What Is Sonic Branding?

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Have you ever thought about why your text message notification sounds the way it does? Companies like Apple and Samsung spend huge amounts of money and time making sure that the sounds you associate with their products — be they message notifications or the sound your computer makes when it powers on — make you want to use these products even more.

But it’s not just for tech applications, sound identities pop up in “sonic logos,” advertising jungles, sonic design motifs, and even playlists, as ways for companies of all kinds to connect on a deeper, emotional level with their customer base. And brands pay good money for artists to create these sounds! If you’re able to create electronic sounds and plenty of them, it’s not a bad idea to start building a portfolio and pitching to agencies.

I sat down with audio branding expert Mikey Ballou, who co-runs the digital creative agency Apostrophe 3, to find out more about why a musician like me might be interested exploring this territory.

But, first, a definition.

What Is Sonic Branding?

Ballou shares his definition: “Sonic branding is the strategic use of music and sound to help reinforce brand recognition and enhance the consumer experience.” Think about the Microsoft Windows startup sound (famously designed by Brian Eno) or the XBox’s sound logo below. They’re not jingles or songs at all — they’re small, powerful pieces of sound that are associated closely and identifiably with that brand’s values.

“Developing strategy based around sound helps to influence the relationship a customer has with a brand, and keeps the customer engaged,” he explains further.

“Consider the idea that every customer will have a multi-sensory experience when they buy — they see, they touch, they smell, and sometimes they taste. The listening component (when combined with the other senses), will ideally evoke new memories and feelings for the customer.”

Sound also contextualizes a brand’s message.

Think about how the music and sound that accompany Darth Vader in Star Wars immediately tell you a story (a story within a story) about how to feel about the character. Sonic branding is often a huge part of a company’s promotional strategy, because the power of music and sound transcends language. It communicates via emotion and feeling, as opposed to the way that image and text serve to convey factual information; so sound can often be more enduring than a visual image.

Practically speaking, if you’re hired to work on a company’s sonic brand, you’ll need to be able to take the vague concepts central to that brand’s values and translate those into musical qualities. It may only be 3 or 4 notes, or a particular chord that resonates with the average listener, or it could even be nested primarily in the timbral identity of the track. (We can help with some of that, too!)

You may have to be able to provide a number of stylistic versions of your track, as well, like a samba or trap or polka version, and you may be asked to write something that emulates a specific artist, if asked. Often, the finished product will be a collection of clips and motifs that can be used throughout an ad campaign to express the dynamic boundaries of the campaign.

Ballou describes his own process as such:

“Usually an agency will provide a creative brief of what a client will want, and a composer will accommodate it as best as they can. If I develop a brief myself, I research the brand history, consumer demographics, and the geographical territories where the brand has its strongest influence, and overall goals of the campaign.”

Sonic Logos

A sonic logo often lies at the heart of a sound branding campaign. A sonic logo is the audio cue used by a company, TV show, radio network, etc., to leave a customer with a particular impression after the content spot ends, as well as strengthen that customer’s connection to their product in some way.

The best ones are designed to be instantly recognizable, without question as to what that music represents. Logos often will not change for decades, unless they’re either very unsuccessful or the company is rebranding its image and message and needs something new to build buzz and create new associations (keep reading for how McDonald’s accomplished this through music and sound).

Here are some of the most popular sonic logos, which, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you should be able to recognize in your sleep.

HBO’s “Ahh” evokes lots of “TV sounds.” The static and the click that triggers the ahh sound is particularly clever.

NBC’s “Chime” logo is elegant in its simplicity. It’s just three notes which makes it easy to remember and impossible to miss. And it’s a classic example of the major sixth interval too!

Coca-Cola’s “Taste the Feeling” logo was developed so people could sing “taste the feeling” along with the jingle. Their previous sonic logo didn’t do that.

Columbia Pictures’ “Intro Logo” evokes feelings of magical whimsy and it builds to a frenetic climax that makes me feel as if whatever I’m about to see is going to make me feel good.

Branding Through Playlists

Sonic branding goes beyond short examples of sound design, music curation can also be an important part of the sonic branding process. Think about how different the music is in an Abercrombie & Fitch store compared with a Sur la Table or a Hot Topic. Ballou is particularly sensitive to this as both a consumer and someone who works in the industry, himself:

“On several occasions, I have walked out of a retail store because the music playing in the background wasn’t consistent at all with what I wanted to buy that day.”

