Music as Identity

Throughout the history of humanity, people have been using music to identify ideas and beliefs, tribes, teams and nations. Music is a natural phenomenon; a unifying love and language with deeper and more emotional meaning than any other, so it must come as no surprise that whenever and wherever a brand seeks to identify itself, music should be at the centre of that identity.

This chapter is not the only area to learn out about how music forms a part of a brand’s identity. It’s not the only section of this book that deals with the subject because, semantically, everything a brand ever does with music contributes in some way to its identity. But to make things clear, this section deals in the first instance with the Corporate Identity of a brand and examines how music lines up alongside colours, shapes, typography and iconography within a brand’s register of assets.

Corporate Identity 

By way of introduction, it’s worth laying out what Corporate Identity really is, what it does and why it’s important.  Sam Sampson, the branding guru, described Corporate Identity to me as the first stage of any relationship between a corporation and the consumer. He understood that the core components of an identity are the things the consumer can see or hear, and that the written or spoken name of a brand is the most important element of the Corporate Identity.

Naming has always been critical to defining a brand. In fact, the New Oxford English Dictionary defines a brand as ‘a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name’. This rather dry definition of a brand highlights the importance of names and it’s fairly clear to see that without one, no brand has an identity. When we are considering music as forming a part of a brand’s identity therefore, we have to consider how and where the brand name fits with the music.

Taking a logical step forward, it’s fair to say that any name exists not simply as a metaphysical entity but as a real word that can be written or spoken. The written word has always been the dominant form of Corporate Identity and as printing and design have progressed through the years, the visual styles within which the words have been written have become ever more complex and emotionally nuanced.

Myfonts.com, which boldly makes the claim to host the world’s largest collection of fonts, has well over 100,000 typefaces freely available. Each of these has a subtle but discernable difference that may be used to convey a distinct emotional driver of a brand when viewed in print or on-screen.

There are 2,058 different colours defined in the Pantone Goe System. Pantone developed their original system of standardised colours to facilitate the printing industry’s desire for consistent reproduction, and today Pantone sets the global standard. We live in a colourful world and I struggle to think of any brand that is solely black and white but even if you can, there are 34 whites and over 70 different blacks from which to chose.

So, here’s an amazing equation. For even the simplest brand to express itself visually through printing its single colour font, on a single colour background, there are the small matter of 423,536,400,000 possible combinations. That’s a staggering number of options, so it’s no wonder that most people these days go for a simple sans serif; if only to narrow the choices to something like a manageable number. With too many choices we become paralysed, which is perhaps why so many brands choose to copy others rather than stand out from the crowd. Helvetica anyone?

A Mark of Distinction

If the number of choices within Corporate Identity have exploded, it is also fair to say that the sheer number of entities seeking an identity has also gone through the roof and into the stratosphere. Whilst the proliferation of brands has been a hot topic since I started in advertising 20 years ago, the truth is that we didn’t know how fortunate we were to be in a world where new brands launched every month. Today they launch every hour, in their hundreds, via digital marketplaces and ‘app stores’ where Corporate Identity real-estate is a small icon, a name, some meta-data and most critically, user reviews.  Very few of these new offerings gain any major recognition and in many respects the app market is a direct descendent of the music industry.  There are lots of contenders, very few hits and while every app – just as every artist – has an identity, very few of them could go on to be called brands.

So what is a brand and how does ‘being a brand’ differ from simply ‘having an identity’?  This is a topic on which libraries of books have been written, so here is a little synthesis and synopsis. Brands are our emotional responses to the products and services that we are offered and consume.  A subtle point here is often lost on the more arrogant executives; the brand’s value is ours, as customers and stakeholders. We decide how we feel and despite the whistle-blower Martin Lindstrom claiming we are all being emotionally ‘manipulated’, the truth is closer to the adage that the ‘truth will out’. Companies can project their identities onto the world but only their customers can decide what the brand really means to them, how they will react to it and how loyal they want to be.

“Brands are our emotional responses to the products and services that we are offered and consume.”

In this context, a brand’s identity is really a small part of the brand as a whole. It is an important part nonetheless, acting as signpost to where we can find the brands we love. The identity has the same functional needs as any traditional signpost. It must be clear and point only in one direction. But in our age, when we exist in so many physical and digital dimensions that we can no longer be certain which way is up or down, just writing the name of a place on a white arrow is no longer enough to differentiate an identity and help us navigate to our chosen brands.

Today signposts use colour-coding, symbols (as currently being understood through the practice of ‘semiotics’) and sounds. Each of these works together to create today’s multi-dimensional, multi-sensorial Corporate Identities.  That those identities have taken on 3rd and fourth dimensions, is a common sense response to having access to the rich media environments afforded by technology today. The downside is that an identity ‘arms race’ has been created, where every brand is seeking to add more and more dimensions to their identity and in doing so the cognitive load upon the consumer is increasing massively. Fortunately, our brains seem well set up to process multi-sensory messages and there is plenty of research that tell us that bi-modal visual-auditory sensory experiences in particular are processed very efficiently by two of my favourite parts of the brain – the superior temporal gyrus and intraparietal sulcus.

