Sonic time capsule
As we approach 20 years since the world’s first book on sonic branding was published, here is an extract from the Preface. This is what we were thinking as an industry back in 1999-2003…and I have too say that everything (and nothing) has changed).
Le Marque Sonique
The term ‘marque sonique’ was first coined, as far as we know, in the mid 1980s by French commercial radio guru Jean Pierre Baçelon. As a radio producer turned airtime salesman, he has been credited with identifying the benefits of sonic branding on radio. His practice of archiving, analysing and categorising radio commercials led him to the conclusions that radio advertising containing sonic branding elements achieved greater success in awareness, sales and repeat business for commercial radio stations. Through his role as Directeur du développement radio at IP France, the commercial radio group, he spread the word of his findings around Europe, setting up radio archives, stylishly termed ‘laboratories’ for his employer.
Between 1989 and 1992 investments by IP France in Capital Radio Group lead to Jean Pierre working closely with Diarmid Moncrieff of Media Sales and Marketing UK (now Capital Radio Sales). Together, they created the first English translations of his ideas and beliefs under the heading ‘sonic branding’. Diarmid’s evangelical, maverick style of presentation has spread the gospel of sonic branding in the United Kingdom over the last ten years. His primary purpose for talking about the subject was similar to Bagelon’s; sonic branding aids the selling of radio airtime. Essentially the pitch has been to turn clients on to the medium of radio by proving to them that sound is a powerful and viable brand communications tool.
The sonic branding sell, as further adopted by Andrew Ingram at the Radio Advertising Bureau UK (RAB), has helped convince many advertisers to fry radio and has seen the medium grow from holding a 2% share of display advertising budgets in 1992 to a 7% share in 2002. It was during my time working with both Diarmid and Andrew at Capital Radio plc (1997-9) that I became convinced that sonic branding was (and is) a subject worthy of greater study and with far wider implications than just as a radio airtime sales tool.
“I became convinced that sonic branding was (and is) a subject worthy of greater study and with far wider implications than just as a radio airtime sales tool.”
My time at Capital coincided with a period of enormous growth in Internet, mobile telephony, interactive TV and audio-enabled consumer products. The bubble was inflating rapidly and it seemed like every new idea was going to revolutionise the way people acted and the way they could be marketed to. It was also a time of great optimism in the advertising and branding industries as the Dotcoms threw their backers’ cash around with abandon and new ideas were welcomed with open cheque books. The new technologies were heralded as media platforms capable of delivering richly creative messages to consumers. Importantly for me, every new platform had sound delivery built in and created a whole new realm for sonic branding that added to the need for brands to have some way to express themselves in sound.
The bubble burst but the revolution that started then is still happening today. Almost all brands now own multimedia empires that range from print to Internet, TV, radio, mobile and retail. This means that brands now face challenges previously only applicable to the biggest businesses and broadcasters: they have to brand a number of different media channels.
Back in the bubble, those in charge of what could loosely be termed sonic branding in the UK at the end of the last century were advertising agencies ‘The focus for the ad business at the time was high-impact advertising, with seemingly little thought given to longevity of planning or campaigns’
Ironically, in the name of brand building, music in ads became hijacked by a kind of musical licensing ego trip. Microsoft had the Rolling Stones, Apple got Elvis and Nortel bagged The Beatles. In their wake, the smaller brands grabbed whatever they could afford from the shelves of the record store. Though this strategy did have impact, it left most brands with nowhere to go. Licensing big tracks costs big money and it proved an unsustainable activity for everyone, even mighty Microsoft.
“Licensing big tracks costs big money and it proved an unsustainable activity for everyone, even mighty Microsoft.”
The inconsistency and lack of thought of ad agencies created the opportunity for a specialist approach to sonic branding to take hold. It was obvious from the lack of a strategic approach in the agency world that the basic principles of branding — differentiation and consistency — were being ignored in the selection of music for brands. As well as the relatively memorable and successful Windows 98 ‘Start Me Up’ and iMac ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ campaigns, there were disastrous wastes of money and effort that helped us identify who was going wrong and how. For example, the reputed El million paid by Vauxhall Motors through their agency, Lowes, for the latest track by The Verve, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.
One of the biggest car launch campaigns ever used a string sample taken from a Rolling Stones track that had been used by The Verve. Musically, it was intelligent but downbeat. Its classical nature was dramatic and at odds with the modest, family-oriented personality of the Vauxhall Astra. The music simply did not hit the marque. It ran on TV and radio ads for less than a year and then the licence ran out. No more licence meant no more track. A brand property that was arguably wrong in the first place, had cost £l million to buy and had many times that amount spent on advertising it, was no longer a brand property at all. Furthermore, the Astra failed to make the number one slot in the car market and the model and marque has suffered through its inconsistent branding ever since. In the last year or so, it has been widely reported that Lowes has lost its long-held grip on the Vauxhall advertising account. The beneficiary seems to have been London agency Delaney Lund Knox Warren (DLKW). Interestingly, DLKW is an agency that has made much of its reputation by finding a creative way to put music at the long-term heart of campaigns for the Halifax, a retail bank.
Back in the spring of 1999, when Lowes was spending Vauxhall’s money, I was working with clients from the motoring sector, targeting them specifically with sonic presentations. I was fortunate enough to have a chance to work with one of the ad men I really respected. Paul Fulberg was an account director at Creative Strategy, an offshoot of Grey UK that was later to be merged with its parent company. We first met at university and kept in touch as our careers took off in London. We had already run a successful campaign for his client, Smint, on Capital and he was open to some new ideas for one of his other clients, Skoda Auto. In examining sonic branding for Skoda, Paul became convinced that this really was a good idea and amazed as I was that nobody else was out there doing it.
