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.
How to market headphones
OPTION 1 – BIG BUDGET
1. Get a bit name celeb, ideally a sports star, to wear your headphones wherever they go.
2. Put a big name sports star in a really long music based ad, aka a music video.
3. Make the headphones really expensive.
4. Give your brand a sub-title featuring a hip hop star name.
OPTION 2 – LITTLE BUDGET
1. Try something creative.
Looks like Sennheiser have gone for option 2. Their products are not known for their bling value and so they have relied on things like sound quality and build to get them fans. In their latest marketing campaign they are trying to add some sex appeal, I’m not sure if you are into little moustachioed man dressed as headphones while he caressing a big ear. It is nice to see Sennheiser trying something different in the massively male focused world of big headphones for its launch of the Urbanite product line, lets hope it works as I’ve always thought they were way better than many big name medically backed products.
To build on the fun fetishistic ads they have also added a social campaign called “The Golden Ears“. Basically you use your Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr account to access the location of one of the Golden Ears in London or New York. Run like the wind to the location, find the Golden Ear and boom you get a lovely pair of £200 cans. If you get there a little late then you can still win by posting an Ear Selfie on Instagram. Its pretty simple, its not the most original idea but its simple and fun so it deserves some love and maybe a some “forbodan pleasure”.
Fun and nicely integrated, the campaign chips away at Sennheiser’s grey plastic image. It is always nice to see something different in the headphone space, Beats has become such a juggernaut that it is difficult for other brands to push to the front of the queue and it is also good to see something that doesn’t focused on the intensity and pain of being massively rich and famous.
If you have nothing to do this week and fancy winning some nice cans click here, take a photo of your ears, you know they are sexy (said in pseudo sexual German accent).
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.
How do you create content around vaping?
Its a little bit of challenge, despite the claims that you are not selling smoking you really kind of are and then you are into a whole fun world of regulation and social stigma. So interestingly e-cig brand Blu has decided to create a documentary series about the evolution of the UK DJ scene. What has this got to do with puffing on a cloud making battery? Well not that much but then might be some sense to this seeming madness. Firstly, it is definitely targeting a more mature audience, even I am not old enough to remember some of the things they are talking about so nobody can say they are going after the teenage market. Then there is a kind sub-plot about changing tech, you know smoking to vaping tenuously links into vinyl to digital, maybe it is a little bit of a post-rationalising stretch. Finally, the target audience is probably spot on, old clubbers looking to clean up their lives while clinging on to the pleasures of their youth.
I have no idea if this is going to work but hats off to Blu for trying something a little different in the vape market. It probably didn’t cost a fortune, it is nicely put together and hopefully it will be successful for them as it is good to see a bit of experimenting. Looking forward to moving on to the next episode.
You remember that massive internet brand, Yahoo. The one with the fun sonic logo. Well they’ve recently been working on getting better at what they do and working out what it is that they do. As part of this today they announced a partnership with Live Nation to create the Live Nation Channel on Yahoo Screen, bit of a mouthful but I guess you have to spell things out at the beginning and we can always shorten it to LNCYS.
Yahoo is making a play into proprietary content and since music is the most consumed content genre online it makes a lot of sense for them to make it a significant part of their new offering. Live Nation are of course the enormous live entertainment company that put on around 23,000 concerts last year and so they have access to a hell of a lot of content. So beginning this summer the LNCYS will stream a concert a day for a year and they will offer additional content including access to the Live Nation back catalogue.
Now the brand part. Live Nation and Yahoo are of course out selling the platform to brands and they also announced today that they have brought on board Kellogg as their launch partner. According to Jon Suarez-Davis, Kellogg vice president, Media and Digital Strategy, they “know consumers are passionate about food and music”. This is of course the standard issue line from any brand getting involved in music, simply remove the word “food” and replace with the appropriate product category, the key point is that people are passionate about music as proven by Live Nation selling over 60 million tickets last year. Consumers, as suggested by their name, want to consume and if Kellogg’s can help feed them more of what they love, they will get the brownie points. It’s an easy model that simply needs to be backed up by the right activation strategy and delivery of relevant content.
The idea of a new online channel is not really that spectacular these days but the partnership behind this one is what should be focused on. If Live Nation provide great and exclusive content then this could become a interesting alternative to You Tube and Vevo for brands wanting to get involved in music.
You can read the official version of events here.
One of the more interesting projects that I worked on with my colleagues at Sonicbrand was for a leading toothpaste company who wanted to explore the “sound of clean” in the context of an electric toothbrush. The outcome of the project was more interesting on a theoretical than practical level as actually engineering a cheap electric toothbrush to sound like the equivalent of an oral Rolls Royce was pretty difficult. Therefore I was interested to hear what Colgate would come up with from their latest foray into sonic branding.
Colgate, a brand built around probably the most inappropriate colour for those thinking about cleaning their teeth (red), has been around for ages and has the luxury of being known by pretty much everyone who likes to avoid regular visits to the dentist. So it is interesting to hear the expansion of their brand identity through a new sonic logo created by CORD Worldwide .
Toothpaste marketing has often featured sonic branding through the use of jingles that either go on about how bad your breath smells or try to turn two minutes of scrubbing into a Glee type moment. Just check out Aquafresh’s Brushing Song. In the case of Colgate they have gone for something more global and subtle. Following some fairly extensive development work we have the Colgate sonic logo. Three seconds of audio that, if the various marketing agencies around the world use carefully, we will probably be hearing a lot more of in the future.
The use of the sonic logo in the new advertising campaign feels a little forced as it differs so much from the main ad music but that is not such a bad thing as it makes you more aware of it. The true strength of the logo will emerge over time as they make further developments and utilise the flexible nature of their new sonic branding to create an adaptive platform for the communication the whole Colgate brand.
This is one for all you sonic branding purists.
Whether you love or loathe Apple one thing you have to say about them is they are consistent. Their products have an incredibly strong design language and so does their brand communications, visually at least. When Apple released their new brand video focused on their green credentials the most interesting thing for me was not the content but the person delivering it. Welcome stage left, Tim Cook the lord and master of Cupertino. The video itself could easily be replaced by this piece of creative genius from Dissolve but Mr Cook’s first foray into the world of voiceovers made me wonder: What does Apple sound like?
Apple’s visual style for brand and product films has always been talking heads intercut with people using the product or products floating around in white space. This has meant that we are visually introduced to the voices and told who they are via captions featuring names and job titles. There have been a few celebrity voiceovers for TV ads but on the whole they like us to focus on the product, it is a very clean and efficient approach, more Apple branding.
This film is not about a new product, it is all about brand and most importantly the values that form it. So it makes sense to wheel out the big gun for this one and have the very man who is ultimately responsible for everything that Apple stands for and creates to be delivering the message.
From a brand perspective using Cook as a voiceover is the right thing to have done. It is no Oscar winning performance but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that rather than paying some professional voiceover to add enforced brand values to the message, Apple are using their chief brand guardian to deliver a significant message on Earth Day. Using internally sourced voiceovers isn’t always the right route, it depends on the message. The key to success is finding the message where personal delivery is the most powerful option and adds value to every word.
It could be argued that nobody recognises Cook’s voice so where is the value in using it. By the looks of all the coverage today around the launch of this film the PR department are working overtime to let us know that it is Apple’s leader that is preaching the green message and this should go someway to building the narrative.
Most significant of all, Cook has achieved something that Jobs never did. Jobs only ever did one voiceover but then refused to allow it to be used, somehow it made its way onto YouTube. He’s actually pretty good and maybe he should have considered a career doing credit card and short-term loan ads rather than making us all slaves to the iPhone.