SONIC BRANDING: To sing the right song for brands
Here is an article I wrote for BranD Magazine, a bi-monthly publication from Hong Kong that is published in English and Chinese. The next edition is called The Narrative of Art and will be in really really good design and book shops soon. Thank you to everyone at BranD for giving the practice of sonic branding a chance to be heard.
Brands love to make noise. It is in their DNA to try to get as much attention as possible and the easiest way to do this is to shout. The issue is that with so many brands shouting and consumers having greater control of what they listen to, it is becoming increasingly important to shout the right things. As the relationship between brands and consumers becomes more personal, the guardians of brands have woken up to the power of probably the most creative and emotive media available to them; sound and in particular music.
Since the concept of branding emerged, people have all learnt to understand the communicative powers of logos, colour schemes and fonts. Brands have always found it easy to sit down with their colouring pens and knock out the visual assets they need, but when faced with the opportunity to convert visual assets into sound they have often struggled. Why has sonic branding been so difficult for brands to embrace and how can we solve this problem?
To answer the question, we need to know first of all what sonic branding means. Sonic branding can simply be defined as the communication of a brand through the use of sound, i.e. voice, sound effects and probably most importantly music. Here we will focus on music as the main audio platform. The good thing about music is that we all have an instinctive understanding of it whether we are classically trained musicians or, like me, unable to play a single note. Sound is the first sense we develop; while still in the womb we experience sounds and start to develop an understanding of what certain sounds mean. The heartbeat of our mother is likely to be the first sound any of us hear and provides a sense of comfort and security from that moment on. With sound available to us from such an early stage, it is no surprise that our brains are hard wired to interpret it and we never need formal training to understand its meaning.
Now that we have covered some of the science, we can explore the practical power of sound and in particular music as a communication platform for brands. Many people define sonic branding as the creation of bespoke sound for a brand such as sonic logos, short audio interpretations of a brand identity. Probably the most famous of these is the Intel logo created by Walter Werzowa in 1994. Walter’s four notes became as valuable to the brand as their visual logo and for years were a ubiquitous part of television and radio advertising for computers. However, sonic branding is not just four notes. Sonic branding should be defined as any time a brand uses sound to communicate whether that is through advertising, on the phone, in the retail environment, online, the list goes on. When Intel commissioned their sonic logo, there were very few ways to deliver high quality audio to an audience. Therefore, sonic branding was mainly designed for traditional advertising media but as technology has advanced, the opportunities for brands to use sound have expanded.
Recently, mobile phone network Vodafone launched its latest brand campaign called “Firsts”. As you have probably worked out from the title the brand wants to present itself as an innovator, not just in providing new services but also in using those services to help people create, try and enjoy new experiences. As part of the campaign, it teamed up with artist Neil Harbisson who suffers from a condition that he sees everything in black and white. To help him appreciate colour, Neil wears a device attached to his skull that translates the colours into sound. With the backing of Vodafone, Neil visited the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona and “listened” to the colours of the building. Then he composed a piece of music based on colours he heard. He taught a group of musicians and singers how to translate colours into sound in the same way as the device attached to his skull. Then rather than providing sheet music, he gave them connected tablet computers and displayed colours on them to conduct the performance of the piece. This is a great example of how sonic branding has developed over recent years. The core of the concept is based on translating a visual element into sound, something that is often a key part of developing traditional sonic branding. At the same time, Vodafone is using this innovative way to create music to demonstrate its own brand values of being progressive and creative. It is reaching out to its audience with the message that mobile phones are not about handsets and transmission stations, they are about experiences and sharing them.
One of the wonderful things about the Vodafone example is that it provides us with a chance to explore how sonic branding can be used in today’s multi-platform media environment. While Intel had to focus on using their sonic logo on radio and television, today brands can use their sonic branding on almost every available media. The music created by Neil Harbisson could be experienced by a selected audience of Vodafone VIPs in the live environment of the concert hall. This experience could then be broadcast live to cinemas and on television, radio and online. Films about the creation of the project could be made available through the company’s website and video sites like YouTube and Vimeo. The music from the event could be made available through music sites like Spotify, iTunes, Pandora and Soundcloud. Vodafone could create an app allowing smart phone owners to use Neil’s technology to create their own music based on the colours around them. The list of opportunities is endless and all because music is at the heart of it. Music provides the ultimate creative playground for a brand and allows it to engage with an audience through something that is a key part in their lives.
Today sonic branding is no longer limited to the creation of bespoke music for a logo. It has expanded into every opportunity where brands can interact with music and how they can use it to provide an experience to its audience. From sonic logos on advertising to live concert experiences, such as the Red Bull Music Academy, the core idea is to tap into our love of music, our inbuilt understanding of the emotional and rational information it provides and of course that basically music is cool.
Sonic branding may have been around for as long as humans could sing and make drum kits out of rocks and twigs, but it is only now starting to really discover its full potential. We can all expect the next few years to be filled with noise from brands. Hopefully, they will be the good, well-thought-out noise.