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Sonic branding
Wednesday, 28 July 2010 10:20

Corporate logos and visual identity take all the plaudits in brand communication. But companies are increasingly bending an ear to sonic branding: Jon Barker asks if brands have finally found their voice.

im_lovin_it-jpeg-image.jpgWhistle to McDonalds’ ‘I’m lovin’ it’. Now hum the tune for Intel – or even Microsoft’s comforting start-up sting. The sonic brand is the aural equivalent of the graphic identity. But while companies plough time and effort into recognisable visual identities, are they missing a trick by not creating sonic touch points that really differentiate their brand?

Listen carefully and you’ll hear sonic brands everywhere. Apple hasn’t changed its uplifting start-up sound for almost two decades; Intel’s five-note sonic logo has become one of the best-known refrains in the world; Direct Line’s bugle call says urgency, assistance and playfulness.
“Sometimes it takes four or five months’ development to create something that lasts just three seconds,” says Ollie Raphael, director at Delicious Digital, a company specialising in digital video and motion graphics. “But sound is unconsciously logged by consumers and creates an emotional trigger, linking a product with a pleasant memory. Music makes us feel particular emotions, and, because hearing does not require the same focused attention as looking, it allows sonic branding to reach the parts of the brain that other marketing tools cannot reach.”
Classic sonic brands pick up where the advertising jingle leaves off. Dan Dufour, brand consultant at comms agency The Team, explains: “In a crowded marketplace, where consumers are bombarded with visual, auditory and text information, it’s vital that every element of a brand is working as hard as possible to attract and sustain attention. Sonic branding, like tone of voice, can help a brand become instantly recognisable. Corporate organisations should ensure their brands are firing on all cylinders.”
Some sonic logos have even been registered as trademarks. In 1994, motorcycle brand Harley Davidson filed a sound trademark application for its distinctive V-twin engine sound. It realised that if it could capture its own sound, it could distinguish the brand at every point of customer interaction.
“Every brand, every company, every organisation makes a sound,” says sonic specialist Dan Jackson, MD of Cutting Edge Commercial. “Sometimes the sound is beautiful; perhaps you work for the London Symphony Orchestra. Sometimes it’s woeful; maybe you work on the London Underground, with its 100db of screeching. Any organisation that fails to understand it already has a sound is missing the opportunity to enhance it.”
audi.jpgOne company that hasn’t is Audi. For its latest commercial, it recruited sonic branding agency S12 which, with sound specialists Klangerfinder, developed a unique palette of instruments and sounds to draw from, just like a colour scheme. Sounds they claimed as Audi-esque are a steady heartbeat, a breath and a piano.
“The sounds you hear on the advert for the Audi A5 is percussion from the car itself,” explains Margarita Bochman, project leader for Audi AG. “By combining the technical elements of the car sounds with the human elements of the breathing and heartbeat, we keep the sonic experience very close to Audi’s brand values – exceptional and unexpected. It is instantly recognisable; the audience hears the heartbeat and thinks, Audi.”
If used at every touch point, the sonic brand can help companies effectively brand even the shortest of sound-enabled marketing interactions. And itcan bypass cultural and language barriers, enabling brands to deliver a message on a global scale.
Take McDonalds’ ‘I’m lovin’ it’ ads. Launched in 2003, this was actually its first global brand campaign – more than 100 countries were united behind a single brand message. In just six months, awareness of the adverts stood at 86% in general, or 89% among young adults, in the McDonalds’ top ten countries (Brazil PR, 2004).
“Sonic branding acts as a powerful aural locator,” says Chris Davenport, head of verbal identity at Interbrand. “It reassures people that they’ve come to the right place and are in good hands. It’s important to convey an attitude which resonates with people, differentiates from the competition and positions the brand in a positive light.”
direct-line.jpgHowever, while visual design can be beautiful, language elegant or quirky, sonic branding has the danger of being considered as an annoying intrusion. There needs to be a reason for the sonic interruptions: overuse of sound can be more conspicuous than heavy-handed visuals.
The risk of creating a negative response might explain why so many brands remain silent, sonically, on their website – just think how annoying the Direct Line bugle call would sound if it greeted users with every web visit. Or is this just glass half-empty thinking? Look at the iPhone, for example. The sounds involved in the user-experience are both useful and fun – and are starting to become iconic. So if the iPhone can do it, why can’t websites?
“Brand building is shifting more and more into the customer experience and away from pure communications,” says Fred Burt, MD of strategic branding firm Siegel + Gale. “As it does, inserting the brand sonically into the user-experience can often be achieved more subtly, and in a way that enhances rather than interrupts the experience.
“Take the cinema experience. The MGM lion roar, and even the Pearl and Dean theme music, acted as introductory fanfares that heralded the start of a thrilling, immersive experience. Cinemas could go further, using the sonic logo as a mnemonic for the brand when used across all the most relevant touch points, such as automatic telephone information systems, lobby information, ticket retrieval kiosks, the website, in-theatre PA announcements. And of course it can extend to radio and TV promotion, if relevant, and make the communications more readily ‘branded’ as a result.”
As products and experiences become ever more digitally augmented, consumers are increasingly proving accessible to sound. For communicators, there can only be increasing space for sound in the branding bucket.
Sonic boom
MetaDesign, a German design agency, has incorporated sonic branding into several recent projects.
For Lufthansa, it created a motif of four ascending notes in F major that reflected the visual logo’s association with ‘take-off’. This became the foundation for all the different applications of sound in the Lufthansa brand: from corporate music to background sonic atmosphere in airport lounges. The motif was also crucial in the development of the corporate song ‘Symphony of Angels’, and will be taken forward as Lufthansa further develop their corporate soundscape.
Along with helping Audi and Entega, a green energy company, to develop their sonic identities, MetaDesign has also created a consistent aural brand for eBay Deutschland. It came up with an acoustic logo, based on suspense and then excitement, designed to recreate the ‘eBay feeling’ of bidding successfully on an item.