Sonic boom: Why more brands are composing musical branding strategies
Once the exclusive domain of major corporations, sonic brand identities today are seeing growing interest as digital media's reach continues to expand.
McDonald's Golden Arches, Target's bullseye and Microsoft's four window panes are among the most visually recognizable brand logos in the world. But what if your consumers are listening and not looking?
As podcast engagement grows and home smart speakers become commonplace, more brands are considering musical themes and sound logos as a fresh way to be recognized in an audio world. The existence of so-called "sonic branding" is not entirely new. For decades, NBC has been associated with its three-note chime and movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) has flaunted dominance with a lion's roar. But experts in the field told Marketing Dive they are witnessing more interest from marketers — like MasterCard, which recently introduced a sonic brand identity — and from service providers that are sprouting new operations to meet brands' sound-related needs.
A significant part of the recent uptick in interest is due to the ubiquity of personal digital devices and the increasing consumption of media worldwide, according to Daniel Lafferty, director of voice and music at PHMG, a 20-year-old agency devoted entirely to audio branding.
"Historically, it was only major corporations that had the operational ability to create a musical identity through the power of their outlet, so it was confined to major networks, etc.," Lafferty told Marketing Dive. "With the democratization of media, now brands can go online and they can go to social media sites. They now have outlets within their price range."
A memorable tune
A desire for stronger sonic brand identities is in some cases even leading to the creation of new marketing roles. Content production shop CreativeDrive tapped Emmy-winning composer Matthew Pavolaitis as its in-house composer and senior audio engineer because the firm’s chief creative officer, Cliff Pia, saw opportunities.
CreativeDrive has been receiving more inquiries about using and modifying sound. Intel, a forerunner in the use of a sonic logo, is looking to imbue more power into it now. Philips Lighting and a high-end fashion brand are also among the shop's recent clients.
Even smaller companies in Southern California, where CreativeDrive keeps its sound operation, have been reaching out. To practice what it preaches, CreativeDrive has designed its own sound logo, yet to be revealed.
"Many are interested in getting a mnemonic associated with their logo," said Pavolaitis.
Formulating a sonic identity is akin to any brand visual strategy. It starts with understanding the brand, its strategies and writing a brief.
"Sound is a more evocative sense than sight is. Sound is one of the most powerful senses."
Director, voice and music, PHMG
A growing need
Music streaming service Pandora recently created a three-note logo as a counterpart to its recognizable visual "P." First heard in March with its spring Sound On promotional campaign, Pandora's sonic logo was created to evoke the qualities of being delightful, energetic, confident, innovative, honest, easy, friendly and inviting, according to executives.
"For us to have a sonic logo is about more recognition in the marketplace, more core brand equity and recall," said Lauren Nagel, vice president, executive creative director at Pandora. "As consumers move further and further to audio first and screen-less environment, the need to have a sonic expression has never been more important."
And Pandora’s sonic logo will not be static. Already there are plans to introduce variations to fit specific occasions.
"We intend to fill in and shape it in different ways, just like with our P (visual) logo which we change colors or shift the shape to represent a different energy or artist," Nagel said. "We wanted the sonic to do the same thing.
"There is one core mnemonic but it will be personalized," she continued. "The plan is to start with a few categories of sound. We don’t want to create so many different versions that we dilute it."
Pandora's own sonic branding was just the kickoff to the platform's work in this area. Pandora has also launched a sonic branding service to help its advertisers and others formulate their own signature sounds. To lead the charge, Steve Keller, the founder and CEO of iV, an audio consultancy, came onboard as sonic strategy director, within Pandora's marketing division.
Range of opportunity
When it comes to creating a solid consumer connection, music can be a useful conductor, several sources said.
"Sound is a more evocative sense than sight is," said PHMG's Lafferty. "Sound is one of the most powerful senses."
There are a variety of ways brands can incorporate sound, such as closing commercials, launching apps, ring tones, on-hold music, point of sale acceptance, website greetings and more.
"It varies from client to client," said Lafferty. "If you are creating an app, you can use sound inside the app. If you create videos you can have sonic in that, and of course radio and TV commercials. People also have to consider experiential sound, such as when you walk into a store, you can play brand music."
There also seems to be no industry or brand-type that music couldn’t be a positive influence for, if done properly. Different notes, tempo, instrumentation can all impact the way a sound is interpreted. So there is no fear either that there will be a shortage of unique sounding opportunities.
"You only get a couple of seconds so the real key is it needs to connect to the brand."
Emmy-winning composer and senior audio engineer, CreativeDrive
And as voice-activated shopping is expected to grow, brands could benefit by having a distinctive voice in this new retail world, experts told Marketing Dive. According to a new McKinsey Periscope study, "The Future of Shopping: Connected, Virtual and Augmented," already 5% of people in the U.S. are shopping via voice devices, such as Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo speakers.
Be mindful of how you sound
But like with anything, marketers also need to be aware of the message their musical choice is sending. Just because you like the way something sounds doesn't mean it is the right business communication.
"Musical sounds can be created to make small companies sound like they are capable and large financial firms to seem caring and wholesome," said PHMG's Lafferty.
To sound trustworthy, consider casting the entire piece in the key of C and predominantly use acoustic instruments, such as guitar and piano, both wooden instruments which evoke a natural andorganic feeling, per Lafferty. However, if the goal is to move a customer to take action, consider the key of D and an electric guitar (rather than acoustic), with heavier drums and percussion and played at 120-plus beats per minute.
"It is important for brands to understand the impact a musical piece will have," noted Lafferty.
Sonic branding is also not something that should be set up one time and left forever.
"It has to change as you change and the market place changes as well," Lafferty continued. "Music that is cutting edge and contemporary one day may not be down the line."
Brands should also be careful not to overdo things, but use sound pragmatically. CreativeDrive's Pavolaitis reports having heard logos that are aggressive and off-putting. His team can spend a week or more just researching and gathering information on the client before creative sessions start to ensure the right tone is set.
"You have to kind of ease into it," Pavolaitis said. "You only get a couple of seconds so the real key is it needs to connect to the brand. What do they do and what do they want to say?
"The interconnectedness of a brand and its musical mnemonic is critical for recognition worldwide," he added. "If you get it right it will stay with you for years to come."