Not too long ago, although it seems like ages since we could attend conferences in person, I met a senior marketing executive from Farmers Insurance who told me that when his team was first presented with the Farmers jingle, they hated it. “Too hokey!” is what he said.
But their vote was overridden by more senior executives and the jingle became the sound of Farmers and the sound of history. Turns out customers also loved it and hokey though it may be, everyone in the company became a believer in the power of sonic branding.
The golden age of sonic branding was during the early days of radio. Without any visual clues and cues, sound had to carry it all. Then with the introduction of sound films, innovation continued with music and sound effects as well. Everyone knew what was coming after hearing the MGM lion roar.
Sonic branding carried on into the television era, but then got stuck. Television, movies and commercials leaned more into visual effects and sound went along for the ride in a background role.
Today a sonic branding renaissance is dawning. As marketers are challenged more and more to break through, they are recognizing that sound is a unique way to make your mark on consumers. Music and sound is a powerful medium to communicate messages and evoke strong emotional feelings. Yet a review of studies in sonic branding published in the Journal of Brand Management found sonic branding is both little understood and underutilized, the latter a consequence of the former.
“Although Sonic Branding – branding with music and sound – has been seen as ‘the next big thing’ in branding toward consumers for about a decade, it is a scattered field still waiting for its breakthrough. There is a need for using a common set of Sonic Branding concepts in order to unify the field. Further, the majority of businesses do not yet understand Sonic Branding as the uniquely consumer-oriented practice it has the potential to be,” writes Clara Gustafsson, Ph.D. and senior lecturer at Lund University.
Hitting on All Five Sensory Cylinders
Academics aside, brands must hit on all five senses to be truly remarkable and memorable. “Brand marketing relies on access to all five senses to be effective. Our senses trigger emotional reactions manipulated by the marketer toward a recall and preference of one brand vs. another,” explains Paul Friederichsen, partner in American Marketing Group.
“Since purchase considerations, even in B2B advertising, are made first on an emotional response to the brand or product, the deft use of distinctive visual presentation, smell, touch, taste, and sound make all the difference between success or failure,” he continues.
People Can Close Their Eyes, but They Can’t Close Their Ears
Enter the sonic branding agency Made Music Studio. They take the mystery out of sonic branding and through careful study of branding goals and objectives, translate a brand’s story and values and then set them to music and sound.
“We believe in the strategic use of music to amplify a brand’s messaging and what it stands for while creating an emotional connection,” explains Kristen Lueck, Made Music Studio’s vice president and director of business development. “It’s analogous to a visual logo. The same way colors and shapes represent certain feelings or evoke a certain mood, music and sound do the same thing. But even more so. While you can close your eyes, you can’t close your ears.”
Made for Music
Sonic branding is undergoing a revival as more advertising and marketing turn to digital communications and social media. It becomes an important way to stand out from the crowd. “A popular entry-level into sonic branding is through podcasts because visuals aren’t present,” Lueck shares. “For example, Chanel Connects is a popular podcast that uses sonic branding at the beginning and underneath each episode. It’s become an important part of the Chanel podcast experience.”
She also points to Burberry as being ahead of the pack in its use of sonic branding in its flagship stores where customers can have different experiences, both visually and sonically, as they approach the stores’ many hundreds of interactive screens. Sonic branding is also being applied in mobile apps and used in online navigation. “Sounds act like pop-ups and alerts that tell you an item has been put into your shopping cart,” she adds.
Call centers are avid users of music when putting customers on hold, but too few realize the potential of using that forced time to maximum effect for the brand and customer’s benefit. “You can actually change the perceived wait time depending on the kind of music you play,” Lueck says. “If it is an ambient piece of music with no discernable loop, meaning it doesn’t have a recognizable start or stop, people think the time passes faster than it actually does. Little changes like that mean the mood of the customer is radically improved by the time they get to the customer service person on the other end of the line.”
The same strategic use of sound could be applied to any utilitarian or otherwise unhappy, stressful experience such as waiting in line at banks, the DMV, post office or the gas pumps. And wouldn’t it all get better if a more effective sound strategy was used in doctors’ offices and hospital waiting rooms?
Time can pass faster or more slowly depending upon the music played in the background. Spas have been masters in the art of sound-induced experience, making a massage last that much longer. And retailers can extend customers’ shopping time by playing softer, slower cadence music. Slowing shoppers down so they spend more time in the store has been a proven way to get them to spend more money. On the other hand, restaurants can turn tables faster by playing louder, fast-paced music.
