What does a brand sound like?!? Honestly, my first gut response to this question is—don’t know, don’t care. And I’m in the brand-building business! However, I bet I’m not alone.
When it comes to the five senses, we’re very visual creatures. In fact, over half of the neurons in the brain are focused on processing visual information. That’s why visuals are such powerful communication tools. A picture really is worth a thousand words.
And, of course, we bring this visual bias to brand building. So much so that, to many, one’s brand is their logo (I just … can’t … when it comes to this thinking). That’s why branding checklists often look like a lineup of canvases to be visualized consistently—logo, letterhead, business cards, signage, shirts, point of sale, packaging … The list goes on and on.
But there are other senses brand builders shouldn’t forget about. Luxury hotels like The Mirage in Las Vegas are known for their signature scents (The Mirage is Tropical Coco Mango in case you were wondering). H&R Block reportedly brews coffee in their offices as the smell inspires customers’ confidence in the brand. Another under-used prompt for emotional response is sound. Enter the practice of sonic branding.
Let’s take a look at what sonic branding is and how you might consider using it.
What Is Sonic Branding and Why Does It Matter
As brand builders, one of our biggest challenges is creating emotional connections with our customers and community. This is no small feat. As mentioned, visuals spark attention and interest. I’ve also written extensively on the power of storytelling in moving audiences emotionally. But sound as a tool for emotional response is “slept on” as the kids say. The science of listening to music illustrates why this connection is so powerful.
“Music has the ability to evoke powerful emotional responses such as chills and thrills in listeners,” writes University of Illinois professor Shahram Heshmat in Psychology Today. “Positive emotions dominate musical experiences. Listening to music is an easy way to alter mood or relieve stress. Pleasurable music may lead to the release of neurotransmitters associated with reward, such as dopamine.” Beyond reward, dopamine functions as the brain’s save button, helping us to remember these valuable, rewarding experiences.
Because of this, sounds and music can be powerful brand-building tools from State Farm’s “Like a Good Neighbor” to McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It.” One of the most iconic examples of a sound or sonic logo is Intel. The simple five-note sequence (inspired by the syllables of the words “Intel Inside”) did the unthinkable by essentially branding an invisible, intangible “ingredient” inside another product.
To dismiss these iconic sounds as mere jingles is the sonic equivalent of assuming a brand is “just a logo.” It diminishes the tools’ power as critical brand building blocks. Mastercard recently introduced their sonic branding system. From the music you hear in their commercials to the acceptance sound when you’re shopping, this distinct and memorable melody aims to provide simple, seamless familiarity.
Just how comprehensive is Mastercard’s approach to sonic branding? Google it and the first thing you’ll find is their audio press release of this very news (below).
Developing Your Brand’s Sonic Identity System
While visuals are tangible and have an established vocabulary for talking about them, sonic branding is more elusive. “If you look at designing a brand logo in a visual form, there’s an infinite amount of material,” said Mastercard CMO Raja Rajamannar when I interviewed him on the On Brand podcast. “With sonic branding, you have no choice but to create your own playbook.”
More than a jingle or music picked randomly for a video project, your brand needs a comprehensive sonic identity system. These music and sound choices should evoke the right emotions from your customers and community.
So, what should your brand’s sonic identity system include? I asked this very question of Joe Belliotti, former Head of Global Music at The Coca-Cola Company and currently CEO of MassiveMusic North America during a podcast interview. While there are many definitions and lists, Belliotti cites the importance of:
- Sonic logo—A tonal bug or tag like Intel Inside and McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It.”
- Product UX/UI—When you hear someone open a computer, you know it’s a Mac instantly because of the iconic startup sound. It’s the same way Netflix’s “ta-dum” sets the stage for entertainment.
- Original music and curated music—Beyond Mastercard’s innovative transaction/processing identity, the brand uses this melody as a touchstone for music featured in other creative formats.
- Audio content—Podcasts, videos, and more should feature cohesive sound design tying back to your brand’s overall identity.
- Sound-based discovery/smart speakers—This is where things get interesting. And connected …
While the audio cohesion provided by sonic branding could seem like a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have,” everything changes when you factor in smart speakers and other forms of sound-based brand discovery.
As Mastercard’s Rajamannar points out, Alexa and Google only know top brands. “You have to get past these new gatekeepers and influencers.” In an increasingly sonic ecosystem, your brand has to have an identity you can both see and hear to stand out.
Regardless of how comprehensive your brand’s sonic identity is, it’s not a box you can afford to leave unchecked. “Every single brand is making an impression with music and sound,” notes Belliotti, whether they realize it or not. It’s up to you determine what that impression is.
Sometimes the best place to start is at the beginning. With sonic branding, it’s the question posed in the title of this very article: What does your brand sound like?