Sonic branding: Why logos should be heard as well as seen

Geoff Lentin, business development manager at studio Naked Ideas, talks about the importance of audio logos and why designers should give brands a voice.

Celje, Slovenia - January 22, 2016: Studio shot of an iPhone 6s Space Gray Rear view and Apple logo

The best brands are instantly recognisable by their icons. A little Nike swoosh, McDonald’s golden arches, a blue chirping bird: we all know the companies behind the logos.

But something else sets good brands apart – sound. Specifically, musical logos.

Sonic branding is all things from McDonald’s’ “I’m lovin’ it” earworm and Intel’s over enthusiastic “bing”, to Apple’s self-congratulatory announcement on start-up and Sony PlayStation’s ethereal waiting-room-of-the-future music on its homepage.

All these audio logos have been meticulously crafted to represent their brands just like their visual counterparts, and they work because they’re designed to be remembered and form implicit associations with their companies in our minds.

There’s a reason then why we all laughed when Pixar’s Wall-E had fully recharged. His waking sound was instantly recognisable as the Apple startup chime (a nod perhaps to Steve Jobs, who was previously chief executive of Pixar before it was bought by Disney).

The Apple logo or typeface was not on show anywhere in the film, and there were no visual cues to help us associate that sound with the Apple brand. Apple’s audio logo is ingrained in us, and using it was as obvious as giving Wall-E a half-eaten, glowing apple on his chest.

An audio identity can help imprint a character on a brand. It becomes more human and takes on a personality. Slightly tweaking a classic psychological experiment can demonstrate the power of this and it’s easy to play along at home. Watch the video above with different types of music (sad, uplifting, etc.) and you’ll soon see how simple geometric shapes can take on personality traits. Brand icons are just simple, geometric shapes too.

If you were academically-inclined, you could argue that sonic branding is an evolution of the leitmotif, a musical technique pioneered by Richard Wagner in the mid-1800s for his operas, ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’.

A leitmotif is basically a character’s sonic brand – a musical theme. Variations on the main theme are used to signify different moods – so you’ll hear a suspense version, a hopeful version, a sad version – but they will all still be recognisable as the character’s theme. They’re the character’s sub brands, if you will. It’s so ubiquitous in cinema now that Howard Shore even gave the ring in Lord of the Rings its own theme.

So a piece of music especially crafted to help us recognise a particular brand echoes a common cinematic technique used to help us recognise a particular character. But why go to all that trouble and not just use an existing piece of music?

Gap and Apple may be the most prolific in this regard and have used popular music to great effect in their TV ads for years. But can you recall specific songs they’ve used? Maybe a Rolling Stones track? An indie band who are quite popular now?

If your ad uses a pre-existing song, it’s already associated with all kinds of other situations and contexts: other ads, a film trailer, your favourite restaurant, that Spotify ‘pining-after-your-ex’ playlist. The link between the song and the brand is far weaker than an original composition because you’ll only ever hear that composition in one context.

There’s obvious benefits to having an audio logo, too. You engage with the consumer, rather than the consumer having to engage with you first. Your brand can be reinforced from a distance as others engage with it; someone across the train carriage starting up a MacBook, or hearing an ad on TV while you’re making a cup of tea.

And who doesn’t skip YouTube ads after the obligatory five seconds? For brands advertising in this space, you’ve only got a second or two to communicate who you are before you’re quickly muted or skipped. Having a sonic brand is an obvious solution – so think about giving your brand a voice.

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  • Michael Darby September 4, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    Sorry, I have to say that I utterly disagree. I sat through a talk on sonic logos over 16 years ago (the presentation in point tried to convince us – a branding company for whom I was working at the time – that the random collection of sounds arbitrarily compiled on our behalf was a reflection of our company’s values).

    I hadn’t heard so much piffle and waffle in my life – it was, frankly, excruciatingly embarrassing.

    Yes, admittedly, we do have Apple, Intel et al as recognisable sounds, but given that our senses are already overloaded I think we can all safely get by without further unnecessary and frankly irritating auditory assault.

    The corollary of lots of competing noise is no noise at all.

    However, I’d make a singular exception – and that would be where it is practically necessary for the hard of hearing or sensory deprived, otherwise I infinitely prefer the sound of silence. Nor would I for one moment even attempt to persuade any of my clients to add it to their branding armoury.

    Tone of voice absolutely – extraneous decibels, no thank you very much.

    • Miles September 11, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      you are correct.

  • Andy Hamilton September 5, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Brilliant article and point made most articulately.

    Interestingly, the animal world got sonic branding soon after Adam and Eve arrived. Noise is with us and will always be with us and it is getting noisier. With the cacophony of noise in the forests, it is possible to pick out individual animals and identify them.

    Wander around California in the Spring and rather hear the rattlesnake before you step on it.

    Like it or not, the world is getting noisier. We need more clarity of sound to identify the good, the bad and the ugly, the friendly, the dangerous the quality and the cowboys.

    As a businessman, how great would it be for me, my company, my clients and prospective clients to hear a sound cutting through the general hub of every day noise in the city jungle, which immediately and clearly identifies my company with the quality of my product and service which then attracts people’s attention and makes them want to be part of it.

  • Giles Angel Photography September 6, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Great article! In my grandma’s care home they had the TV on so loud that the resident African Grey parrot learnt how to whistle the Macdonalds “I’m loving it” jingle.

  • Roger Williams September 6, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Good to see Michael Darby isn’t out of touch at all

  • Michael Darby September 12, 2016 at 11:09 am

    So having an opposite point of view to yours makes me “out of touch” does it Roger? As I pointed out I first came across this 16 years ago. Hardly out of touch. Your argument (assuming of course that you have an argument) is similar to the bikers’ “Loud pipes save lives” lobby. They don’t. And I’m a biker. My point was that the more noise there is the harder it becomes to distinguish anything at all. There’s far too much claptrap talked to the detriment of branding and I happen to think that sonic branding happens to be part of that. Forgive me if I didn’t hear the bandwagon coming.

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