It’s Not Brain Surgery

Anyone who thinks that neuroscience has anything to teach us about how music can create a ‘Hit’ brand identity needs his or her head examined. I’ve read the books and conducted experiments using brain imaging during listening, but I’m yet to find out anything useful when it comes to creating hit musical identities. What I know about creating hits is what I have learned from experience which is why, along with Eric and Richard, we have made a conscious decision to focus on case studies of work with which we have been personally involved.

Still from Nescafé advert

Still from Nescafé advert

In this section, we have two contrasting cases – NESCAFE and Barclaycard – both brands with which I have been deeply, personally involved for some years. The reason these brands have taken up years of my life rather than the few weeks it might take to create mnemonic or jingle is simple. A ‘hit’ brand identity in music is not a one-off project. It is an ongoing process of managing the identity of the brand in sound, across time, territory and touch-point. It encompasses not just the design of musical ‘signposts’ but the soundtracks to TV commercials, video content, physical devices, apps and any other digital media where sound is enabled and the brand has a presence.

“A ‘hit’ brand identity in music is not a one-off project. It is an ongoing process of managing the identity of the brand in sound, across time, territory and touch-point.”

So while this section starts in Corporate Identity, the reality of Music As Identity is that it relies heavily on a brand’s communications – ads and content – to become real, to live and breath and to ultimately be a ‘hit’. So let’s be under no illusion, it is the ad agencies that still control the method of creating brand Hits. They are trusted with the most critical creative processes that put music into a customer’s ears via the media, and without whose support, musical identities cannot exist. Which is why it is such a shame that ad agencies are the last major business area to embrace the music planning approach, the final piece in the jigsaw to support a strategic use of music and the development of musical assets for the brand.

I’ll Know It When I Hear It

The worst excesses of the ad industry, the deepest seated issues they have in their lack of process or governance, the basest of their instincts and the greatest of their strengths, are summed up in this simple phrase.  I’ll know it when I hear it has become the greatest cliché of the music and brand relationship with regard to advertising music. Ad agencies have used this truth – we’ll all know it when we hear it – to avoid having to engage with the concept of music planning, which is usually deemed to be creatively inhibiting.

Consequently, the last 10 years of growth in Sonic Branding have mainly taken place outside the ad agency, in independent businesses, servicing the brand directly. While this was a shame for the early mover music planning agencies – ad agency support could have really accelerated the growth of the ideas – it is now becoming apparent that things are getting better. There is a new cordiality between ad agencies and those with Music Identity processes, as music has ceased to be a universal joy in the ad process and has become expensive in relation to other production elements – in terms of out of pockets and time spent.

More important to this new, peaceful relationship is the advent of musical identities and strategies, that are in line with the core associations of building value into brand assets, at the same time showing sympathy to the difficulties of the communications process. Given how mired the advertising process has become in the complexities of the consumer and media landscape, it is still a minor miracle any ad ever sees the light of day. The reliance upon testing and research has arguably gone too far with many major advertisers (arguably not far enough with others) and the difficulty for a creative team to conjure a new line or a new positioning is now greater than it has ever been. It is natural then that any process (such as Sonic Branding) that removes one level of complexity, and delivers the framework for high levels of creativity, should begin to be embraced.

What is a Hit Identity?

The successful signpost is clear and points in one direction. So it is with musical identity. The listener should recognise what they hear, and understand the brand to which the identity refers.  All the great Sonic Branding ticks these two boxes and can be measured through two simple questions to listeners: Do you recognise this sound? And can you tell us the brand with which it is associated? Hit identities can and should be measured and valued through these foundational research questions. Think of any jingle or mnemonic and it will score really well with these questions.

For a long time in the history of advertising, good recall and link to the brand were the only measures that mattered – in fact they drove a lot of behaviours that resulted in the overwhelming popularity of the jingle as an advertising trick of the trade. But recall and association, though fundamental, are not the only measures of a hit Musical Identity. They are simply functional benefits of having a well-designed ‘ear-worm’ (from the German ‘ohrwurm’) and being able to afford or having access to, enough listener impacts to embed the worm in the ear.

The next level of judging a hit has to be aesthetic and emotional. The measure of the emotional impact of the musical identity can best be summed up through the research questions: Do you like this music and what does it make you feel?

If the answer is that the music is liked and that the feelings are in-line with the objectives of the brand then we start to have something really special – a musical identity that is no longer a signpost, simply pointing at a destination – but is now also a symbol for some of the ideas of the brand. This is much more powerful, as a system of symbols can be used flexibly and can be taken out of context whilst retaining meaning. Most importantly, musical symbols, just like their graphic equivalent, work perfectly well without syntax. This makes a musical symbol capable of meaning the same thing across the globe, whereas the jingle or sung-copy does not travel nearly as well.

