In a previous column I wrote about why sonic branding, or associating brands with sounds, has grown in importance. As I’ve continued to study the benefits of associating brands with sounds, I am increasingly convinced that brands miss an opportunity to increase awareness and build positive associations if they do not associate themselves with a sound. From Netflix’s “Tadum” to Microsoft’s “The Wave” and Apple’s “Siri” recent years have seen a growing number of brands linking them to sounds.
Sonic Branding as a Key Brand Element
We have reached the point where leading textbooks such as Keller and Swaminathan’s Strategic Brand Management: Building, Measuring and Mamaging Brand Equity should list “sonic or audio marks” as a brand element along with brand names, URLs, logos and symbols, characters, slogans, jingles ,and packaging. Jingles could be retained as one type of sonic or audio mark, but because there are now additional mechanisms for linking sounds to brands the category needs to be broadened to capture sonic branding’s potential impact. As defined by Keller and Swaminathan, brand elements, “…sometimes called brand identities, are those trademarkable devices that serve to identify and differentiate the brand” – and sonic branding surely has the capacity to do this as illustrated in the video below.
To get additional insight into why sonic branding has become essential for many brands in a variety of contexts, I spoke to Russell Boiarsky, Director of Brand Strategy, and Chad Cook, President of Creative and Marketing at Stephen Arnold Music (“SAM”), a leading sonic and audio branding agency. In addition to those with business backgrounds, the company employs musicians and sound experts. Its clients include news networks, gaming companies, sports teams, streaming an entertainment companies, corporations, tourism organizations and themed experiences in addition to physical products.
Why Sonic Branding is Effective
Boiarsky notes that while the use of sounds to promote brands is not new, the scope of its capabilities has expanded. “Sonic branding has been around since the 1800s when poetry was used to promote products in newspapers and magazines,” he says, “As radio emerged, broadcasters used sound to identify their unique brands, like the NBC Chimes. Then came ‘jingles’ — think Alka Seltzer’s Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz or I’m a Toys ‘R Us Kid. What began as a clever way to embed a product or service in our memories, has become much more sophisticated as brands seek to form deep emotional connections with audiences. And catering to our sense of sound is primed to do exactly that.”
Indeed, research by neuroscientists shows that within the limbic system of the brain, sounds activate the amygdala and hippocampus sections— areas associated with recall and emotions. As a result, in addition to its traditional role of enhancing memory, associating sounds with brands can strengthen brand associations and heighten emotions.
Boiarsky emphasizes the ability of sounds to activate emotions and, in turn, stimulate memory.
“When it comes to emotional connection,” he says, “sound is one of the most powerful senses we have. It is processed in the area of the brain responsible for emotion and memory — a desirable combination in marketing. We are wired to react emotionally to sounds, like feeling fearful or defensive when we hear an eerie violin shriek, or feeling a sense of love or calm when we hear a heartbeat. When we hear a sound often enough, the associated emotional response is committed to memory.”
How Sounds Can Be Effectively Linked to Brands
Good sonic branding programs arouse emotions and then repeatedly expose consumers to the sounds in a way that leads to lighting fast recall and associations with the brand. Stephen Arnold Music’s approach takes into account brand personality as well and makes sure the sounds align with the brand story. Cook describes his firm’s philosophy as follows:
“Effective sonic branding uses a simple formula: Emotion plus repetition equals recall. It starts with defining an audio style guide, identifying a palette of musical motifs and sounds that represent a brand’s personality and values. We then bring this sonic identity to life across brand touchpoints — online, apps. advertising, experiences,. etc. It’s storytelling through sound — not a singular sound, but a collection of music and sounds that represent the brand sonically at every touchpoint.
The result, like a great film score, is that the audio creates an emotional response, which, after being experienced numerous times, forms strong brand recall.”
Recent Examples of Strong Sonic Branding
Stephen Arnold Music has had multiple success stories with brands such as CNN, Gearbox Software, UPS, CGTN, ESPN, and many more. For its new on-air image campaign, WETA UK sought a musical identity that evokes the hallmarks of British television — quality, sophistication, and authenticity — while representing the station’s high production value and expansive program genres.
Cook describes the process of developing the theme as follows: “We began by developing an orchestral theme representative of WETA UK that could then be articulated using dynamics. With particular instruments such as harpsichord and piccolo trumpet carrying the conversation, the theme moves freely between genres and eras, while supporting WETA UK’s messaging of ‘British Television at Its Best.’”
At the behest of Dylan Wilbur, WETA UK Creative Director, the sonic branding campaign was designed to be consistent with the network’s underlying personality such that it would not be short lived. “We needed a piece that would work with shows we are promoting today and with a slate of different shows a year or two from now.” Wilbur expressed high satisfaction with the outcome of the campaign, which was recently ranked by SoundOut as one of the world’s fastest growing sonic brands (SoundOut).
An additional example of effective sonic branding is the sonic logo that SAM created for Gearbox Software. Given the brand’s broad target demographic — 12- to 44-year-old discerning gamers — the sonic mark needed to be edgy and progressive, while also being playful and youthful.
Cook indicates that the partnership between his company and Gearbox paid off with a sonic identity that speaks to the gaming masses. “Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle. Which is what happened when our production director, Jesus Garcia, recorded his 6-year-old son yelling, ‘Gearbox.’ We knew we had a winner – and with over 100m units shipped using this branding, and consistent (mostly positive) questions from their fans on where it came from – Gearbox knew it as well.”
Examples such as those above illustrate the power of sonic branding, which deserves recognition as an important brand element that can be used to help build brand equity.