Go beyond visual with sonic branding

Written by

Lee Jones

Senior Designer

Published on

4 min read

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In the current digital landscape, consumers are overloaded with information — research indicates that the average person is exposed to around 5,000 ads per day. Simultaneously, data scientists and media analysts believe the average consumer attention span is now around 8 seconds which means consumers tune out and will most likely ignore these ads.

With the growth of podcasts, smart speakers and mobile phone usage, audiences are spending less time typing and watching, and more time listening and speaking. As both visual clutter and voice-only environments continue to increase, brands must show different ways to cut through all this noise.

Sonic branding could be the answer to help differentiate brands from the competition and re-engage audiences.

What is sonic branding?

Traditionally, the focus of a brand is usually placed on its visual identity; logos, colour palettes, etc., which has meant we often overlook the important information that sound can convey about a brand. Sonic branding is making sure that your brand is heard as well as seen by providing an audio identity, or ‘sonic logo’, that reinforces a brand’s message to provide a full sensory experience.

In short, sonic branding refers to the sounds or songs associated with a brand.

In a broader sense, sonic branding refers to a signature sound used to express a brand’s unique identity and create a sound their customers can easily associate their brand with – not to be confused with jingle or ad music. Think Apple, EA Sports, McDonald’s and 20th Century Fox – all these popular brands have a unique and recognisable sound.

Why do brands use sonic branding?

With the ability to influence your mood or make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, sound is incredibly evocative. Sonic branding can help consumers develop a positive relationship with a brand, create richer experiences and convey information.

Sound enhances recall, evokes emotion and strengthens the customers’ affinity with the brand by appealing to different senses. Music in particular can create a strong memory and a powerful emotional connection; a survey conducted by PHMG found that most consumers were able to recall the sounds in an ad better than the visuals.

“74% of young adults believe they develop a better understanding of a brand’s personality through music”.

Source: PHMG (2019)

Unlike the visual pathways, the auditory neural pathways that send information to the human brain are much less complex, which allows for faster processing. Put simply, we respond to sounds up to 100 times faster than we can to visual images.

Strategic use of sonic elements to complement a brand’s identity is an effective way to build greater brand recognition and increase awareness, as sound brings another dimension to a brand by ‘producing additional layers of emotional response that still imagery cannot.’

Unlike the visual world, the power of sound isn’t limited to culture or language, which allows companies to connect with their customers on a different level. For example, the “I’m Lovin’ It” tune is universally recognisable without a single word being spoken.

Sonic branding in motion

As we engage with brands in a more digitally focused way, the increased use of sound is becoming more popular and is now being taken further to include the use of sound bites wherever an interaction takes place.

Brand sounds are now used for everything from interactions on a website or app, to social media posts and start-up sounds when a digital device is turned on.

One of the most notable examples of this is Netflix’s sonic logo. If you want to get technical, the ta-dum sound, according to its trademark, consists of “two 16th note timpani strikes on D2 and D3, simultaneously which are played with three-dotted half notes on D2, D4, and D5.”

It is the sound you hear before you begin watching anything on the streaming service.

Whilst it is simplistic and only two beats long, the iconic sound is recognised by every subscriber and anyone who has ever seen a Netflix advert. Short and sweet, this sonic symbol suits any genre and is an instant signal for watchers to get comfy before the show.

In a podcast, Todd Yellin, the VP of Product at Netflix, explains that to enhance the consumer experience he needed a sound logo that wasn’t too long, otherwise viewers would become tetchy.

In the same podcast, Yellin goes on to describe the importance of capturing the heart of Netflix as a brand. He wanted a noise that could encapsulate and trigger multiple emotions — something that built tension, had a release, something quirky.

What better way to connect the logo to the brand than by using a sound that came from their first original series, House of Cards. The sound comes from Frank Underwood knocking on the table in this scene.

Fundamentally, carefully crafted sounds must fit with a brand’s values to be effective and offer a glimpse into the brand story to highlight its values, personality and purpose to resonate with consumers on a more emotional level.

Sound allows brands to quickly convey a feeling that may not be possible through copy and enables the consumers to immediately understand whether the brand is energetic, playful, serious or nostalgic.

“Brand persuasion increases 50% when music is tailored to fit the brand values”.

Source: Millard Brown

Skype achieved this by creating playful sounds for incoming calls which were different to the traditional noises of an incoming call. Using such a distinctive ringtone worked to differentiate the company from other phone services as well as fortifying Skype’s brand values and appearance.

When it came to creating sounds for Skype for Business, sounds were changed to be more formal and less intrusive. Skype’s default ringtone is bouncy, while Skype for Business is a smooth ripple that only indirectly suggests the original.

The sounds that accompany the user as they navigate the application are central to their experience and have been carefully designed to reflect a mix of pleasant, familiar noises. Each sound is supposed to say something about Skype while reinforcing the company with online calling.

What does your brand sound like?

Despite the process of distilling your brand into a few notes being a challenge, the result of sound being as recognisable as your logo is well worth the effort – you can reach customers who are not paying attention and even engage with them on a subconscious level.

With branding and the need to set yourself apart from your competition becoming essential to the success of any business, sound can be a powerful and distinctive tool for standing out and staying one step ahead of the competition. 

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