What is Sonic Branding and Why Should I Care?


An excerpt from Audio Branding Using Sound to Build Your Brand 

Published by Kogan-Page

By Colleen Fahey, Sixième Son, and Laurence Minski, Columbia College 

The article below is a condensation of the book’s first chapter, shortened but not altered. In it, we define the core ideas of sonic branding (though we call it “audio branding” in the book, the adjective “sonic” has recently become more prominent in the U.S.) 

Brand-oriented companies across the world are just beginning to realize that they must use logos whenever they come in contact with their prospects and customers.  

Obvious, you say?   

Not entirely. Because while most – if not all – brand marketers are using visual logos, it is still the dawn of the age for the audio logo. 

Though there are a few audio logos that most people can recognize, like those for Intel, and even fewer that they can hum, like McDonald’s, many companies have overlooked the fact that, as media has moved into the digital age, it has become audio-enabled. Gone is the sales flipchart, replaced by an app with a dashboard. Lost is the morning printed newspaper, replaced by a news site. Moved aside are paper posters, replaced by digital signage. And, most importantly, the fastest-growing marketing platform right now is an ever-present audio-enabled computer that fits in a pocket, the smartphone.  

The time has come for brands to take sound seriously and to use its exceptional power to be recognized and understood across all of the points that come in contact with their prospects, customers, employees, and other key constituents. 

In today’s world, brands must now treat sound with the same care and discipline as they do their graphic standards and visual brand building.  

Because, just as graphics do, sound carries meaning. And just like properly employed visual branding programs, the strategic use of sound can play a pivotal role in positively differentiating a product or service, enhancing recall, creating preference, building trust, and perhaps most importantly, increasing sales and marketing ROI.

Just think: If you’re stuck in the only-visual branding world, you are competing with one hand tied behind your back, weakening your efforts. After all, cognitive studies show that relevant sounds and musical cues can truly influence people in ways marketers want.

You have an audio identity whether you’re managing it or not.

Take a tour of your company in your mind. What music is playing on your customer service line? What music is in your training videos? Your YouTube videos? What ringtones do the sales reps use? Which songs were played at your company meeting? What music played in your advertising last year? Is it different this year?   

Think of a typical brand. They probably used “Chariots of Fire,” the Hunger Games, or Star Wars themes for their sales or annual meetings, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” for their on-hold music, an ‘80s or ‘90s pop song for their commercials, the Dragnet theme for one training video and “Rock Around the Clock” for yet another, and perhaps a startling metallic “ping” for the app-opening sounds. 

What is that example brand saying about itself? 

Is it an energetic or aspirational brand? A classical and delicate brand? A pop-culture brand? A technological brand? Is it reliable? In other words, trustworthy?

Or is it a muddled, disoriented brand?

If the auditory selections don’t relate to each other in the world of sound, you’re wasting branding opportunities right and left. In fact, like our example, you are creating brand chaos and confusion.

In the visual sphere, your brand becomes more and more recognizable as people see its familiar colors, typefaces, shapes, logos, and other imagery used consistently, repeatedly, and frequently every time they encounter it. The Graphic Style Guide lays out a system and a point-of-view. The logo may be expressed a bit differently on a giant billboard than on a tiny business card but it will hew to the same standards. The logo at the end of a sales video will match the one in the commercials and on the website, and on the packaging. Colors and fonts remain the same too. Nobody would dare change IBM’s sturdy blue to vibrant orange so they could “infuse energy” into a sales meeting.

Why then, do some companies still use sounds from completely different universes for their meetings, retail environments, on-hold music, apps, videos, and other touch points? Why are they conscientious about branding their graphics and sloppy with branding their music? And, why do they think that advertising is the only medium that requires serious attention to the musical selection? 

It’s not hard to create a consistent but flexible audio universe that allows for both serious business situations and fun, high-energy occasions – as well as everything in between. It works like visual branding, but with some key differences.    

Audio Branding: It’s not just a sound – or a jingle – but a system

Welcome to the world of Audio Branding. Also referred to as sound branding, acoustic branding, and sonic branding, depending on the practitioner, it is the systematic creation of an entire audio language for the brand based on its essence, vision, values, promise, and personality — a language that gets expressed across every point at which your brand interacts with your key constituents, from the web and apps, to trade shows and business meetings, to TV, to the retail environment and even the product itself.  

Conversations about audio branding with marketers who are new to this idea, however, tend to get stuck down an advertising cul-de-sac. Often, they focus on jingles of yesteryear – those cute little slogans put to music that worked so well when commercials were 60 seconds long. And, while jingles technically fall within the audio branding arena, as they do employ sound, people who focus on them are taking a very limited view of the discipline’s opportunities and benefits. The music in an old-school jingle was typically composed to support the words rather than to build the brand. So, the music has limited applications beyond media advertising. 

Other conversations tend to focus on the marketer’s frustration with the fact that their ad agencies typically wait until the last minute and then present them with three choices of licensable music, some of which is, inevitably, too expensive. All of which is short-term, ad campaign-oriented rather than long-term, brand building focused.  

These marketers – both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer arenas – forget that customers, partners, and employees experience the brand at many auditory junctures.

In other words, audio branding is not just about the music in advertising and the sounds at the end of it. Rather, it is about thoughtful and inspired design, except instead of designing for sight, it requires designing for sound.  

And just as the verbal or visual brand expression is optimized at each point, the audio expressions are also sensitively adapted and optimized across the spectrum, so they’re functionally and psychologically appropriate to the medium and the audience mindset.

Welcome to your worldwide language

Why are international brands going to the trouble of framing their audio identities?

Because music is a language that people all around the world can understand. It carries universal meaning, which works at a symbolic level rather than on an explicit one. No matter the culture where they grew up or the country they’re from, people are similar in the way they decode the intention of music and other sounds.   

People around the world know if music feels optimistic or melancholy; they can tell if it’s soothing or stressful; they can feel if it’s authoritative or modest; they can identify if it’s fun and lighthearted or powerful and serious. That transcultural understanding is of real value to brands that operate in multiple countries (or even in multilingual, multicultural countries). 

On the cultural side, people in every corner of the globe have been exposed to the many movies and TV shows that share a musical vocabulary for setting up tense situations, heightening joyful ones, underscoring melancholy scenes, and announcing triumph. The language of movie music has been well learned by people across the globe, regardless of geographies and cultures.  

The easiest big thing a company can do for a brand

An audio identity can lend a coherent voice across touchpoints, geographies, and product lifecycle. It captures the mind when the audience isn’t directly paying attention. It allows a brand to stand out and be distinctive. It creates brand value that grows over the years. 

On the operational side, it can simplify the job of global and local marketing departments both in decision-making and in reduction of the complexity. When the engineering department wants to know what sound to add to a device, they have a framework; when the social media group needs to score a video, they have a library to turn to; when a local agency needs to run a promotional ad, they don’t have to negotiate a separate license for the music.   

Given today’s omni-channel, audio-enabled, interconnected marketing environment, as a brand leader you must ask yourself, “Can my customers identify my brand with their eyes closed?”