Building brand power, soundwave by soundwave. Sonic branding: how it all began.
Sound is a force. Something that can command, inspire and elicit powerful emotional responses in people. And in today’s fast-paced era of digital transformation, leading brands and agencies are harnessing the potency of audio for marketing purposes.
But using sound as a means of driving engagement and selling things is not a new concept. Way back in 400AD church bells were introduced into the Christian church by senator Paulinus of Nola, to capture the attention of worshippers and encourage them to come to prayer. In the 1500s, ditties were introduced on the streets of London, as shop owners sang songs to bring the punters along.
Fast forward to 1922, and elevator music became a thing, calming anxious passengers who were terrified of these then-futuristic steel cages. A decade later, in 1932, national anthems were first played for gold medallists at the medals ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, with the power of sound harnessed to celebrate athletes and honor nations.
Once Upon a Jingle
Jumping ahead another half-decade, to 1984, and the now-infamous Michael Jackson was performing his iconic moonwalk in the middle of Pepsi’s ‘The New Generation’ television ad, a campaign that was so successful it had thousands of listeners calling into radio stations to request the ‘Pepsi song’. Adapting the song Billie Jean for Pepsi, with lyrics “you’re the Pepsi generation guzzle down and taste the thrill of the day,” the ad had the world going wild for both the song and the drink it was promoting. And people still, to this day, think of Pepsi as “the drink for a whole new generation.”
Since the 1980s, sounds such as advertisement jingles, station, airport or supermarket announcements, the trills and twangs of TV networks, even the ping of the dishwasher when it’s finished a cycle, have become our familiar, constant companions. Sonic branding is ubiquitous, completely ingrained in consumer culture and consciousness. And often we’re hearing and absorbing it without even realising.
Using Sound Strategically and Across Different Touchpoints
Sonic branding has a place in history, surrounds us today, and will likely immerse us even more tomorrow. But, on a more practical level, what exactly is it? How is it used? What is it most useful for? Sonic branding is the holistic or integrated approach to a brand’s use of sound and music across multiple different touchpoints. And those touchpoints can be anything from a website, to a chatbot, a jingle, an on-hold piece of music, a sonic logo or the beep of a single button.
The Relationship Between Sound and Reaction
Sonic branding is also about the relationship between the sound and the consumer, or more specifically the consumer’s brain. Firstly, it’s important to understand that sound doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s reciprocal. If a giant explosion occurred with no humans present to hear it, science would not strictly classify this as ‘sound’ because it’s not being received by an eardrum. But when an eardrum does receive it and transmits that sound to the brain, the human brain will interact with that sound and link it to an intuitive reaction.
Sound is an interplay between the thing that produces it and the thing that hears and reacts to it, and it’s in this that the might of sonic branding lies. Hear, feel. Feel, purchase. It’s a simple equation. Yet many brands are yet to fully harness sound’s inherent force.
Different Sounds, Different Responses
As we’ve already seen, sonic branding can be adapted for various mediums and broken down into various elements, while different sounds or instruments can provoke different emotions in people. Other examples of sonic branding include navigational sounds, voice-assist technology, soundscapes (used when interacting with a brand in a physical space), and actual voice-overs (an extraordinary example of the latter being David Attenborough’s beloved voice for BBC.)
Some brands create long-form sonic expressions, entire brand anthems that can be adapted for use across all touchpoints – for the logo or website, for advertising purposes, retail experiences, or events such as trade shows. Other brands use more of a micro-sound approach, creating lots of different distinct sounds that are implemented throughout the brand infrastructure, yet work together to create a more unified whole.
The Art of Instrumental
Sonic branding becomes even richer as a concept as different instruments are used to provoke different feelings. Strings create a feeling of warmth and security, for example, horns can create a feeling of courage, drums can bring forth something more primal, whereas the human voice can make us feel understood and reassured.
The notes themselves also matter. Melodies in major keys are thought to make us feel happier than minor keys, while harmonic progression can also influence the way the music makes us feel.
This is why entire sonic branding agencies now exist to help brands turn their sonic ambitions into a targeted, integrated approach. Sonic design isn’t simply designing a single sound or even a collection of sounds. It involves examining how different roles play together. And using sound not only provokes isolated reactions but create an ongoing story.
Masters of Sound
As for sonic branding benchmarks, there are some brands worth mentioning. It’s hard to ignore, for example, the sonic super-strength of McDonald’s, with its ‘I’m Loving It’ jingle transcending time zones and continents. Disney is also worth a mention for the vast breadth and depth of its sonic ecosystem, producing entire sonic identities for every single movie it makes. But it’s Apple and Amazon that are busy steering sonic branding into the future, shaping our lives with their AI-powered, voice-assist technology, and making information easier to access than ever before.
Smaller brands can learn a lot from these sonic branding behemoths, revolutionizing the way we perceive, react and communicate, and using sound to change the world as we know it.
So sound, as we’ve seen, affects consumers profoundly and immediately, eliciting feelings and actions, whether that means a kid sprinting into the road at the sound of an ice cream van jingle, or Mastercard releasing a music record to transform the way customers perceive its business. And that makes sound an extraordinary marketing tool.
Sound can create a deep connection between a consumer and a brand that has the power to last a lifetime. And in this rapidly digitizing world of ours, it’s now time for every brand, big and small, to use sound to gratify eardrums, engage minds and establish loyalty.