Apply Sound at the Product Level for Maximum Advantage

Now Hear This: Sonic Branding Can Do More Than Just Define Corporate Image

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Regardless of culture or historical age, sound has always had the capacity to move people. Sound inspires. It persuades. It reminds.
Tied to a song: Tums has for years enjoyed the benefits of an acoustic fingerprint in the use of the familiar 'Dragnet Theme.'
Tied to a song: Tums has for years enjoyed the benefits of an acoustic fingerprint in the use of the familiar 'Dragnet Theme.'

Sound's ability to literally penetrate us and sweep us away from the present has defined its allure, whether for the purposes of entertainment, for safety or even for survival. From a brand perspective, there was a time when a commercial wasn't considered good unless it had a jingle. Today, there are hardly any jingles. Yet their power is proved by the fact that most of us can quickly recall one from memory even though we have not heard it for years.

Why is this? Why the discrepancy between what we know to be a deep, emotional road to connection with people and its insignificant role of punctuating visuals? One reason could be because music is added to commercials rather than thought of as a way to communicate the essence of a brand.

We are only at the very beginning of understanding how sound can be deployed as a brand-worthy effort. Inroads are being made on academic and practical levels that reveal important considerations for today's brand owners.

Sound and vision
The most startling issue to consider is that sound affects vision in palpable ways. Consider how your interpretation of a silent movie changes with the addition of music. Just changing the script of an old-time piano or organ to modern techno music would profoundly change how we interpret the content, meaning and dynamic of the onscreen events. In everyday life, we often assign an interpretation to an exchange because of the sounds wrapped around the imagery we encounter. If, for instance, you see people from a window gesticulating wildly, it may simply be that they cannot hear one another -- but it would be natural to interpret the exchange as a dispute.

Neuroscientists all over the world are tackling these fairly obvious examples. And the results are even more compelling. Sounds provide a structure into which we fit visual facts. Further, we often interpret visual material based on the sound of the names we give them -- including brand names. Neuroscientists are revealing how it is possible for auditory events to radically alter the way that visual information is processed.

Are you beginning to see the importance for brands yet?

Historically, marketers have focused more on use of sound to define corporate identity, not product brand identity -- and it is more difficult to create an emotional connection to the corporate brand than to the product that the consumer can actually use or interact with. That's why the real opportunity lies in leveraging sonic branding at the product or brand level. We are all aware of the capacity of a corporation, such as Nokia or Intel, to possess a sound. But these are more of an anthem for a corporate entity. In the case of Intel, for example, there is little sense of physical connection among the actual computer chip, or product; the sensation, or the consumer's emotion about the product; and the hearer. The use of a corporate jingle, too, may be simply a variation on this thin theme of using sonic branding for things that are intangible to the consumer.

The same can be said of the use of a branded corporate "voice," usually that of a relatively known and respected actor. Think Stanley Tucci for AT&T or his predecessor a generation ago, Cliff Robertson.

Greater opportunity
The use of sound in TV, in-store, web and radio spots has become more and more of a branding opportunity. The same is also true, of course, in ringtones and game audio and content. Here, sound has been seamlessly embedded as part of an overall experience, with very little to keep it from being endlessly swapped out at a moment's notice or on the whim of the consumer or "owner" of the music (and I use this term advisedly).
Creating brandable sound
Do it the same way you would any strategic branding initiative.

WHAT SHOULD THE BRAND ACCOMPLISH?
Determine what chord you are trying to strike (pardon the pun). In all branding you are trying to execute a strategy; an acoustical image is simply the extension of your brand identity.

WHAT ARE AVAILABLE OPTIONS?
Explore all options and test them against user research. This involves discerning the precise nature of the brandable moment and the experience being created through sound. The sound also has to connect visually, as well as in terms of performance.

WHAT IS THE SOUND'S 'DESIGN'?
Anyone can "wrap" a sound around a communication; this is something different. The sound must spring from the brand experience as a logical, plausible and dependable outgrowth of the brand. It has to be unique to be ownable.
But considering the tectonic shifts in the music industry in the last half-decade, we can see that change is indeed afoot and it will continue. The unique, solitary and tightly controlled distribution and delivery of audio content is largely a thing of the past. With the exception of iTunes, musical sound has become another commodity, ripe for customizable content.

This is perhaps why sound is such a juicy topic for brand owners.

What if consumers began to create music for a brand in the same way they have become involved in label design? What started out with Jones Soda inviting consumers to "build your own label" has evolved into the Heinz online example to create the master-brand label. Why couldn't this evolve sonically as well?

So how do you go about creating brandable sound? Well, actually, you go about it in the same way that you would go about any other strategic branding initiative. First you explore what it is that you want the brand to accomplish. Determine what chord you are trying to strike, if you'll pardon the pun. In all branding, you are trying to execute a strategy, and an acoustical image is simply the extension of your brand identity.

R&D
The second phase involves exploring the available options and testing them against user research. This involves discerning the precise nature of the brandable moment and the experience being created through sound. The sound also has to connect visually, as well as in terms of performance.

Finally, you have to "design" the sound itself. Sound, of course, has the capacity to attract or to aggravate. And these options can be played out intentionally or in an ambient, passive manner. It may sound odd to discuss the crafting of a sound, but that's what it amounts to. Anyone can "wrap" a sound around a communication; this is something different. The sound must spring from the brand experience as a logical, plausible and dependable outgrowth of the brand. It has to be unique to be ownable.

Very few brands have an iconic sound, a recognizable acoustic pattern that identifies them immediately.

One of our brands, Tums, has for years enjoyed the benefits of an acoustic footprint in the use of the familiar "Dragnet Theme." Its gravitas is a vital part of the brand's sense of personality -- at once serious, inevitable and yet also familiar and manageable. I recall a commercial shoot when the talent, during a break, began to sing this jingle. Even though it was an outtake, it was performed with such emotion that we ended up using it in the final spot. The music connected them to the brand in a way that enabled them to translate and express it in their own way.

Sense of urgency
The notion of an intentional, product-oriented sound and the emergence of "prosumers" (a term that dates to Alvin Toffler's vision of "professional consumers") has suddenly taken on a brisk sense of urgency and relevance. Consumers are driving brands as never before, and their ability to co-create and proactively arrange content has been a massive democratizing force in the marketplace. Authors Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams describe this phenomenon in chapter five of "Wikinomics." The prosumer world now includes sound moving into terrain such as Hallmark's evocative, sound-oriented greeting cards styled with music for greater emotional transmission of the greeting. Another example of customizable content.

So, as the world of commercial sound evolves dynamically from internal (prosumer) and external (technology) developments, it becomes ever more important to tap into the strengths of sound as something that marks an event, an emotion or a memory -- in short, a brandable moment.

Brand owners should be asking themselves whether sound offers the product a navigational opportunity in the crowded marketplace. Is the sound mnemonically powerful? Does it encourage surprise and enable the hearer to transition to a different set of expectations? Sound has the natural capacity to connect people to your brand.

How are you using sound?
Donna Sturgess is global head of innovation at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare. Her commercial experience includes a stint as VP-marketing, running business units such as oral care and gastrointestinal products.
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