Sonic branding

01 January 2009

Just ask Intel™, the world’s largest semiconductor company, how important its “Intel Inside” sound byte is for the organisation. Developed in 1991, the company budgets hundreds millions of dollars annually to ensure the jingle is played frequently across the globe.

There is no getting away from it. This campaign established Intel, which had been a component supplier relatively unknown outside the PC industry, as a household name. Intel’s three second mnemonic has become so well-known that the company doesn’t need to rely on its corporate name being seen, because its brand is heard in advertisements for any number of computer manufacturers’ adverts plugging their notebooks and desktops containing Intel’s technology.

Music and some sounds, like the exhaust note of a Ferrari or Harley Davidson, have the ability to evoke particular emotional responses in all of us. The rapid advances in digital technology over the last decade, especially mobile phones and the Web, have irrevocably changed the way we respond to certain stimuli, particularly sound; Nokia’s ringtone being a classic, if fading, example. iPhones, iPads and other smart devices now enable brands to reach consumers anywhere.

With near silent electric cars about to join our roads, what do brand owners want them to sound like? It’s an interesting question, because from a safety perspective, they will have to make some noise. Could you choose your own sound? A Damien Albarn or Radiohead exhaust note, perhaps. Seriously, think ringtones for cars, augmenting reality with personalised audio auto branding.

Radio and television have used sonic branding to great effect for years – most programmes have their own distinctive soundtrack that means we need not look at our watches to know it’s news time at ten. Using distinctive music in advertisements, too, is tried, tested and effective.

So what’s all the fuss about sonic branding? 

The need for sonic or audio branding has been gathering pace since the late nineties. In digital media 2D branding is no longer enough, so kinetic and sonic branding solutions are now pre-requisites. Sonic branding relates a special sound or tune that readily identifies products or services associated with a particular organisation. Since much of our day can be spent listening without necessarily hearing, sounds can cut-through where visual branding can’t. When developed effectively, sonic branding has the ability to penetrate both the emotional and the logical parts of the mind, which is why the tobacco industry has been restricted from the use of sonic branding in the US since 1970.

As with other senses, music or branded tunes can become a strong memory trigger that enhances the brain’s ability to recall and associate a particular message with a brand. It’s an important dimension of ‘experiential branding’ and increasingly effective online and via mobile devices. With digital media all around us, sonic branding has a very big future.

The development of acoustic design requires similar techniques used by designers in the visual identity process. Using the imagery of a specific product, service or corporate identity, we develop acoustic cues that not only fit the visual values but also reinforce the brand proposition. In the case of Intel, the company wanted a short piece of music that evoked innovation, trouble-shooting skills and the inside of a computer, whilst also sounding corporate and inviting.

One of California’s hottest designers, Kyle Cooper, was commissioned to create an advertisement for Intel’s Pentium technology and asked his old-time friend and musician, Walter Werzowa, to work with him on the development of the sound byte. Interestingly, at the time, Werzowa had never heard of Intel. The brief to develop a jingle that would run for no longer than three seconds was frustrating for the Austrian king of synth. This was an entirely new venture for him, a major departure from the sort of music he was into. But as is often the case in the creative world, the breakthrough came when he started to sing the words. Intel loved the resulting tune and the rest is history. 

When developing a sonic brand, we first set about to understand the brand proposition and then identify emotional touch points within the target market. Once these touch points have been identified, the creative team then creates a sound concept which might incorporate an amalgam of voice, electronic notes, ‘garage band’ and original music. The key objective, however, is to ensure the sonic brand distinguishes the particular brand and supports the product or service proposition.

The ultimate aim of sonic branding is to create a distinctive sound, usually a tune or a series of notes, that makes a link to the product or service by evoking an emotional trigger.

One particular advantage that sonic branding has over visual branding is that it has the potential to transcend language and the cultural barriers associated with visual forms of communication. It is also a branding technique that can overcome reduced levels of attention.

And there are other issues that companies need to address with sonic branding. Whereas jazz has been successful for Starbucks and many other brands, established pieces of music, such as a well-known Bach concerto or a Beatles ballad, miss the mark completely bearing no relationship with the product or service it was intended for. Music that is well-known in it’s own right isn’t really suitable for sonic branding as it often carries other associations. Even advertising’s current love of digging up obscure, quirky tracks from unknown artists only partly achieves the need for aural differentiation, as many go on to be hits in their own right and, ironically, achieve more distinction than the brand did in the ad. What’s needed is a short, original and distinctive ‘sound’ that can be protected and used exclusively for the brand.

That’s why at Nucleus we work with leading musicians and songwriters who’ve already had hit records and know a thing or two about catchy melodies. We work with them to create and distil original, memorable and protectable sonic logos, which can become the lasting audio manifestation of a digital brand.

One example of this is our collaboration with Rick Astley, in creating the sonic brand for sQuid, the next generation payments network. Here, we’ve weaved together a distinctively catchy series of notes, inspired by the ringing tones of a traditional cash till, with a series of arrangements from rock to country to Bollywood. Each becomes a platform to introduce a brand proposition theme, including ‘Don’t need no money in my pocket’ and ‘Now you’re loaded’. In time, sQuid’s sonic brand will become as recognisable as it’s logo, at least, it will if we have it our way.

Peter Matthews
Nucleus Founder & CEO
January 2009

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