When it comes to audio branding there isn’t much that Coke has not excelled at. From its multicultural anthem about buying the world some fizzy pop through its omnipotent open happiness, the vegetable flavoured soda pop has long understood the power of music to sell. So with a new marketing strategy doing the rounds its no surprise that they are dancing to a new tune.
I have no idea what the brief was for this but what they have created feels a little miserable for a brand known for preaching happiness. Rather than worry about whether images of protest communicate joy and togetherness, lets focus on the music. Well my response there is pretty much the same. I’m sure someone will do some nice piece of research that says the new aggressively happy Coke has changed perceptions, reached out to the millennials and made Coke the drink of the bearded wonders but it just doesn’t feel right. Coke is generic and that is not a bad thing, so this attempt to create communications that exclude rather than embrace audiences feels a bit wrong.
I guess you have to admire the bravery but being brave doesn’t make you right.
While we wait for the outcome here’s something that is happy.
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.
The dream of any music agency is to become the single supplier of a massive conglomerate and today Big Sync Music announced they are in dreamland by becoming the exclusive supplier of music services to Unilever.
It is a big step for Unilever, a massive opportunity for Big Sync and a huge challenge for both as of them as they try to herd all their marketing agencies through a single music channel. But as long as the agencies play nicely then Unilever will now be in a position to implement effective sonic branding strategy across countries, territories and the world. It is a bold move for Unilever to commit to a single supplier but a sensible one as they now have the capability to create consistent and efficient identities for their brands and develop music strategies that are global marketing campaigns in their own right.
Exciting and exhausting times ahead for Big Sync Music. Now please wash your hands.
Here is the full story in Music Week.
While deep down I’m hoping that Christmas isn’t just around the corner, that would mean 2014 is all but done, it is hard to ignore the fact that Santa is on his way when the big budget Christmas ads start appearing. Like last year let’s start with Debenhams.
The ad depicts a bunch of kids in a closed department store looking for stuff they want to receive for Christmas. I’m sure if this was taking place in Tottenham it would be called looting but don’t worry they are all in the their pyjamas and dressing gowns and this is crime Debenhams style. But wait, the soundtrack to this jolly caper is the socialist anthem “We All Stand Together” by Sir Paul McCartney and Rupert Bear, so I think we should take this japery a little more seriously. Clearly these kids in their nice fluffy slippers are working as a team, coordinating the whole thing through Snapchat and BBM, and while the cameras are on they are only going for the cuddly toys but I bet they later moved on to TVs and trainers.
What is Debenhams saying with this music choice? Is this a rallying cry for the disenfranchised youth of today? Unlikely. “We All Stand Together” is certainly festive, after all it charted two Christmases in a row back in the 80’s, plus it has a choir. The problem is that nothing about this ad is surprising it feels like a Christmas shopping list written in May and completed in September. Maybe they could have tied the visual more to the music or possibly done something new with the song but as it is I’m not convinced I’ll be heading to Debenhams to do my Christmas shopping, after all I could be pick-pocketed by the Artful Dodger and his mates.
If you can’t face being a witness to the mindless looting of a Debenhams, simply watch the original video featuring the wonderful dapper Rupert Bear in a swamp.
WARNING: ADVERTORIAL (My version of it)
It is rare that I get a chance to showcase creative work that I’ve delivered for a client. As I’m not a musician or sound designer all my work is done in the shadows so I wanted to share this recent work for the new Hudl 2 tablet from Tesco. The device has been getting a lot of rave reviews since it launched a couple of days ago and a lot of them have focused on the physical design, which is impressive. What people have not yet talked about is the audio experience of the new Hudl.
The Tesco Connected Devices team were very thorough in their approach to creating the Hudl experience and left no stone unturned in making sure everything communicated the values of brand and the purpose of the device. A key part to this communication are the sounds that the device makes as it does its thing. Not happy with the stock Android sounds they instead chose to create a unique sound world for the Hudl so that what the user hears matches what they see.
I was lucky enough to work closely with the device development team to create the sound of the Hudl. They embraced the whole process of translating the brand and user experience into sound and with the composition and sound design talents of Paul Sumpter of The Futz Butler we made the Hudl brand sing (and beep). The best thing about it was that rather than explore the safe and the average we were given the freedom to really experiment, you can read more about Paul’s work here and watch a video of him smashing things up in a calm and non-aggressive way.
A lot of the sonic branding created today is bland and generic because while its starting point is one of exploration the end point is usually one of mediation. For the Hudl sonic branding the aim was to simply communicate the brand and with that in mind we were allowed to focus on creativity and values rather than compromise.
I’m really proud of the work and I want to give huge thanks to the Joe and Danny from the Hudl team for their commitment to eating stinky lunches in the studio and allowing us to experiment, Martin Lawless for his amazing insight into the Hudl brand and reflections on the Hacienda days and Paul Sumpter for his superb creative work and comfy packing crates.