Music and sound play powerfully on emotions, just as scent does. “We created ambient music for American Express Centurion airport lounges to achieve the same goal as their signature scent,” Lueck continues. “The scent is calming, peaceful and relaxing so we created the same feelings with ambient sounds to draw people from the busy airport into a relaxing lounge where they can slow down.”
The opportunities for sonic branding are endless. Sounds can effectively cross borders, no translation necessary. And all kinds of household appliances and devices have sound alerts, which can take on extra meaning with a unique, customizable mnemonic sound. Every time the laundry is done, dinner is ready or the doorbell rings, it can be a memory jog for a brand.
How the Process Works
Currently, Made Music Studio is helping a luxury automobile brand develop sonic branding, not just a musical theme but to create various sounds and alerts that will become part of the driving experience. “All those sounds live together in the brand ecosystem,” she explains. “We call it a sonic identity system for a brand. We assure that all those driving sounds function intuitively and are not jarring.”
In tackling the challenge of discovering what this luxury car brand – or any brand – sounds like, Lueck’s firm follows a proven methodology they call a “sonic soul session.” Not dissimilar to the process that traditional advertising agencies follow, it is focused on sound not graphics. They start with interviews and analysis to understand the brand strategy.
Then they tap into available music and sound to create a “sound board,” comparable to a visual mood board. The selections are based upon the emotions the brand desires to evoke in the listener and the values the brand stands for. “Say a brand wants to convey passion,” Lueck says. “That could be anything from Celine Dion to Rage Against the Machine. We need to identify the instrumentation and tempo that best fits the emotion.”
Then based upon the soundboard exploration, which is the foundation of the creative brief, it is turned over to the musicologists and sound experts to create original compositions to design the brand’s sonic identity system. From start to finish, the process takes between 10-to-14 weeks.
About half of Made Music Studio’s staff are musicians, and the firm also draws employees from the traditional advertising world who have a strong affinity to music, like Lueck. “I’m not a musician, but I worked on the production side on the Late Show with David Letterman as musical assistant to music director Paul Shaffer for years. Now I act as a liaison between the client and the musicians to bring the brand to life sonically.”
To assure a brand’s sonic branding hits all the right notes, Lueck stresses the client must view the project as investing in a brand asset, not just music for a new campaign. “If the client thinks about this like they would a visual logo, it shifts their mindset and makes sure all the right people are at the table for approvals. We are creating a brand asset that is important to hold onto,” she says.
Also critical is to have a client-side advocate who really understands the power of music and wants to put it behind the brand. “Brands understand the power of color, like the Tiffany Blue or Louboutin Red, but they may not realize how having an ownable sound and music is equally important. It’s the next big wave in branding. A lot of brands partner with musicians for their runway shows or special events, but we can help them take it further into sonic branding,” Lueck explains.
And just like a visual brand logo, it needs to be present everywhere the brand wants to make an impression. “Effective sonic branding relies on relevance to the target market and media frequency for sufficient repetition. Without relevance and repetition, sonic branding will not support the marketer’s brand positioning and recall intent,” stresses BrandBiz’s Friederichsen.
Every brand wants to create a lasting impression on consumers to get rooted in their hearts and minds. Music is one of the most effective ways to do that. Scientists even have a name for it: öhrwurm in German, earworm in English. It means “stuck tune syndrome.”
Combining words with music makes and stories easier to recall. Children do it with the ABCs, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Old McDonald Had a Farm songs. And it’s how bards and poets throughout history could recite long verse. They put their tales to music.
“After 60 years, I still remember the jingle, ‘Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.’” AMG’s Friederichsen says. Or the “Plop-Plop, Fizz-Fizz, Oh what a relief it is,” message from Alka Seltzer. Or going even further back, there is “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” sung by Dinah Shore. Friederichsen and I are dating ourselves, but you get the message. Once these tunes get into your brain, they never leave.
Music and sound carry messages and stimulate emotions, just like words and visuals do, but even more so because music is so elementally human. Our hearts beat four-four time. The sound of a brand is at least as important a brand asset as its visual logo because, as Lueck says, “You can close your eyes, but you can’t turn off your ears.”
Note: Originally published in The Robin Report.