Sonic branding as AdWeek put it, is the process of “distilling a multimillion dollar brand into a few seconds of sound”.
This is best illustrated in answering the question, have you ever heard the sound of Visa? Most would most probably say no. Well, two years ago, the brand rolled out sensory elements including sound, animation and haptic (vibration) cues to signify a completed transaction in digital and retail environments. So, while you could not ‘see’ the brand at work, you could now ‘hear’ it. The multisensory Visa branding debuted in Visa’s global advertising campaign ahead of the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang in 2018. The goal was to appeal to the emotions and the senses, so customers could ‘see, hear and feel’ the Visa brand as they made payments across platforms and touch-points, particularly on mobile.
Visa spent more than a year developing a less-than-a-second sound to signal “speed and convenience.” The audio mark was accompanied by a unique vibration and animation that was added to its logo. The process of developing a sonic brand identity involved “neuro-research” and spanned eight markets with focus groups and the culling of 200 different sounds, eliminating one that sounded “angry,” and several that elicited “visceral reactions”. Sonic branding is even more critical for brands you cannot see or touch … digital brands that support the growing notion of ‘everywhere you want to be’ but brands that have no physical product, shape or appearance except the logo. And if the logo is all that signifies the brand, the new thinking is to embellish the connect with the all senses … sight, hearing, even taste!
A couple of months ago, Mastercard chose to emulate its rival, Visa. It released its own sonic branding - a new sound that will help consumers recognize the brand when they make purchases with their Mastercard or when they see an ad for the brand on TV. In addition to what consumers will hear when they make a purchase (in stores, online or via voice-enabled devices), Mastercard has developed a few different scenario-specific styles of the sound, like coffee shop and taxi. There’s also ‘playful,’ ‘cinematic’ and an ‘operatic’ versions of the sonic logo, and the brand has created different melodies for different geographies. As part of the 18-plus-month process of creating a sound that would resonate with a global audience, Mastercard worked with agencies, artists and musicians around the world, including Linkin Park’s legendary Mike Shinoda.
The rise of audio branding or sonic signatures is not something that has suddenly come up. Ever since the Amazon Echo’s exponential rise to popularity in 2016, smart speakers have been the coolest new applications, at par with VR and AR goggles. In the meantime, Google has developed the affordable Google Home and it seems that the smart-speaker market has become a play- and battlefield for all the tech giants. Apple, Baidu, Facebook, Samsung and Microsoft are all experimenting with voice-controlled assistants. As these giants are investing combined billions in the ‘sonic butlers of the future’, the question is not whether it’s taking over the (consumer) world, but when. If you then add the rise of music streaming apps, the steady numbers of radio listening, the increasing popularity of podcasts, the democratized usage of mobile voice assistants like Siri or OK Google and the apparent recovery of the music industry, it seems that marketers have a massive potential (audio) audience on their hands. Given this context, it is only a logical step in the evolution of branding to address the audience in the very medium of their interaction: sound.
Actually, ‘sound branding’ and ‘sonic branding’ are really not the same. ‘Sonic branding’ refers to the sound of your brand. Specifically, unlike audio branding which refers to all the noises that your company creates, sonic branding refers to the creation of a single jingle or single sound or ‘sonic logo’ that represents your company. It only takes around 0.146 seconds for human beings to react to sound. So, theoretically it is that short that your sonic logo can be.
Think about the Microsoft Windows startup sound (famously designed by Brian Eno) or the XBox’s sound logo. Or even the sounds your Apple or Samsung mobile makes when you send out a message or receive a notification. A lot of thinking and hard work goes into creating these subliminal properties that enhance brand connect at a level which is not overtly visible but is nevertheless deeply connected to the customer’s relationship with the brand.
If we look around us, there are many good examples of brands working hard on creating, and promoting, a sonic identity. HBO’s “Ahh” sound, as we know, evokes lots of “TV sounds”. The static and the click that triggers the ahh sound is particularly clever too. NBC’s “Chime” logo is elegant in its simplicity. It is just three notes, which makes it easy to remember and impossible to miss. And it is a classic example of the major sixth interval too! Coca-Cola’s “Taste the Feeling” logo was developed so people could sing “taste the feeling” along with the jingle. And it has worked amazingly well to become a global favourite. Columbia Pictures’ “Intro Logo” evokes feelings of magical whimsy and it builds to a frenetic climax that makes you feel as if whatever you are about to see is going to make you feel real good. McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” sonic theme launched globally in 2003, was sung by Justin Timberlake, and it has been McDonald's ad jingle ever since. Not strictly a sonic logo, it has however kind of filled that space for the brand. So high are recognition and empathy scores that the audio logo scored 84 for ‘excited’ and 82 for ‘happy’ in a global research recently.
India’s play in the sonic space has been somewhat tentative. One of the best attempts at an audio identity has surely been the Raymond's Complete Man campaign. The original Raymond score was taken from Traumerei from Kinderszenen Op 15 by Schumann. The piece first became famous at the end of World War II as radio stations all over the world played it to signal the end of the war. Raymond’s audio or music logo (called a ‘mogo’ by some) was inspired from that era, and did really well by the brand, till of course, for reasons best known to the brand-owners the brand property was unceremoniously jettisoned. What a pity! HDFC Bank introduced a sonic identity in 2015. The bank launched a musical logo that was to be used across its multiple touch points like ATMs, phone banking, mobile banking app and its website. Nothing visibly memorable came off the entire exercise. IndusInd tried something similar in 2018, but without much consumer traction. E-comm player Myntra launched a sonic logo, an acoustic theme lasting 1.5 seconds, encapsulating the essence of the brand, evoking images of the brand’s ‘warmth, infectious energy and positivity’ at IIFA at New York’s Times Square but despite the hoopla few remember the grand effort.
But the time has come for digital driven brands in India, especially the likes of Ola or Swiggy or Zomato to seriously have a sonic strategy for their customer UI. There are the likes of Rajeev Raja and J. Mani who have worked with brands like Vistara, Standard Chartered, Cadbury’s Eclairs, Johnson & Johnson's Clean and Clear, Stayfree, Zee News and Shapoorji Pallonji Group through their Brandmusiq boutique. But the efforts, and investments, need to be of a much much higher level. The world is moving ahead, and onwards … already from sonic logos the conversation has moved to sonic playlists on Spotify. So there is lots to be done in this critical domain of branding and brand identity. Indian brands better hurry!
Dr. Sandeep Goyal is an advertising and media veteran.