The best way of checking out our work is of course to go and buy one and if you want to learn more about how we created the sound of the Hudl or want to know more about sonic branding feel free to contact me.
I recently sat with a colleague to listen to track for an ad for which the brief had been “it should be in the style of [Unnamed Artist]”. We both agreed that while the track was far enough away from a track by [Unnamed Artist] if you played them back to back the average person in the street would probably not be able to tell them apart. The conclusion of the conversation was let’s not make some lawyers rich and break the news to the client that we’ll need to redo the track. The client was probably slightly over the annoyed line but I reckon that had they been slammed with a massive copyright infringement lawsuit by a label then they would have been slightly over the totally furious and looking to fire us line.
So it did amuse me this morning when the same colleague told me to check out the latest Hugo Boss ad. I’m not sure who in the agency reckoned that nobody would notice the ridiculous similarities between the ad track and the fairly widely known XX track “Intro”.
This is going to be one to watch. Whoever signed off the music is either hoping nobody notices the similarities, well that ain’t happening as Rolling Stone Magazine has just reported on this, or that the XX’s label won’t want to take on the mighty Hugo Boss, item one on today’s to-do list will definitely be speak to legal. The whole thing just seems a so lazy by both the creatives and the account management, hiding in plain sight doesn’t always work.
When choosing or creating the right music for an ad it is often cheaper to spend money. The cheap option is often the most expensive, I’m sure you’ll find some metaphor there for modern fashion brands but I’ll leave that in your hands. I’m not going to start talking the irony of cheap rip offs.
This could get uncomfortable for someone but its OK because they’ll be able to hide behind their massive Hugo Boss sunglasses.
OK the headline is a little harsh but I think it is more fun than the real headline that Tesco are rumoured to be looking to sell or close down their Blinkbox service. As usual in the interests of nothing I should confess that I know a few people over at Blinkbox and I imagine they are not having much fun reading the news in The Times that the new Tesco CEO sees the business as a distraction.
Before we ignore the possible demise of another streaming platform I think it is worth looking at the whether it ever made sense for Tesco to take on little upstarts like Spotify, iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon.
Tesco certainly was and still is a pretty dominant player in music retail. In 2013 Kantar Worldpanel reported that Tesco was the UK’s second largest music retailer behind Amazon. With the demise of HMV and other high street music brands over the last decade the supermarkets have picked up huge chunks of physical music sales and done very nicely out of it. However, nobody remembers who came second and this seems to have been somewhere in the thinking behind Tesco’s foray into digital entertainment services. They started with Blinkbox then they bought We7 and to bring these all together they created the Hudl tablet in a move that replicated Amazon’s hardware and services model.
For me there are a few reasons why Tesco may have not really been the ideal creator of an entertainment brand.
1. Everyone knows Tesco as a physical retail brand. Sure they do online groceries but when people think of Tesco they will always think of massive warehouse sized supermarkets. The main competition in entertainment streaming services are all 100% online brands and therefore consumers are way more comfortable with the idea of these virtual platforms providing them with digital stuff.
2. Do consumers really want the brand that sells them toilet paper to be the one that provides the with their entertainment? Music and films may not be priced as luxury items but on an emotional level they are just that. Entertainment is about escapism and therefore having it provided by Tesco just doesn’t tick many emotional boxes.
3. Tech is a young person’s game. OK we are all now touched by technology. We all have smartphones, tablets and stuff but when it comes to the consumption of entertainment digitally this is still very much the thing of youth, by that I mean anyone younger than me. My point is that if you are a 19 year old looking for a streaming service then do you go with Tesco’s Blinkbox or do you go with Spotify. I know as time marches on more age categories will get into streaming platforms but annual accounts are not about the money you may make in 3 years.
4. Sometimes the big idea is not realistic. Blinkbox is a big idea. Take the biggest supermarket brand in the UK and alongside its march into online retail add a nice service that provides fun stuff and not cabbage. This will of course make the brand feel more digital. Cabbage and U2 mix that well.
I admire Tesco’s attempt to expand its footprint in our lives by offering us nice, shiny, fun things but when the competition is already popular, cool and built in digital from the ground up you have to question the business plan. Of course Blinkbox was in theory a stand alone brand but I’m not sure it ever freed itself of its Tesco parents. Most people saw the brand when they were in a Tesco store, where they could not click a button and combine bananas with Gaga.
I’ll be sad if Blinkbox disappears as I think they have some really great people there who have taken on a mammoth task. Tesco is a brand that now needs to shout function rather than fun if it is to hold onto it No. 1 status. There is a reason Tesco do not sponsor One Direction tours or hold music festivals in Hyde Park, this really is a case where music and brand just doesn’t fit.