sparked the groove of the 70s, the funk of the 80s and the rock of the 90s – it has quite literally defined generations. But it can also define a moment, and this moment is where brands can make an impact.

What does your brand sound like?

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