But if you’re not walking in and out of stores in ever-diminishing malls all that often, where else can you find examples of curated musical experiences? Spotify! Companies have now started making playlists to coincide with other types of content, marketing campaigns, new product launches, or just for general brand engagement.

Naturally, Pixar does a great job using playlists to market their movies. Ms. Squibbles from Monsters University has her own playlist, even though she was only briefly in the movie, because she’s seen head-banging to metal. Pixar has playlists for a variety of their characters to help audiences better connect with their brand and create deeper connections to the characters… and so they can sell merchandise related to these identifications.

Victoria’s Secret has used playlist creation on Spotify as a tool, as well, capitalizing on the obsessive, almost cultish popularity of their runway fashion shows. Their “Rock the Runway: From the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (2001-2017)” playlist oozes with sex appeal and confidence, and will give any listener the sense that they themselves are the runway model. And every model deserves to be outfitted by Victoria’s Secret, so…

Even Carnival Cruise Lines has gotten into the playlist game on Spotify. Theirs are full of fun and family-friendly summer songs. Their Spotify campaign has only attracted approximately 2,000 followers to the branded playlist to date, but it serves to communicate the experience of being out on the ocean on vacation on one of their trips. Apparently the average listener engagement was about 20 minutes per session. Not bad, especially when you consider that on average a TV commercial only lasts about 30-60 seconds.

Here’s one that just makes sense. Hair product brand Herbal Essences released a playlist of “songs to sing in the shower.”

One bonus of using playlists for branding purposes is that, while an artist has the right to contact a company and ask that they not use their music, tracks do not have to be licensed or granted use permission when added to a playlist on Spotify.

Ad Music Done Right

Coca-Cola’s “Taste the Feeling” campaign is a brilliant example of sonic branding that takes many different aspects of their customer’s experience into account. The company’s previous major campaign (involving yet another redesign of the bottle itself), “Open Happiness,” was based around a bunch of different songs being played and tagged with the slogan “Open Happiness.”

This was successful in a few ways, primarily in creating a social aspect to their core product. But it didn’t allow consumers to sing along with the theme, something that creates internal connection and forges a personal relationship. The music was basically an afterthought.

Sound design has always been a big part of marketing products like Coca-Cola. We’ve been hearing sound effects like bubbles and sizzles and liquid pouring slowly to trigger thirst for years, so this, of course, was going to be used in Coke’s “refreshing” new campaign. But part of the reason this new campaign felt so successful was that the transitions between the entire sound design process, from opening the bottle, to pouring over ice, to drinking and expressing the sound of refreshment, “aaaah,” were so seamlessly blended with a singable melody.

It’s a holistic approach to their audio brand. And it didn’t hurt that that particular five-note melody was super catchy and instantly recognizable, just like another notable theme…

The McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” sonic logo is another super successful five-note melody, which has some insane history (the video below is well worth your 6 minutes)!

Because this McDonald’s campaign has been so longstanding, and so global, this one is a great example of how different global cultures require different melodic, vocal, and instrumental choices when branding in the country in question. Every culture is, indeed, different and certain advertising norms and techniques simply don’t translate to other audiences. Here’s a compilation of Japanese versions of the “I’m Loving It” logo, for example.

Finally, Avon has also leveraged sonic branding to help their customers make stronger connections to their product. Avon was one of the first brands to use sonic branding with their “Ding, Dong, Avon calling!” marketing campaign back in the 1950s. Lately, the brand has started releasing tons of online content, capitalizing on a strategy they implemented early on, in which they strive to look beyond “their visual identity to keep their communications consistent around the world.”

They still use the iconic “ding dong” sound in their sonic logo, to evoke both the past (always popular) and the notion of building neighborly community through their product, and then use a woman’s voice to sing “Avon.” This is a sonic logo that is both “modular and flexible,” which means they can use it across multiple platforms, and it has proven very effective — which is part of the reason they’ve expanded the short logo into a full song recorded in a bunch of different languages.

If you’re an artist wanting to try your hand at sonic branding and logo creation, start building a sound portfolio to eventually pitch to clients and agencies. There are also tons of online competitions popping up that you can enter to see if you have a knack for this type of thing.

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