Sound Strategy: Brands Match Their Attributes to Audio

Companies Can Map a New Dimension of Identity If They Look Beyond Jingles, Licensed Songs

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Sound Images developed a song for the 'Save Our Icons' push to restore Cincinnati's Music Hall.
Sound Images developed a song for the 'Save Our Icons' push to restore Cincinnati's Music Hall. Credit: Cincinnati's Music Hall
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Brands spend plenty of thought and money on visual identity, but what about how they sound? While the Old Spice whistle or Intel Inside tones may be instantly recognizable, few brands can claim similar audio impact. And even brands with well-known sounds may have never put much thought into how well those sounds actually fit their image.

Aiming to address that gap is Brandsonics, a process developed by Sound Images, a Cincinnati firm that handles everything from jingles for ads to audio postproduction for feature films, music videos and commercials. It's a method that matches the attributes brands want to evoke with music or other sounds that will reliably convey them, creating sound guidelines similar to the visual-identity guidelines the design firms have historically developed for brands.

"Our history has always been with the ad agencies, and we'd wait for them to dictate what we should be writing," said Sound Images CEO Jack Streitmarter. "The problem with that is that at most ad agencies, the people at the music level are not necessarily the same age or income or gender as the brand's customers, and they're making decisions based on their personal values."

Brandsonics takes as many as 42 brand characteristics and distills them to the five most essential brand dimensions, then matches those with sound or musical dimensions. Those guidelines might, for example, call for a 4/4 beat, organic textures, string instrumentation and a sample melody.

"It took us about two years to qualify [the system] based on published research," said Sound Images President Adam Pleiman. And while he expected pushback from music composers, he said he's gotten surprisingly positive feedback about having structure to guide their work. So far, Sound Images has applied the process to developing scores for video projects for tech firm Avaya and food equipment maker Hobart, with other projects in the works that it can't name yet.

"It helps us be better producers from afar," Mr. Pleiman said. And it's not necessarily a moneymaker from a production standpoint, since it cuts down on changes. "Change orders are our best friend. But at the same time, you've got to look out for your clients, and this enables everyone to get it right the first time."

The guidelines don't have to just be used for jingles or original scores. They also can work for matching brands with existing music or, in some cases, even choosing voice-over artists, Mr. Streitmarter said. He believes they could also make it easier for brands to commission custom music from bands, which he sees as potentially a more cost-effective alternative to licensing existing songs.

Mr. Streitmarter has heard from client-side commercial production departments that they rarely have sound guidelines, and that their ad agencies don't have much interest in developing them. But he's found willing ears at such design shops as Omnicom's Interbrand and WPP's Landor Associates, which like the notion of adding a sonic dimension to their brand identity work.

"The idea is a really smart one and I've been intrigued by it," said Rebeca Arbona, executive director-strategy and research for Interbrand. Consistency is one of the "brand strength factors" that Interbrand looks to create for brands, she said, "and as brand builders we overlook too often the role that music and sound can play."

Interbrand has yet to try Brandsonics on a project, though it has worked through its New York office with another sonic strategy firm, Man Made Music.

Sound branding "has a huge role that has been untapped," said Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at Landor. And it's not just about music: Landor has worked with Johnson & Johnson's Ethicon Endo-Surgery to create unique sounds to tell surgeons when they pick up individual instruments—not just to build brand equity for Ethicon but also to ensure the doctors are using the right tools.

"In today's world when so many brands are experienced in multichannel ways, sound can be employed in a very clever way to cut through the noise," she said.

Landor isn't working on projects with Brandsonics, but did work with Sound Images to develop a song for the pro bono "Save Our Icons" campaign to raise funds for restoring Cincinnati's Music Hall and Union Terminal. "It was ultimately very effective," she said. "It in essence gave a voice to inanimate objects."

And, guidelines or no, music generally works in ads. A Nielsen Entertainment study released earlier this year found that of 600 TV commercials analyzed, the 500 with music performed better in consumer surveys across such metrics as creativity, empathy, emotive power and information power.

But not all music works for all tasks.

"If you're trying to present information, then a popular song doesn't work very well at all," said Julanne Schiffer, senior VP-insights and analytics at Nielsen Entertainment. A more generic song or original score works better in such cases, because a well-known song distracts people from the message. But original scores or jingles aren't good at delivering empathy, she said, "perhaps because people see it as a jingle."

Nielsen helps match brands with music too, but that's often based more on finding an artist or genre to match the tastes of the target audience than matching sound guidelines with brand attributes.
Either way, brand interest in putting music into advertising is only going to increase, Ms. Schiffer said, "because people realize it's important in driving creative quality."

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