“If the answer is that the music is liked and that the feelings are in-line with the objectives of the brand then we start to have something really special – a musical identity that is no longer a signpost, simply pointing at a destination – but is now also a symbol for some of the ideas of the brand.“

When designing the musical identity for brands, I start with the aim of creating a set of musical symbols that are clear, recognisable, have the ability to be inextricably linked to the brand and share the brand’s emotional context. This is not a simple task and it is not always understood at the beginning of a process, how this varies from developing a functional mnemonic or simply finding a good piece of music for an ad. Given that you’re reading this far, you may be interested to understand the difference, so I’ll explain a little.

Mnemonics are Easy 

Musical mnemonics, of the kind asked for by clients and (in modern times) reluctantly delivered by ad agencies, are empty vessels. They shout ‘remember me!’ at the listener but do not, intrinsically, have anything worth remembering. As far as briefs go for the musical identity ‘write me a mnemonic’ is entry level – it just about gets you a ticket but don’t expect to see the show from way back there in the bleachers.

A mnemonic – a device designed to aid memory – in the context of music usually manifests in one of three ways – a jingle, sung ad copy or a sting. For the avoidance of doubt, a jingle rhymes, sung ad copy doesn’t and a sting has no copy at all. An arch example of a rhyming jingle would be ‘for mash get Smash’ from the UK in the 1970s. Of the hundreds of examples of sung-copy mnemonics, I’d site ‘I’m Loving It’ from McDonalds, and finally Intel Inside is the classic sting. Creating any of these devices is not terribly hard. Being memorable is something that music just ‘does’ without too much effort. The only real consideration, assuming that the creative has the correct ‘craft’ as songwriter or composer, is the difficulty in getting a brand’s many stakeholders to sign-off and agree on the ideal mnemonic. Of course, I am totally in favour of a brand’s music or sound being memorable. It’s just that I, along with other right-minded thinkers in music planning, believe that that the music should do more – that memorability is not the sole aim and purpose. 

“memorability is not the sole aim and purpose.”

The future for mnemonics is already here and it is audible in sounds like the iPhone ‘swoosh’, that signals an email being sent. You can also read about it in the Barclaycard case study in this book. The next generation of mnemonics work across touch-points and their main purpose is to signify some kind of function or meaning. In the case of the ‘swoosh’, it is a successfully sent email, in the case of Barclaycard, a successful payment. Memorability is something inherent in the sounds but it is a secondary concern to the sounds being linked to things that happen in the real or digital worlds. When a sound has utility, it is more easily accepted by the listener – being useful is always a good thing. If a brand can own the sound of a function – as Apple have with a sent email – then they may have a serious hit on their hands. Only a few brands are trying to achieve this but innovation has a long nose and we can see it coming!

Music is Easy

Finding the perfect soundtrack for an ad – or any other singular expression of a brand – is easy. Easy, comparatively, obviously but the numbers stack up. There are tens of millions of songs available, they’re all searchable by lyrics and genres via web platforms and picking one that will appeal to the majority of stakeholders is not that difficult when compared to what’s really hard. So why do communications agencies make such a song and dance about it? Why is music so often a pain point rather than a pure pleasure?  Part of the answer is cultural. Agencies view music as relating to a single communication instead of being a part of the brand identity. This is because most brands themselves have not educated their agencies that the development of identity and assets is of paramount importance. If they did, then music would not be leased and returned on an endless cycle but would be commissioned and owned.

Ownership of music is an intrinsic element of building a music identity. You cannot lease or borrow your own Corporate Identity, which means either brands must start with a clean sheet and commission new compositions and acquire all rights, or they must find pieces of music that are ‘ownable’. This is what Nokia did when they created the Nokia tune and then through repeated use of time, territory and touch-point they built the case for ‘owning’ the piece through a musical trademark. Nokia stands as one of the few brands in the world to have understood how to develop a musical identity and they continue to lead their industry on consistency and identity management. Their case study is well placed within the music as identity section of this book. Even though they have made great efforts through the years to establish music as a part of their brand experience and as currency, their only true hit has been the Nokia tune. But was it an intentional hit or a happy accident?

Image sourced from Nokia website

Image sourced from Nokia website

Hit Brand Identities are Hard

We are writing this book for people who want to create hits and this section is for those who want hit brand identities. It makes sense, therefore, to include as a case study the biggest hit with which we have been involved.  Over 24 months and with enormous input from our client, Cord Worldwide has developed and launched the musical identity for NESCAFÉ. The work has, at time of writing, launched in more than 30 countries and is well on its way to achieving its aim – to make the NESCAFÉ musical identity the most famous five notes on the planet.  That I have personally overseen this work is a matter of pride. That it is successful is down to the team and the method of execution, and I need to be clear and say that nothing about the process was easy. It involves the use of functional and aesthetic sounds and is deeply rooted in the heritage of the brand.  It is rapidly developing as an archetype of next-generation music planning, with central ownership and development of assets, together with de-centralised ownership of communications and nuance. We hope that in reading this case study you may be inspired to create your own hit identity to rival NESCAFÉ’s.

“nothing about the process was easy.”

Article by Daniel Jackson, an excerpt from HIT BRANDS – How Music Builds Value for the World’s Smartest Brands