“Paul became convinced that this really was a good idea and amazed as I was that nobody else was out there doing it.”
We founded the company in November 1999. The following year, Ali Johnson joined us as our creative director, bringing his extensive knowledge and experience of working with music in the collaborative environment of music theatre. When we started out we set ourselves the goal of demystifying sound and educating our clients so that they could collaborate with us. Our desire is still to wake up our clients to the amazing opportunities of sonic branding and to work with them on the extremely rewarding and enjoyable projects that result.
One of the greatest and most challenging aspects of sonic branding is the enormous subjectivity that surrounds the issue of music and brands. The creative processes we have developed, which we will explain in later sections, have been designed to find a path through this subjectivity. Similarly, we have always taken the time to define our terms in order to minimise the subjectivity of our language. In this way we have built our success based upon honesty, understanding and delivery of strategic and creative solutions that meet expectations, in a field where nobody, until now, had really known what to expect. Our clients, of course, have played a massive role in our growth. It takes a certain bravery to be the first to invest in new ideas and we have been lucky enough to have worked with some brave and intelligent people. The fact that sonic branding is now a budget line on so many marketing plans is a testament to how far our clients have enabled us to go.
“When we started out we set ourselves the goal of demystifying sound and educating our clients so that they could collaborate with us. Our desire is still to wake up our clients to the amazing opportunities of sonic branding and to work with them on the extremely rewarding and enjoyable projects that result.”
The sonic branding industry as a whole has also grown and continues to do so throughout the current and ongoing recession. We think this is another pretty good indicator of the validity of the idea. This together with the reactions of almost every person we have talked to about sonic branding has led us to believe that there is genuine value in the subject. Sonic branding is a hot topic and it is more than hot air. The interest and investment has come about because some of the most interesting and successful corporate and consumer brands out there practise some sort of sonic branding and have been doing so for many years. Sonic branding is not a fad or the ‘latest thing’ it is a codification of disparate but long-established business practices.
The success of companies like Intel, Starbucks and BMW (GB) have provided us with some incredibly compelling case studies that give real-world demonstrations of how great brands have been taking at least some advantage of the power of sound for many years. Despite this, the vast majority of brands own no sonic branding and have given it very little thought. This makes sonic branding one of the great communications opportunities today because putting some thought into all communications is not only desirable but absolutely necessary for long-term effective and efficient brand building. Brand building is what it is all about, essentially creating and communicating the long-term benefits of brands for their stakeholders. To help define what this entails, I have called upon many of the leading brand experts in this country to define brands, branding and some of the other phrases that are bandied around these days.
A lifetime as a consumer and a career in advertising and media has exposed me to plenty of thinking on all kinds of brands but it was not until I started researching this book that I found any number of branding experts who could agree on what is the essence of a brand. Thankfully, I eventually found a large enough consensus for me to be reasonably sure that this book subscribes to the latest and broadest beliefs about brands. Confusingly, many brand experts, expressive people all, were unable to give succinct explanations of brands and even those who agreed on what defines a brand used the different words to do so. To ease my furrowed brow I turned to the most obvious places for definitions, starting with the two dictionaries that I own. Both have failed to give me definitions that related to the real world and though I love the clarity of dictionary definitions and always use them as a starting point for constructing arguments, they have been of relatively little value here.
Perhaps the most famous book about brands in the last five years was Naomi Klein’s No Logo. So, I read it, looking for the detailed and credible brand definition that I thought would underpin her arguments. What I found was this, the only brand definition offered in Ms Klein’s 500-page critique: ‘Think of the brand as the core meaning of the modern corporation.’ (3) Her book was a great success, launching the Naomi Klein brand to a world-wide constituency but her definition was simplistic and became the basis for millions of people’s perceptions of brands.
This book subscribes to a different and more sophisticated definition of brands and, while the No Logo debate is a good one, we will not investigate it too much here. The fact that Klein is able to create her own definition of a brand and then use it as a basis for attacking them is testament enough to the issues that can arise when nobody agrees what anything means. The lack of a common lexicon has been a major challenge for this book and it remains a challenge for the ever-expanding branding industry. Transparency and clarity are vital for rebuilding the trust in brand investment that was dented by Dotcom excesses from clients and ad agencies. It is not coincidental that large businesses like Marks and Spencer and Boots, in the UK, have downgraded the marketing function to below board level in the last year. Trust, through plain talking, will have to be rebuilt before branding is elevated once again.
In order to follow my own advice and convey information about some branding clearly, I have included a glossary in this book. Part of my inspiration comes from the website of Landor Associates, the global brand and identity specialist. Landor has a very good branding glossary. It is clear and informative but unfortunately, nobody reads it or uses it, not even the majority of Landor staff! I hope that the terms as defined in these pages can become a common language for the industry, allowing clients to compare like with like when holding pitches.
“We have no desire for Naomi Klein to write No Sonic Logo in the years to come.”
If one considers a lack of common lexicon in branding to be an issue then imagine for a moment the problems facing the infant sonic branding industry. Since Sonicbrand was founded, when Google™ threw up 20 ‘sonic branding’ results, the phrase has become a bandwagon for any poser or digital designer who ever got a corporate commission. Flattering as this might be, the need to define what is and is not sonic branding has become paramount as the art and science are in danger of being devalued before they have really been perfected. We have no desire for Naomi Klein to write No Sonic Logo in the years to come.